|Hija Yu, Resurrection, 1996|
This week, the faculty has been interviewing candidates for Dean of the Seminary. The interviews are held in the Board Room, which is a gracious, light-filled space with comfortable chairs and tables of dark, polished, wood. Many years ago, the room was also fitted out with rails to make it easy to hang artworks without damaging the walls, and a few years later track lights were installed to make the art glow.
This morning, as I sat among my faculty colleagues facing the candidate on the other side of the room, my attention was frequently drawn to the large painting behind him. The painting is called Resurrection. It consists of 7 panels, each of them 96” high by 15” wide. It is very abstract, consisting of mainly blues and whites, and suggests a larger-than-life-sized human figure, seen as if from a very high vantage point. The head seems to be bowed, and the arms stretch out beyond the edges of the last panels on the left and the right. The dark blue, nearly black areas in the lower corners stand in extreme contrast with the brilliant, nearly glowing white bands further up that seem to lift the arms through the sheer power of light. Above the figure, cloudy areas of a greener blue shift and intermingle with the more purple blue of the figure and the areas below it, creating a sense of limitless space.
There is no indication anywhere in the painting of geographic location, facial features, clothing, or anything else that might indicate gender, ethnicity, or any other mark of individuality. Even so, the gesture of a body suspended between outstretched arms almost automatically suggests crucifixion. This, however, is no lifeless Jesus, hanging on the cross in agony. Rather, we are given a vision of Christ rising amid powerful waves of energy, unbound by any earthly constraint.
The painting was made in 1996 by one of our Artists-in-Residence, Hija Yu. Hija is a slight, Korean-American woman, which might come as a surprise to someone who encounters this massive, heroic painting for the first time. I remember her working in the studio with such intense concentration that she would be unable to speak if someone addressed her. She did not paint with brushes at an easel, but rather laid each large canvas out on the floor and poured pigment directly onto it, thinning the paint with copious amounts of turpentine. Then, kneeling, she would lift the canvas up a few inches, tilting it this way and that coaxing the thin layer of pigment into just the right place. Once the paint was dry, she would do it again, building up the colors little by little until they became so rich and deep that one could lose oneself in them. It has always been amazing to me that Hija was able to achieve such control, not just on a single, large, canvas, but across a seven panels that must be joined together for the image to be perceived.
The conversation this morning kept circling around questions of hearing diverse voices, both within and outside the seminary. Who has the right to speak in the seminary community? How do we hear one another? How do we listen for the voices that are not at the table? It seems to me that one answer was hanging on the wall behind the candidate, silently waiting to be recognized. This image of the Risen Christ emerged from the artist’s willingness to surrender to the physical properties of flowing liquid, gravity, and time. It is an object lesson in the way that an artist’s practice of patience and process can speak with a resounding silence. I hope that the new Dean, whoever that may be, will remember that the Word of God is more than words.