7. Illusionism Cut: The Painting of Victoria Reynolds
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171 Seeing God in the Flesh Victoria Reynolds (1962–) is an American painter working with the rich symbolism of flesh. She frames her paintings of raw flesh rendered in very precise detail in ornamental rococo-style frames, which she usually overpaints . Her works have a strong, almost visceral presence and many of them resonate with religious themes, the most evident of which is the Incarnation, the sacred and sacrificial meaning of flesh. She is an artist working with what Eleanor Heartney calls incarnational imagination, and arguably her work shows interests similar to those of Andres Serrano or Joel-Peter Witkin.1 For the Carnal in Dante’s Hell, 1999, is a painting of a slice of raw meat rendered very realistically and presented in an ornate frame (Figure 17). The lush frame in different hues of red and white corresponds closely to the surface of the painting, thus making the framed image difficult to recognize. The painted surface resembles a cloudy sky, a stormy sea, or a complex pattern on fabric stretched inside the frame. The rectangular frame is oval on the inner edge where it meets the painted surface. The white floral motifs on the frame stand in contrast to the darker c h a p t e r 7 Illusionism Cut The Painting of Victoria Reynolds 172 The Painting of Victoria Reynolds background color of the frame and correspond visually to the round shapes of the whitish fat on the painted surface. The image is strikingly dynamic with its diagonal structure and the cloud-like structures of the meat’s fat. The painting was shown in the context of the exhibition One Hundred Artists See God, 2004, curated by John Baldessari and Meg Cranston.2 It was included in the category “Artists see God in the Flesh,” which was introduced with a short text on the issue of the body in different religious traditions. The elaborate use of visual and textual frames that present the painting by Reynolds have an effect opposite to the usual role of the frame in establishing the identity of the object. In this sense For the Carnal poses questions concerning the issues of truth and point of view. The first sentence that introduces the painting by Reynolds is the title of the subcategory in which her work was presented in the exhibition—“Artists see God in the flesh.” The text by Cranston and Baldessari continues: Figure 17. Victoria Reynolds, For the Carnal in Dante’s Hell, 1999. Oil on panel, 71.8 ⫻ 81.9 cm. Courtesy of Victoria Reynolds. The Painting of Victoria Reynolds 173 Although a few religious traditions view the body as indivisible from spirit, most of the prominent ones diminish the importance of the mortal body in relation to an immortal, metaphysical soul. The soul is considered essential, the body merely physical. The idea that the body is worthless extends to a general suspicion of the material world, which is seen as inferior to the abstract realm of god. Islam, Judaism and Christianity all acknowledge the threat of the visible world. One reason they legislate against idols is the fear that the representation might get confused with what it represents: the creation might be confused with the Creator. These theological notions have had a profound influence on artmaking. Artists have struggled with the idea their works are mere physical things. It is felt that art must be imbued with something extra—the flesh is not enough.3 The key words in this fragment, God and flesh, point to the idea of the Incarnation, and introduce the opposition between body and soul, the suspicion of the material world, the fear of representation, and, finally, the way art positions itself with regard to these theological ideas. A key theme in the text is the tension between the intangible, irrepresentable divine and the body as something merely physical, material. This immaterial divine is seen as an indeterminate “extra” that the artwork will never achieve. Baldessari and Cranston refer to the fear of idolatry with a phrase from Gregory of Nazianzus (329–89), who warns against the danger of “transferral to the creature of the honour of the creator.”4 The text points to the iconoclastic motive par excellence—the fear that images are false and impure.5 This logic of the pure, of a world purified of all mediations, is as well the logic of the “mono-” and implies the affirmation of God’s invisibility . Yet invisibility is...