An Advent candle
Alastair Gordon: Sacrament (2013)
Alastair Gordon: Sacrament (2013; oil on wood; 50 x 40 cm; private collection)
Everything you see here is paint on wood. In the last few years Alastair Gordon has adopted a form of trompe l’oeil painting known as ‘Quodlibet’. Originally a musical term meaning ‘what you will’, it was borrowed by some nineteenth-century artists who rendered it as ‘as it falls’: a group of ordinary items were painted as if discovered in the rough and tumble of daily life, lying on a wooden surface (sometimes painted directly onto wooden panelling in aristocratic houses).
Gordon’s assemblages are of images – sometimes a collection of postcards recently received – as if roughly posted up on a studio noticeboard using masking tape, as one might in other circumstances attach them to the fridge with magnets. But works of art, we know, are not that haphazard. There is something very deliberate in the casualness. The artist invites us to meditate not only on the images that he reproduces, but also on the unusual method of reproduction.
The images Gordon reproduces in Sacrament are clearly themselves paintings, not photographs. This is a painting of a painting; and, for all we know, it may be a painting of a painting of a painting. Reproducing another artist’s work is a regular trope of conceptual art, to undermine our confidence in reality and in artistic authenticity. But it need not lead down that road. For one thing, the quality of the painting seen in the devotion to faithful reproduction must speak of love, of a celebration of creativity, of humility and purposefulness, which all stand against postmodern nihilism.
But also, for the Christian community, paradox is not a road to despair. It is often a means of delving, humbly but more deeply, into truths that we know are far greater than ourselves or our capacity to comprehend.
Gordon explained that he painted Sacrament after hearing a lecture about how objects manifest and, at times, embody ideas that surpass the mere sum of their parts. Wedding rings point towards a meaning deeper than their metal value or even their metaphorical significance. Gordon saw a connection with how paintings embody more than the sum of their chemical and material components and become signs or symbols, pointing towards a deeper value.
This is a painting of a painting, and yet, in a Christian worldview, it points to a profound reality that is really there, unchanging, reliable. This painting points to another painting that points to a candle that points to the idea of light in the darkness that points to Jesus. And Jesus reveals to us, in visible, tangible, human form, the reality of God himself.
Sacrament was painted in Advent 2013. The artist explains: ‘I make a painting every year to celebrate the coming of Christ and I find the process of making a meditative process that helps me anticipate Emmanuel, God with us. My paintings take time, layers are built up slowly and “signs” begin to emerge that help me see what the final outcome will be. As I make the painting I read about the prophecies of Jesus in the Old Testament. They become a way of repairing my heart again to receive Christ. Ideas are embodied within the painting that are slowly revealed with great expectation. In a greater sense, it helps me remember how God became incarnate in Christ, a greater glory to be revealed.'
For the viewer the painting in turn becomes an opportunity to stop and reflect. It is an intriguing work: it does not preach, but it is richly suggestive. The single candle points towards Jesus, the Light who ‘was coming into the world’ (John 1:9). The three candles may well remind us that God is Trinity – that wonderful, unique truth that God is one, but a community of three loving persons whose love spilled over into his beloved creation.
But the one candle may also remind us of the appalling cost of God’s love that came to redeem us from our rebellion: that there was a separation in the Godhead, when the Father finally turned his face away from the Son, when the Son entered our darkness and ‘became sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
And what about the missing picture? That other piece of tape invites us in. It is vertical rather than horizontal, and seems therefore to point to a different kind of image. Does it invite us to contribute a picture of our own? To include our response to the Son, who did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled himself for our sakes? The advent candle – even in reproduction - warms us with the reality of hope in our wonderful God.
* * * * *
Alastair Gordon (b.1978) is artist-in-residence and Gallery Manager for Husk, Limehouse. This year he began as course leader for Critical and Professional Studies, a part time postgraduate course at Leith School of Art in Edinburgh. He is co-founder and director of Morphē Arts, a mentoring charity for graduate artists.
He was awarded first prize in the most recent Shoosmiths Art Prize and has been selected for several other awards including Threadneedle Prize, Oriel Davies, Beep 2014 and The Open West 2014.
He was commissioned to mark the 180th anniversary of the London City Mission. The resultant work The feet of those was a collection of small paintings each reproducing a pair of shoes, to represent both the loving labour and the diversity of LCM’s workers. It was exhibited at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow, London (September–October2014).
His paintings are represented by Bearspace gallery, London, where he recently held a solo exhibition. Further information at www.alastairjohngordon.com; http://www.bearspace.co.uk/artists/alastair-gordon
[An edited version of this article was published by ArtWay, 14 December 2014. To subscribe to the weekly ArtWay visual meditations, or view other articles in the series, go to www.artway.eu.]
Image credits: Alastair Gordon: Sacrament, 2013. Photo: the artist