“I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp.”
~ Psalm 49:4 (King James Bible)
The Biblical tradition was once considered a pillar of Western consciousness and a major component of American popular culture. Although the power of Christianity waned in the twentieth century among urban elites, modern artists, so often preoccupied with non-narrative, often returned to “The Good Book” as source material [see Rosemary Crumlin's 1998 publication Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination for the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia] . In our time knowledge of the Bible’s lore occupies a significant place in the mental landscape of large segments of the US population, in particular (though not exclusively) where forms of Evangelicalism hold sway. Apart from cultures of the religiously committed however, a number of contemporary artists, poets and authors have continued to enlist the Bible as source material, often creating alternative and subversive interpretations of the stories. Recall the popularity of Anita Diamant’s feminist novel The Red Tent a few years ago.
An exciting and challenging re-imagining of key episodes from the Bible was undertaken in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s by the San Francisco based artist David Maxim. The works in this series have been brought together in print for the first time in a new catalog titled Pictures and the Bible issued this winter by Maxim’s studio. Working on the backs of specially constructed canvases, a variety of three dimensional materials serve as tools for paint application before being incorporated into the final construction. This exposed format, with its attendant crossbeams, pulleys, ropes and hinges, makes one conscious that the Bible is a tremendous source of theater. By alluding to the hidden workings of stagecraft, Maxim asks us to consider how the Biblical tales do their work on our emotions and on our beliefs.
In his groundbreaking book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Erich Auerbach made a critical comparison between the portrayal of space and action in the Odyssey and in the Book of Genesis. Homer’s style is crisp and bright in its description of dramatic events, in order to “make us forget our own reality for a few hours.” In contrast, the style of the Genesis author is murky and ambiguous, in that it does not trouble to convey the visual details of a scene. Auerbach argues that this is so because the Biblical author is not concerned with the appearance of the external world. The goal (unlike Homer’s) is not to grip our senses. The Book of Genesis, known in Judaism as the book of beginnings, seeks to “make us fit our own life into its world.” These two important and contrasting traditions of representation are united in Maxim’s sensual and shadowy constructions.
In a recent conversation, Maxim voiced his appreciation for the terseness and simplicity of many Biblical passages. The unadorned recounting of miracles and encounters with divinity gives the artist a wide berth for re-imagining the scene in question. Maxim has drawn extensively on Greco-Roman classical sources in much of his art. His Bible pictures partake in what the ancient rhetoricians called ekphrasis: a vivid representation of something from one artistic medium manifested through all the powers that an entirely different medium can muster: i.e. a poem about a painting or, as in this case, the exact opposite. Maxim embodies the tales of the Bible with a rich array of bold appurtenances: rough scaffolding and raw sutures, bright spills and black gashes, thick textures and bulky clusters. We are invited to feel (with our eyes) the coarse hair of Esau’s body or the muddy ooze that drips from the eye socket of the blind man in the process of his miraculous healing. These painted assemblages offer up the latticed equivalents of the invisible structure of the stories. In their materiality they demonstrate the forces acting on or through the characters of the Bible. They highlight the significance of earthly things where unearthly events occur–i.e. the stone rolled away from the tomb of the risen Christ, the veil of St. Veronica, the miraculously multiplied loaves of bread. These numinous objects, which begin as the focal points of extraordinary actions, end up as signs for larger lessons, if we allow them their ongoing process.
But these pictures also represent the brooding existentialism of the Old Testament tradition. In their dense layers of paint, knotting of cord, bound fabrics and blunt edges they seem to place the raw facts before our eyes. The authors of the Bible do not salve the modern mind by explaining how, for the most part they just relay the what and who. Like the Hebrew rabbis of old (whose voluminous ruminations still swarm around the verses of the Torah through the exegetical methods of Midrash) we are encouraged to gather our own thoughts, offer our own interpretations, bring our own peculiar curiosities to the foot of the stage.
Maxim begins with Genesis and moves through to the Gospels, ending with a work dedicated to the mysterious Gnostics, whom the early orthodox Christians did their best to obliterate. “Origin” manifests two contrasting ideas–that God made the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) or from a preexisting chaos (the mysterious Hebrew phrase tohu va bohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ)). Within a perfect circle cut into the hard surface of this work is nestled a ball of rough twine (a clew, the old word from which our clue derives). Spatters and whorls of white and gray paint spell the chaos through which the generator of the universe moves. This actual clew was the tool used by Maxim to create these patterns before being itself fixed. Resting slightly off center within its alcove, saturated in the grisaille residues of its journey across the plane of appearances, this primordial ball mutely signifies the creator itself as Prime Mover (source of all activity) and as Great Geometer (that which first sets out the lines and limits of the cosmos).
Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes, wrestles with the Angel of the Lord until dawn. The bright yellow and white dripping down the background seem not merely the sweat of an all-night supernatural smack-down, but a shimmering spillage of glory. For in the end the patriarch will not surrender to God, and although God wounds him in the thigh he must grant Jacob a wish, like the djinn from later Arab legends. Strings holding these marionette figures support as they restrict and choke the forms. There is a void in midst of the figures, where they are one. As the great French philosopher Michel de Certeau put it citing an earlier theologian: “‘That war begins to please him [Jacob] for the sole reason that the combatants’ final goal is not separation but union.’ The wound that weakens him, binds him to the one who strikes him.” Where the sphere of “Origin” manifests form from void, the empty space between Jacob and God gives their union form.
Maxim ended his monumental series with two versions of a picture he called The Gnostic, inspired by the scholarly writings of Elaine Pagels. Here the secret world of the Christian sect whose extant writings were unearthed only in 1945, is envisioned an an ideal mystic seeker. In an archway that evokes a heavenly gate or a temple door, an arm-like bow curves outward, echoing the arms of a crucifix and yet defying that comparison by its graceful lifting away from the painted surface. For the Gnostic seeker is the one who approaches God without the encumbrance of Church authority or dogma–she is “the one who knows.” In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas Jesus says: “The Kingdom of God is inside/within you (and all about you), not in buildings/mansions of wood and stone. (When I am gone) Split a piece of wood and I am there, lift the/a stone and you will find me.” I cannot think of a more apt verse to convey the rich and sensual qualities of Maxim’s daring contemporary re-imaginings of ancient scriptures.