Makoto Fujimura

The Four Holy Gospels

This September, Dan Colen exhibited his bubble gum canvases at the Gagosian Gallery, a linchpin in Chelsea that represents some of the biggest players in the contemporary art world. Herds of people, including Hollywood golden boy James Franco, mingled around the massive works. Traipsing around as if I had business there (my beat up Converse tennies hinting at the truth of the matter), I wanted to approach fellow bystanders about their impressions, wanted to hear more about the business of gum-stretching and grass printing, but the pretension in the room was impenetrable. For Colen, the evening was a historical event; it marked his first solo show (outside of the gallery’s bathroom) since his friend Dash Snow died of a drug overdose in 2009.

Makoto Fujimura’s exhibit of the Four Holy Gospels at Dillon Gallery this December was an altogether different event. Truly historical, the collection was painted for a new Bible released by Crossway Publishing to commemorate the four hundred year anniversary of the King James Version. Prior to this, commissioned illumination of the scriptures lay dormant for five hundred years. This was also historical because it was the first time words of scripture have been directly paired with abstract painting, as opposed to representational, for publication.

The opening of this new exhibit was an assemblage of the right variables: interested folks with keen eyes, a knowledgeable and present gallery staff, and an artist aware that this was a highlight show of his career, having said, ” Whether I like it or not, this is what I will be remembered by.” The event was open to the public, so the wandering gallery-goer had a home at Dillon with the middle-aged mom, Catholic priest, school administrator, hedge fund manager, and hipster just the same. If there was any intimidation to be felt, it was due to the foreign feeling of sincerity in small talk. The room was warm with the scent of “Biblical Landscapes” a musky mix of  frankincense, myrrh,  Japanese notes of cherry blossom, and even a bit of whiskey especially mixed for the occasion by a neighboring French perfumer.

Mark | “Water Flames”

The five large works in the show were the frontispieces created as title pages for each of the gospels.  All are painted Nihonga style (traditional Japanese painting) with pulverized minerals. Each painting is unique from the other evidencing the nuances in the gospel accords. The Matthew piece “Consider the Lillies” is a muted combination of sixty layers of minerals including azurite, malachite, and oyster shell, as well as gold and platinum powders, while the Mark piece “ Water Flames” is a rich, bright mixture of gold, platinum, and cochineal ink.  Fujimura also created a custom letter for the start of every chapter of every gospel numbering eighty-nine in total. This makes the contemporary Bible distinctly like the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Fujimura’s trust in his tradition and vocation allowed him to confidently approach the project and adorn the pages with understated elegance. The magnitude of this project’s historical significance didn’t seem to stilt him at all. Aware of the historical weight on his shoulders, he married a western tradition with the eastern tradition of Nihonga. Refreshed and impressed, I couldn’t help but think what a significant exhibit this was. This project was truly an artistic expression of global Christianity— there in Chelsea of all places, we were at the heart of a transgression of cultural & religious boundaries.

The paintings are transcendental when read alongside scripture, but still approachable, as is the artist’s life sans the exploitative tactics employed by so many of his peers. In this case, Fujimura’s work invites us to approach the scriptures that are at the heart of all that he puts his hands to. This trickles down into his studio practice with interns, in his interaction with other artists across the globe, and in his writing.

Luke | “Prodigal God”

I mention Colen’s show at the Gagosian because it is a grand encapsulation of much of what is shown in Chelsea.  While aesthetically intriguing, it lacked what made the Four Holy Gospels such a privilege to behold:  accessibility, an accessibility personified in the gentleman artist that Mako Fujimura is. His exhibit created an unlikely atmosphere, especially as it compared to others on the block. It was a sanctifying environment, available to all, but still a challenge to most. In this art market, we as viewers haven’t earned the close proximity to work that Fujimura facilitates in his exhibits. He has said, “we, today, have a language to celebrate waywardness, but we do not have a cultural language to bring people back home.And that is exactly what the exhibit at Dillon accomplished.

Faith in the Useless: Art as a Space for Reconciliation

“After raping them we would also kill them . . . they would flee once we let them go. Then we would ‘bang!’ shoot them in the back to finish them up . . . perhaps when we were raping her, we looked at her as a woman . . . but when we killed her, we just thought of her as something like a pig.”

Japanese soldier testimony from Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking

Ever since I first came to China in 2006, I’ve been afraid of Nanjing — not the city itself, but what happened there in December of 1937. So when I was invited last month to accompany artist Makoto Fujimura on his trip to lecture in Nanjing, I was terribly confused.

I neither wanted to confront the open wound of this event myself, nor did I think art had anything to do with its healing. I’ve always felt that government reparations are what were needed, not art. Art seemed useless.

However, through the comments of three friends, I’ve realized something much deeper than political relations is at stake in Nanjing. And in the end, not only did I go — but I now have a sense of faith in the useless.

The first comment came from my Chinese friend Xiao Bei.

“I don’t hate the Japanese for what they did in Nanjing,” he said. “I hate that they don’t admit the extent of it, that they write their children’s textbooks to downplay it. I just want to see that they’re human, too — that they can acknowledge the evil.”

For a long time, what’s been keeping me from reading about and going to Nanjing — one of the most historically important cities in China — is a simple fear of confronting evil. I knew vaguely of the six-week reign of horror when the Japanese army entered the city on December 13th of 1937, but that’s all. And I’ve always been intimidated by the story of Iris Chang, who after researching and publishing her seminal text, The Rape of Nanjing, for seven years committed suicide.

In a way it has always seemed to me that, following Chang’s example, to go further into the knowledge of such darkness is to venture out into evil itself. Thus I was never willing to go near it. But that’s exactly what Xiao Bei wanted the Japanese to do. I felt maybe that’s what I needed to do, too.

The second comment that pushed me closer to faith in the useless was from Mako on the first night of his trip to China.

“I’m excited about going to Nanjing,” he began, “because putting a problem in the open is an act of creation. When that doesn’t happen, the soul hardens. And there’s been so much silence about Nanjing.”

That night I felt for the first time that I had words to describe what was happening inside of me — a hardening of the soul. I knew confronting Nanjing would demand something of me; I would be implicated simply by being human. It would ask me to mourn and weep, to be soft and to be hurt. In fear of being overtaken by emotions that I couldn’t control, I was hardening a part of myself that’s essential to being human — empathy.

While Mako’s words gave me the first hint that art, creation itself, might have something fundamentally powerful to contribute towards reconciliation, I wouldn’t say I was convinced yet. Just curious. However, the next day I did buy Chang’s book and begin reading.

Days later when we arrived in Nanjing, I spoke with an organizer of the event, Jeremy. He explained “We didn’t invite Mako here as an advertisement or propaganda, but rather because [we] wanted to create a certain kind of space.”

In Nanjing, Jeremy and his associates live day to day with its ethos, the racism against the Japanese, the pain of the local people; it’s like white noise, always there, muting the rest of life. But he’s not interested in formal political apologies.

By the time I sat down in the auditorium of about 400 people, mostly Chinese students from the Nanjing Arts Institute, I was nervous with anticipation. Would Mako apologize on behalf of his ancestors? How would it tie into his art?

What happened was not what I expected, not at all.

Mako just talked about his art like he always does. The only thing specific to Nanjing was that when talking about his personal experience with 9/11 and the need for art to come to terms with true evil, he mentioned Nanjing as a parallel example of “pure darkness.”

“Yes,” I thought, “more on that. Tell them how sorry the Japanese are . . . ”

But he didn’t. He talked about how good art claims that both evil and beauty exist. It was all about art, and it felt useless.

As Mako ended his lecture and asked the audience for questions, I thought the whole thing had missed the point. But then the most curious thing happened: people began asking questions.

They didn’t mention the Rape of Nanjing either, but every comment danced around the shadow of it. One girl spoke up saying that she disagreed with Mako’s claim that true beauty requires implicit sacrifice. She said she would like it better the other way.

Another disagreed that vulnerability was required for communication, and said that the way to communicate was to make yourself strong enough to participate in dialogue, not weaker. Then the event ended.

It’s taken me weeks since then to think over what exactly happened that night. Something had been exchanged, I just wasn’t sure what. Mostly I kept reflecting on the words of Xiao Bei, Mako, and Jeremy — “I just want to see that they are human,” “what’s needed is an act of creation,” “we’re making a certain type of space.”

Slowly I’ve begun to realize that something more fundamental than an apology was being exchanged that night. We had gone farther, deeper, and to more places than a specific apology on Nanjing could go. We talked about evil, beauty, sacrifice, and true communication — all components of human-ness.

I think it’s possible that people like me, who are interested in Nanjing and the reconciliation of the Japanese and Chinese, could have called Mako’s lecture and the entire event useless. And in a sense that’s true. The event wasn’t utilitarian; like good art, it wasn’t employed for some function.

But the event really was a creation of space where things essential to being human were discussed, and it has since dawned on me that perhaps it’s in just this kind of space where seeds of reconciliation might actually be planted.

And this is where faith in the useless is required, because what’s at stake is the conviction that something happens in the space that art creates.

The effects of art are by no means measurable. But what about empathy? What about the capacity to communicate? Isn’t a lot at stake when we behold beauty? Isn’t it useful for becoming human?

What was wrong with the Rape of Nanjing was not simply one country’s aggression towards another, but that for six weeks evil and darkness reigned. Beauty was not allowed to exist, and thus humanity wasn’t either. But art confronts exactly that situation because by its existence it asserts that beauty does exists, and that creation of something new is possible.

The essence of good art is the same essence at work in Oskar Schindler’s factory, John Rabe’s safety zone, and Iris Chang’s truth-telling — an act of hope in a disintegrating world. The glory of these stories is that people do something, even when that something is small and seems useless in the face of overwhelming evil. But that takes faith — faith that something bigger is happening than the little you are contributing.

So art might seem useless. The body can survive without it. Politics and economies could go on, and relations between Japan and China will continue. But the soul won’t survive — and neither will our human-ness unless beauty exists. The six weeks of Nanjing are a continual reminder of that.

By putting faith in the useless, Mako’s event challenged the Japanese/Nanjing loss of humanity. It was one step in rehumanizing the exchange between two cultures, it was one person of Japanese descent asserting his humanity, and even if not measurably useful, it’s invaluable. It’s certainly beautiful.

A Novice’s Approach to Viewing Art
and Thrust Projects’ UNHEIM

A view of UNHEIM,
currently on view at Thrust Projects in New York City.
See more views here.

I recently concluded that looking at art is a lot like visiting Staten Island: it really helps to have a guide. Like Staten Island, art does not disclose its secret loveliness to the casual tourist, breezing through the gallery like a Brooklynite through Staten Island en route to the Jersey Shore. To learn to appreciate art – or Staten Island, for that matter – one needs a docent, a guide who knows the lay of the land. I am a docent for Staten Island, but when it comes to art, I need help.

Through my work with International Arts Movement, I have the benefit of knowing many artists and creative catalysts who are willing to give of their time and expertise to help me grow in my approach to viewing art. I have no background in the visual arts, but friends like Mako Fujimura, Dan Siedell, Alison Stigora, Jay Walker and many others have taken time to patiently guide and instruct me in the art of viewing art.

(In addition to these conversations, Fujimura’s books River Grace and Refractions, and Siedell’s book God in the Gallery have been tremendously helpful.)

I have developed for myself an approach to viewing art that makes my trips to galleries and museums a source of delight and stimulation. I hope that, by sharing it here, I might help my fellow art novices have a more meaningful experience the next time they visit an exhibition.

First, I’ve learned that it is important to go into a show humbly. Decide before you walk in the door that you are not going to make quick judgments or dismissals of the works. I find that this is especially important with a lot of modern and contemporary art, which can often give a pedestrian primacy bias. (Warhol’s Soup Cans, for example, might have this effect. It’s easy to think you’re seeing it immediately.) Artists have spent time, energy, contemplation, and resources to create what you are about to see, and curators are deeply invested in what they place on the walls of their spaces. Give them the benefit of the doubt. I was that person who would actually say, aloud, while gazing at a late Jackson Pollock, “I’m not impressed. I could do that. What’s the big deal?”

Listen to me when I say that this is the height of arrogance. Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that.

The second point follows closely on the first: take your time. Do not meander quickly through a gallery or museum and think you have seen the art. If you have meandered quickly, you have not seen the art. Rather, stop in front of the work and gaze – gaze – at the work. Let your eyes rest on the piece for at least a few minutes. Scan it. Stare at it. Tilt your head to the side and stare at it again from a different angle. As in tasting fine wine, swishing the wine around your mouth and across your taste buds, viewing art requires giving your eyes some swishing time. Your eyes are your taste buds when it comes to art. Swish away.

Also, while I encourage people to attend exhibition openings, it is important to point out that the opening of a show is not the time when you will look at, or have a meaningful experience with, the art. The opening is for celebrating the artist. If you want to see the art, go back another day.

Thirdly, make notes. Bring a small notebook and note what you see. For me, this starts with noting the obvious. At my recent visit to Thrust Projects gallery, for example, where I viewed the current UNHEIM exhibition, I wrote in my notebook while standing in front of Valentin Hirsch‘s works on paper, “Elephants. Broken tusks. Multiple trunks. Realistic, but not real. Split, motion, splash. Precise. Landscapes. Mirror image of life and death. Black cloud. Black rain. Tragedy.”

I was describing what I was actually seeing on the paper. Looking at Daniel Domig‘s work in the same exhibition, I wrote, “Human images. Various details – some details, some amoebic. Copulating. Boxing. Violence. Human and skeleton dancing? No, having sex against a wall. Shrouded head. Woman performing fellatio on a man’s very large – phallic – nose, as an idea in a man’s head. Erotic. Uncomfortable.”

On the Subject

• UNHEIM, featuring works on paper by Valentin Hirsch and Daniel Domig, runs May 29-July 19, 2009, at Thrust Projects, 114 Bowery, Suite 301 in New York City. For more information, visit

‚Ä¢ See a previous Curator article on Daniel Domig’s work.

This is not yet getting into what the work is saying. This is just what I am seeing. But as I wrote what I saw, I began to “see” more. Getting beyond the obvious discernible images, I began to draw some conclusions (which may or may not be what the artist intended, but by this point the artist is no longer in the picture; it’s about the art itself and the viewer’s experience of that art, or so Dan Siedell tells me.)

The last thing I do during a gallery visit is to walk back through the art one last time and do word association, writing down every word that comes to mind as I view the art. It was during this stage of my time with UNHEIM that the collaboration between two very different artists came together in a unified way: the words I was associating with each of their work were the same. Surreal… destruction… violence… haunting… tragedy… conflict… struggle… These words describe the “story” I “read” during my visit with both Domig and Hirsch’s work.

At this point, I have engaged with the art on a deep level. I am ready to describe my experience. The story I read went something like this:

The work is deeply disturbing. Hirsch’s work makes me think of how elephants are so regal and strong, yet vulnerable. The landscapes remind me of Africa, and the poaching of elephants going on there. This reminds me of the bigger issues facing global humanity, where the stewarding of the land that was mandated in Genesis 1 and 2 has become badly perverted. Looking at one particular portrait of an elephant head, drawn very regally, but with broken tusks and eyes that are indiscernible, lost to shadows, I was stirred to sadness, in the same way I am when I see an elephant in a circus. This was not what elephants were created for. They were made to be kings; instead, we have made them clowns. These pieces speak to me of destruction and tragedy. But Hirsch is not talking about elephants here. Elephants are a metaphor for something else, I’m sure. As I think further about the kings/clowns idea, I think of humanity. Is humanity what it was created to be? Not by a long shot. We were made in God’s image to be kings and queens. Instead, we are clowns. Worse, we are slaves.

Domig’s work is likewise evocative of sadness and longing, but not in quite the same way. In his work, there is a wrestling match between reality and the psyche. Some images remind me of a passage in the Bible, where St. Paul says, “Who will save me from this body of death?” There is a sense of being weighed down by an unseen burden, or enslaved by something intangible, yet very real. I see in many of the images a clear man, a central character of the piece, but with ideas or fantasies or struggles that inhibit him from being fully alive. He, too, is a slave, perhaps to his past, or to his memories, or to his unfettered animal instincts that threaten to dehumanize him. He is haunted by something he can’t quite shake.

Both artists’ work caused me to think deeply about the human condition – and not just humanity in general, but my own humanity. Am I living as the royalty I was created to be? Or am I living as a slave? Do I have a monkey on my back, or have I managed to throw aside everything that has entangled me? Do I continue to dance with a “body of death,” or do I take my thoughts and imagination captive to that which is good, true, and beautiful?

Viewing art is a very personal experience, if you will let it be so. But like many vessels of beauty or truth, there is no Reader’s Digest version. Without spending time with the work, you might walk gaily through the gallery, muttering to yourself “I don’t get it,” because you simply didn’t give the art an opportunity to give “it” to you. I spent nearly two hours with approximately thirty small works on paper, and the experience I had was profound. What a gift art is, if we will receive it as such.