A Conversation with Lauren Winner, Part 1

By Mary Kenagy Mitchell
This post originally appeared as a web-exclusive feature accompanying Image issue 84.

Each chapter of Lauren F. Winner’s book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne), explores a single biblical image of God through a mix of exegesis, cultural history, and personal essay. The chapter excerpted in issue 84 is about bread. I asked Winner about her new book, her love of history, her punctuation, and the politics of writing about the Bible.

Mary Kenagy Mitchell for Image: Your new book is about overlooked images of God in the Bible. I imagine there were some images you found that didn’t make it in. Could you talk about some of those?

Lauren Winner: In the scriptures there are a lot of animal and nature images for God—water and rock and so on. I’m especially interested in two from Hosea: there God is likened to dew, and to a tree. I’ve spent time with the tree image, thinking about what trees are, and I have a nascent spiritual practice of tree gazing, where I regularly stare at a magnolia in my yard as a practice of attentiveness.

I love the song “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” It’s not widely known, but it’s wonderful. It’s sung mostly in English churches, or at lessons and carols services at Christmas. I had it sung at my ordination, and I make groups of people sing it whenever possible: [Read more…]

When Art Disrupts Religion: An Interview with Philip Salim Francis

Headshot of Philip Salim Francis. He is situated in the left hand quadrant of the frame, wearing a dark blazer and a white shirt with a black tie. He is in front of a door with white paneling. His hair is slightly curled on top and he has a bemused expression on his face. Just released by Oxford University Press, When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind has received praise from such leading scholars as David Morgan and Randall Balmer. Image editor Gregory Wolfe recently interviewed the author, Philip Salim Francis.

Image: Your book has the provocative title When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind. In a few words, what’s the thesis of the book?

Philip Salim Francis: I’m trying to make the case that the arts have the ability to unsettle and rework deeply ingrained religious beliefs and practices—perhaps like nothing else can. Modern aesthetic theory, as you know, is obsessed with the “disruptive capacities” of aesthetic experience. I wanted to test the limits of these claims through ethnographic study: could art disrupt and reconfigure the religious identity of even a people who had been steeped—for a lifetime—in the more conservative strains of twentieth century American evangelicalism? And if so, how would that all play out on the ground? [Read more…]

Souvenirs from the Waste Land: An Interview with Alastair John Gordon, Part 1

photo of Alastair John Gordon standing in front of a gallery wall with orange paintings set up in a grid (5x5) on the wall, slightly blurred out. He is smiling, wearing a plaid black and red button up with thin black lines. He has a slight beard and is smiling.By Nicole Miller.

Historically, modern art has prized originality and authenticity. But alongside this tradition runs another set of practices: replication and tactics of illusion. The Romans made copies of Greek sculptures; Northern Europeans in the seventeenth century practiced an illusionistic approach to still life painting called quodlibet, or “what you will”; American pop art reproduced images of mass-produced, consumer goods.

Alastair John Gordon’s work is indebted to these traditions and to mass media print culture. The London-based artist’s new body of work draws on the postcard collection of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, philanthropists and art collectors in L.A. Their collection includes mementos from their travels, scenes of architectural interest, and reproductions of works of art—over 18,500 postcards in all.

His trompe l’oeil renderings of postcards, sketches, and residual papers raise questions about authenticity and representation. The artist sees the work as a form of hyperreality, a term coined by Umberto Eco in 1975. This is the realm of the “authentic copy,” where the illusion is total and the skill of the hoax is part of its charm.

At a time when the American public is spooked by fake news and alternative facts, this body of work invites the viewer to consider the roots and repercussions of fakery.

I spoke with Gordon by phone and over email to discuss his interest in both the gallery and the gift shop. [Read more…]

Photos, Love, and Karyotypes

I recently found remnants from college and grad school genetics classes: karyotypes—sheets of paper with photos of chromosomes clumsily glued to their forty-six places. My professors would usually hand us an envelope filled with tiny chromosome photos on Friday to be assembled over the weekend. I sat in the sun on Saturday afternoons, poring over their individual structures to find where they matched and fit, trying not to exhale too deeply, lest I lose some genetic code forever.

I’m fascinated by blind spots, by everything I look at over and over again without truly seeing. Science sometimes feels like a lovely game of encountering an idea once invisible combined with a near-constant state of being wrong. Although, the practice of science requires immense faith in the implausible fact that a trajectory of error will one day lead to truth.

Walking home from the bookstore several evenings ago, I was in a good mood. I take photos as I walk, because I like having a record of the felt experience that the world is different in very small, almost unnoticeable, manners each day.

But I almost never look at the photos. It’s too sad somehow to see everything changing, things being lost or replacing what I’d come to love through observation. The act of making the image and capturing time is what’s meaningful for me.

And then I saw the old man’s house. I’ve walked past the bungalow nearly every day for the past five years, watching his son bring him dinner or looking at the lights on the very fat Christmas tree the old man put against the living room window. But that evening, the house inside was lit by fluorescence and gutted down to exposed beams and insulation with a realty sign out front.

I didn’t know the old man’s name, but I knew him by his form walking each morning from Mass at Saint Thomas More with a prayer book in his back pocket. One side of his body was rounded over in a pronounced hunch as if he were always ducking sideways to pass through a low arch, left shoulder nearly meeting his left ear.

And I knew him because he was the only person in the neighborhood who had a “Vote Yes: Keep Marriage Between One Man and One Woman” sign in his yard when the same-sex marriage amendment was on the Minnesota ballot a few years ago.

The amendment caused much pain among people who had to watch their neighbors and friends vote on the legitimacy of their unions. I didn’t like the old man’s ideology, but I loved the view of his shoulder and his little book, the pained softness of him. He used to walk with his wife, who walked more briskly than he and carried a pocketbook similar to my grandmother’s, which was beaded and made in West Germany.

When I no longer saw his wife, it was hard not to make assumptions. I thought—perhaps too imaginatively—that he liked the marriage slogan because he had suddenly become one man without the one woman who could solve for the other side of his equation.

And now he’s missing—or, at least the images of him that made their way into my life as a habit of seeing have disappeared.

I’ve heard arguments that photography is a way of distancing oneself from the world (especially if one is a young woman and the lens is harbored by a phone), and it seems, unlike other visual arts, often the act of photography is viewed as disrupting sacred spaces or as a way of snidely turning down the full experience. A distraction.

Yet photographs and how we view them informed much of the past century’s genetic research. Images, instead of being content to illustrate an idea or appeal to a visual sense, actually made knowledge.

In 1956, karyotypes displayed in the photomicrographs of Joe Hin Tjio and in camera lucida drawings made by Albert Levan revealed that humans have forty-six chromosomes, instead of forty-eight as was previously thought. Mountains of in-progress research had been discarded up to that point as scientists came up two chromosomes short and thought their karyotypes were incomplete. What had been described as missing was there in its entirety all along.

And you might think, how? How can you look without seeing? How can you be wrong over and over, vision muddied by preconception?

Karyotypes rarely make their way into conversations outside genetics labs. It’s the phenotype that’s so interesting, the way that chromosomes are expressed while shaping the body. Phenotype explains why humans are so genetically similar to chimpanzees yet look so different.

Expression never conveys the full meaning. Meaning is hidden behind forty-six doors, and also nowhere near them. It’s simultaneously a savior and the worst kind of horror: the way we walk around with all of our meanings largely hidden behind a physical form.

I heard someone say once that to describe something as missing implies that you are looking for it.

My father taught me that God is love and also something around which you spend an entire life revolving. And as you revolve, you see each human’s face appear. This is why love needs art to continually produce images: beautiful, sacred, ugly, wrong, wonderful, profane, constant images. It is because, if God is a passing glimpse of everybody, then to love is next to impossible.

I’m terrified of anger and ideology, of one day rejecting everything and being unable to live in my world. I feel I am often angry at ideas seen from a distance. When it happens, I shake my head, and say It’s so easy to hate you from here, and then I go outside and take photos and walk and watch people try to solve the equations for lost things, for a God whose many faces seem often to be missing.

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Natalie Vestin is a health scientist and writer from Saint Paul. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Shine a Light, the Light Won’t Pass is forthcoming from Miel Books.

Above image from the archive of Josef Reischig, edited and used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

John Slater’s Lean

dying branch with tiny yellow leaves laid across a white table cloth in the afternoon.What is poetry, anyway? I found myself musing about this as I sat with John Slater’s stimulating new collection, Lean.

First I recalled what I’d once heard poet Li Young Lee say at a reading:

In poetry, language is not the only medium; silence is also a medium. This is a difference of poetry from prose. We might even say that, in poetry, the very purpose of the language is to inflect the silences. It’s like after church bells ring: the air resonates with their sound. In poetry, the silences are resonant, from the language that precedes them.

Slater’s poems are as full of silences as of words. First, the poems themselves are—as the book’s title suggests—lean. With one exception, each poem’s lines run from one to four words. So there’s an invited silence at the end of each brief line. Then another, longer reverberating silence: many of the poems present an image, followed by a space with a * in it, followed by another image stanza, then another spaced *… and so on.

Take the whole of the poem “Thaw”:

Freeze
thaw freeze
hollowing
pot-holes in
salty grey-
black asphalt

cracked
seam between
lanes
stitched
by faded
golden broken
line.
[Read more…]