Alexandra Sherman just finished installing a new show, Christ Paintings by Larry Deyab, in the Dadian Gallery. These paintings are somehow both lush and spare, so raw and powerful that at first I felt physically unable to approach them. For a long, timeless moment, I stood at the door of the gallery as if transfixed, my eyes slowly scanning around the room, trying to take in what I was seeing.
With titles like The Flagellation of Christ, Crown of Thorns, Veronica Veil, and Via Dolorosa, the eleven paintings reference – but do not exactly follow – the devotion known as the Stations of the Cross. But these are narrative paintings only in the broadest sense. In each, there is only a face, a shoulder, the back of a head, the barest suggestion that we are looking at a human being. In swift, sure, broad brushstrokes, Deyab shows the raw anguish of a person who is undergoing some undefined, yet very real, sort of torture.
In several, the face of Christ is seen in extreme close up, with blobs or drips of blood-red paint obscuring the dark stroke signifying a mouth or an eye. We know it is Christ not only because of the crown of thorns, but also because of the calm that somehow pervades these violent, painful paintings. In one, a deep, sky blue seems to support Jesus’ bowed head, as if promising the resurrection to come. In another, gold gleams through what looks like it might be a chain-link fence that separates Jesus’ body from the glory that waits on the other side of death.
These paintings confront us with the reality of human suffering. I do not know if the artist calls himself a Christian, but it is clear both from the works, themselves, and from what Deyab writes about them, that they arise out of some deeply personal struggle. At once painful and beautiful, these Christ Paintings do not glorify violence, but rather invite us to walk alongside Jesus--and by extension, all who suffer--on the way to the cross. This show is a gift, an invitation to keep a holy Lent.