Art and Religion in Cahoots, Devotion Bolstering Aesthetics

Context doesn’t count for everything, but it can count for a lot: witness The Ages of Mankind: Time to Hope , an exhibition of religious art from the Castilla y Léon region of Spain currently on display at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. How different would our response to the work be if it were on display at, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art? My guess is that it would be very different. The emphasis of the exhibition would shift, underscoring the aesthetic or the sociological rather than the ecclesiastical. Time to Hope , which includes paintings, sculptures, vestments, manuscripts and altar pieces dating from the 10th to the 19th centuries, transposes this equation in a powerful and-for some of us, anyway-discomfiting manner. It goes without saying that the current venue underscores the devotional aspect of the work, most of which comes out of churches and monasteries. The murmur of worship accentuates the already somber atmosphere. The installation of the show is purposeful: It illustrates the life of Jesus. According to a pamphlet accompanying the exhibition, Time to Hope has been organized with a “view to evangelisation.”

It’s good to be reminded how intrinsic the spiritual is to much of Western art. The contemporary eye tends to value devotional images more for their artistic means than for their spiritual emphasis-an approach that doesn’t necessarily diminish one’s experience of the work, but can do the work a disservice. Indeed, discussing pieces as clarified as Pietà , a 16th-century oil on panel attributed to Adrián Isenbrant, or as startingly forthright as El Greco’s The Saviour (circa 1590) without touching on the spiritual component is, I think, a form of willed ignorance. Both paintings are included in Time to Hope , as are many other objects of significant interest, including one of four remaining Gutenberg Bibles. Yet there are moments in this show when the devotional simply overwhelms the aesthetic. I’m thinking in particular of a harrowing sculpture from the Church of San Ginés depicting the crucified Christ: Graphic theatricality renders talk of art moot. Almost as harrowing is Gregorio Fernández’s Reclining Christ , a sculpture of sinuous authority. Alejo de Vahía’s Pietà (circa 1500) is riveting, a polychromed wood sculpture in which a fascinating compromise between despair and beatitude, as well as between realism and abstraction, has been actualized. Here, art and religion bolster each other; both are transformed and made stronger.

The Ages of Mankind: Time to Hope is at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, until Nov. 24.

Jump Factor

In the last couple of years, there’s been a spate of exhibitions devoted to abstract painting, all of which set out to prove-with mixed success-the genre’s viability. Jump , an exhibition curated by the painter Ross Neher, now on display at the Painting Center, is another such compendium, and it strikes me as one of the most interesting. Mr. Neher has forgone any kind of overview-wisely, in my estimation, given the modest confines of the Painting Center. Still, you’ll find a few of our best abstract painters among the 11 featured, and what Mr. Neher has sacrificed in comprehensiveness he makes up for in focus. Taking as his organizing conceit “jump factor”-a term employed by audiophiles to denote a component’s ability to convey the dynamics of music-he has chosen paintings with an eye toward the “punchy, fast [and] alive.” There isn’t a picture at the Painting Center that doesn’t snap into place. It is, in this respect, a bracing, geared-to-the-eye exhibition.

One might ask, however, if “jump” alone makes for good painting. For example, Dona Nelson’s Irontown Roll (1994), a savvy blend of AbEx methodology and cool-as-can-be calculation, works absolutely and stops on a dime. How much follow-through can it claim? Not much. If Jump errs on the side of immediate impact, it does bear out Mr. Neher’s assertion that these painters “draw their strength from an unbowed positivism rooted in abstraction’s very foundation.” In other words, this exhibition doesn’t jump in place-it jumps somewhere . Certainly, the programmatic jumbles of John Mullen display forward momentum, as do the streamlined geometries of Stephen Ellis. Ruth Root takes a welcome step by jettisoning the cartoonish gimmickry that has plagued her paintings; her amalgamation of a clunky checkerboard and a clunkier biomorphism thrives on its unadorned independence. I have my doubts about the sleek and stylish paintings of James Lecce, yet their crafting is a mystery, and that mystery is a bonus. David Baggenstoss finds inspiration in nature and, more obliquely, Cubism and Surrealism, honing his flame-like forms with an exacting forbearance. The rest of the artists acquit themselves ably, so much so that when Mr. Neher urges us to “see these paintings as welcome and hopeful offerings,” he needn’t bother: Jump makes its case.

Jump: A Group Exhibition of Contemporary Abstract Painting is at the Painting Center, 52 Greene Street, until Nov. 23.

Frisky French

Drawings

Although Poussin, Claude and Their World: Seventeenth-Century French Drawings from the École Des Beaux-Arts, Paris is the kind of first-rate drawing show we’ve come to expect from the Frick Collection, this one wowed me less than previous exhibitions in the Frick’s basement galleries. My somewhat ambivalent response was prompted by drawings that seem bound by history, as well as a handful of artists who are less masterful than capable. (And some are less than capable-I hope never to see another drawing by the obsequious Grégoire Huret.)

The installation has its quirks. The architectural designs by Etienne Martellange, while impressive, make for a curious opening gambit. Not too far away, though, is Jean de Saint-Igny’s The Sense of Smell (circa 1630), a wonderfully frivolous drawing in red chalk of a coy, self-satisfied courtesan; skittering over the page with a brevity that is at once gleeful and impatient, Saint-Igny’s line hints at a lush eroticism. Jean Boucher, in contrast, revels in cool, clean sex: His pearlescent Satyr and Bacchante (1600) is as classical as it is hilarious. Adam Perrelle’s spindly penknife of a line catches the eye, as does Jacques Courtois’ Cavalry Scene (late 1640’s to early 1650’s) with its washy, gestural masses. As for the two stars, Poussin and Claude, they don’t steal the show so much as provide ballast. Their example gives Poussin, Claude and Their World a magnificent leg up.

Poussin, Claude and Their World: Seventeenth-Century French Drawings from the École Des Beaux-Arts, Paris is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until Dec. 6.