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Good Letters

20111007-the-only-answer-is-voyage-by-jessica-brownImpressions flood in on me: grayness; verticality; burning; ice, splitting; verdancy. The distant; the present. Wild swathes of light, of intense growth—is that a tree? a body of water? fire? Cold, crisp, thin air?

I am standing in a small, warmly lit gallery. Paintings on the third and fourth days of creation surround me. Substances are gathering—ether to heavens, solids to lands, wet to waters. Here come distances and fathoms and horizons.

God’s words till the land, and plant seeds, and are the seeds. Throbbing smears of living things appear. Searing through the new regions of empty sky come two lights, a greater and a lesser, bringing the first felicity of patterns: day and night, public and private, wintertime and summer, opal light and harvest heat.

Bowled over by the sheer life, by the fathomless number of colors, and by the meticulous care evident in these paintings, I leave the gallery. I blink not from the bright Southland sun, but from the rejuvenation of my seeing, marked by salt and water in the eyes.

A selection of Maja Lisa Engelhardt’s paintings has arrived at the Art Gallery at Biola University. Engelhardt is a renowned Danish artist, creating liturgical art in once-empty churches throughout her country, as well as generating a prodigious collection of abstract paintings. Many of these paintings have been within a large sequence on the seven days of Creation. Barry Krammes, the Gallery Director, writes of Engelhardt:

“Bound up in the spiritual psyche of these expressionistic works is the bleak house of Engelhardt’s difficult childhood, the romance of the Nordic landscape, and the Christianity of the blind Bethsaidan who in the process of being healed by Christ, saw ‘men like trees, walking.’ This synthesis of personal history, geography, and religion forms a strong matrix, providing a thoroughly human response to the world Engelhardt endeavors to make sense of.”

The day after I first visited the exhibition, I read the essay “A Meditation on the Joint and Its Holy Ornaments” by Wayne L. Roosa. Here, Roosa explores the architectural phrase, “The joint is the source of every ornament.”

He describes this joint through Martin Buber’s idea of distance-relation: when two things are separate, they have the chance, then, to come together. Humans have the tendency to demarcate this in-between place with ornament, from the simple custom of the handshake to the intricate embellishments on a Gothic church doorway.

The most poignant works of art—Roosa looks at Alberto Giacometti’s Hands Holding the Void, Denise Levertov’s “Suspended,” and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings—are ornaments that deeply acknowledge the joint, and from within this undeniable void, respond.

I read this essay sitting on a bench in the leafy, humid Griffith Park of Los Angeles. And I kept thinking about the paintings I had seen the night before.

The paintings are ornaments whose blazing, painful, beauty dwells within that inescapable distance between God and man, God-made and man-made. And these ornaments surge with the profound joy of how such distance means a meeting, even if that meeting is the length of a word, the slow blink of a lion’s eye, or as long as it takes for finger to touch finger.

But more is happening. For these paintings recall the story when God himself made the joint, made the Other—and meanwhile, word after word, atom after atom, seed after seed, made too the ornament.

Maja’s elusive mesh of paint certainly moves across her canvases in the usual (non)structures of abstract painting. I behold layers of gray, turquoise stains, uncertain horizons, might-be trees. But the ambiguity I encounter here is somehow doing positive work.

It affirms the longing for that audacious invitation.

The part of my mind that desires to possess through understanding is subverted for a much more rich and terrible knowledge.

I know that deep down, I am not made to possess but to pioneer. What is this pioneering? It is quest, exploration, and ultimately, the longing for an existence that travels to unknown, sublime regions.

These paintings before me, these happenings, call for a response. In Maja’s The Third Day(21) when the bulk of cliff or forest opens to an overwhelming abundance of sky, notions of land and heavens become secondary to inner responses that surprise even me:

Where you go, I will go….

Tell us where you are going, so that we may follow….

I will put out into the deep waters….

This in-between place, the crux of our separation and togetherness, is no static, squeezed ground. It is so expansive, the only response is to set out upon a voyage.

While I behold these renderings of divine creation, so far beyond my comprehension, I do not sink into debilitating smallness. Surprisingly, I enter the picture, this ornamented joint, and set off.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jessica Brown

Jessica Brown is a graduate of the SPU MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in Los Feliz, which is a little nook of Los Angeles by Griffith Park. She's an adjunct professor at Biola University, and every so often she surfaces from the land of writing fiction to write about...fiction.

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