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.
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.
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.