Making Meaning

Editor’s note: Despite our best efforts, from time to time, we really blow it. This is one of those times. If you received a copy of the 2017-2018 CIVA Sourcebook, you were greeted with an excellent introductory essay…by Chris Anderson, who was the curator for our 2015-2016 Sourcebook. What follows is the essay by this edition’s curator, and new CIVA Board member, Michelle Westmark Wingard. Michelle graciously called our attention to the mistake and to correct our error, at least in part, we have posted her carefully crafted curator statement below. (Read this and then go back and look at the art and artists she’s introducing, it will make a lot more sense.) You may download a copy here.

By Michelle Westmark Wingard

There is not a secular world and a sacred world, but a single world created by God and a single, unitary, truth which is known to God.

– William Hasker[1]

Christians know about layers, metaphor, paradox, transcendence, and parable. We know about the physicality of body and quintessence of spirit. We know about already, but not yet. We exist in material tension. As an artist and a curator, I find these complexities compelling. In the work of making meaning, once the art object leaves the studio—as much as we might like to believe we are in control of its content—the viewer becomes an active collaborator in finding meaning. How do we communicate these tensions in a way that speaks beyond the confines of particular denominations, transcends the lens of art and faith, and speaks to the humanness in all of us?

Michelle Westmark Wingard, My Grandfather's Escape Map: Sheet A (2016) and The Pale Ale Monument and the Farmer's Wife (2016).
Michelle Westmark Wingard, My Grandfather’s Escape Map: Sheet A (2016) [left] and The Pale Ale Monument and the Farmer’s Wife (2016) [right].
When I was younger, I thought (as many undergraduates do) that making obscure art meant I was leaving it open to the viewer for interpretation. If anyone asked, I would say that I wanted the viewer to have her or his own experience of the work. This was, of course, a way of escaping the responsibility of making meaning. A piece of art is interesting and complex not because it is hard to understand, but because it communicates on a number of levels and, one hopes, to those even outside of the art community. While the artist is responsible for the intended meaning in a work, we must also consider the art’s eventual audience once it is completed.

C.S. Lewis talks about how one should ideally interact with art:

We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.[2]

This distinction between interacting with a work in a passive way or as a vehicle for preconceived ideas about art and images is an important reminder that art is indeed a means of visual communication. The artist intends to communicate something about the world and it is the viewers’ duty to engage this meaning. Lewis continues, “The distinction can hardly be better expressed than by saying that the many use art and the few receive it.”[3]

Harrell Fletcher and collaborator Adam Moser executed a project at the Hammer Museum in 2012, called The Hammer Yearbook. The project “investigates the inner workings of a museum—the visitors that come through it, the artists that provide the motivation to come in the first place, and the staff that make it possible—through the lens of a school yearbook.”[4] In an online record of everyone who visited the museum in the 2011-12 academic year, the museum visitors ranged in age, ethnicity, and gender. This invites us to wonder about whom art engages and who gets included in the conversation. Within a community, whose voice is heard? And who is listening?

Michelle Westmark Wingard, Installation image from The Shapr of Memory (2016) [left} and Defender's Monument (town view) (2016) [right] and
Michelle Westmark Wingard, Installation image from The Shape of Memory (2016) [left] and Defender’s Monument (town view) (2016) [right].
The end goal—the actual display of the art and the community for which it is intended—has a bearing on the types of work being made. Dan Siedell notes, in God in the Gallery,

Whether a pre-Columbian artifact, African sculpture, medieval altarpiece, or Byzantine icon is ‘art’ in the modern institutional sense of the term, all these are visual representations and thus bear a trans-historical and trans-cultural relationship not only to each other but also to the artifacts made in and for the modern institution of art, because of the common (universal) human practice of making and experiencing.[5]

Put simply, as we fill our museums with works meant to exist in other contexts, we have changed the reason art is made in our contemporary culture.

In contemporary culture, art is not usually created to reside in churches or to be used as a tool for worship, so for Christian artists, the question of inclusivity in art and faith communities is an important one. Where do artists of faith fit in the contemporary dialog? How do we bridge communities? Reverse the disconnection sometimes felt by technology? Help Christian art to be part of the contemporary art dialog? Encourage faith communities to regard their Christian artists as luminaries? I don’t pretend to have answers to these big questions, but I believe that artists who are asking them and striving to build bridges—even unlikely ones—are bound to be making engaging, transcendent work.

The fourteen pieces selected for this edition’s juried show emerged from a large group of remarkable works. As you can imagine, it was difficult to narrow the choices. The themes of materiality, paradox, transcendence, and layers of meaning (both literal and figurative) were prominent in many of the works. When evaluating art, I keep four major criteria in mind: technical craft, clear and engaging content, an awareness of the language/history of art, and an aesthetic thoughtfulness in the composition. Ideally, these layers are present in a successful piece, although there are intriguing works that transcend this framework. I’m often drawn to works with a sense of humor or conceptual rigor, an authentic sense of the artist’s voice, and that visually communicate meaning that words cannot. Here’s what made this edition’s selections so compelling…

Marcus Miers’s smart use of materials conveys mourning and loss with sensitivity and humor. Justin Sorensen’s visually stunning installation explores time, appropriation, and representations of the natural world. The innovative installation by Phil Irish pushes the boundaries of painting and the work’s relationship to the viewer and the exhibition space. Adam Belt’s beautiful light and created rainbow work examines reality and perception. The rich use of color and organic forms in Rebecca Stahr’s painting speaks to life, pain and redemption. Sandra Bowden’s masterful work is an ideal example of form embodying content. Wayne Adam’s painting is an intriguing exploration of the visual complexity and interplay of 2D and 3-dimensionality. Glenn Howell’s photograph evokes a gorgeous depth and mystery. The rich texture and color palette in Allison Luce’s ceramic sculpture explores fragility and femininity. Denise Weyhrich’s intriguing use of found materials embodies the idea of time and space between. Micah Bloom’s work is visually clean and conceptually rich. Albert Pedulla’s piece is art historically aware and visually innovative. With so many thoughtful, richly layered works, it was difficult to narrow my selection to only twelve. An honorable mention goes to the material sensitivity of Marianne Lettieri’s sculpture and beautiful texture and layered meaning of Grace Bomer’s painting.

[1] William Hasker, Faith-Learning Integration: An Overview, Taking Every Thought Captive: Forty Years of the Christian Scholar’s Review (Abilene Christian University Press, 2010), 111.

[2] C.S. Lewis, How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 17.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] From the project website:

[5] Dan Siedell, God in the Gallery (Baker Academic 2008), 28

Michelle is a Professor of Art and Gallery Director of Bethel University’s two exhibition spaces. Her photographic and curatorial endeavors often explore themes of identity, perception, and interconnection in an increasingly globalized digital world. She has curated several exhibitions and has also exhibited her own photographic work locally and nationally. Michelle has been a recipient of the Jerome Foundation Travel and Study grant (2015) and, most recently, the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant (2017). She received her M.F.A. in photography from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, in 2006. She lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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