Prairie Theology: Jonathan Soard at the Swope Art Museum
We in the West are inheritors of a compelling idea: that there is a world of matter, and looming over it a world of spirit. The relation between these two worlds is complex and dynamic. We ourselves are the offspring of both worlds, and one story of our lives is the story of our struggle with this dual nature. John describes Jesus in terms of this idea: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." (1:14, NIV) John's description applies to all humanity: spirit incarnated in clay.
I am reminded of this Western motif when considering the work in painter Jonathan Soard's solo exhibition Between Heaven and Earth: Inspirations, on show at the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, starting September 6th.
Soard has participated, for much of his life as an artist, in the carnal aspect of the Western dualism (carnis - flesh); he was a materialist, and not only a materialist, but a sensualist. He had a horror of the vacuum, filling the spaces of his works with the same marks he used to represent bodies:
Figure, Flesh, Facing Left, encaustic on Arches cover, black, 60"x40", 2009
This craving for flesh became, at its most intense, a craving for meat (carnis - meat). He recognized that the formal unity and spiritual connotation of the human body was insufficient for the frenzy of his desire to possess, and turned to cuts of meat:
Slaughtered Lamb, gouache on Arches cover, black, 60"x40", 2009
When meat itself became insufficient for the categorical nature of his desire, he innovated a kind of hideous deconstruction, a continuous and infinitely extensible epitome of skinned flesh. Specific anatomical forms appeared in this flesh, and yet the flesh itself was without form and without bound. It was a filling of all conceivable volume with utter meat:
Ventricle, oil on canvas, 20"x20", 2012
It appeared that Soard was seeking to isolate and expose the virus of desire, to uncover the inhumanity of its real focus.
But his work in meat does not answer to this drive alone. Soard's relationship with meat is ambivalent. A gay man entering his sixties, he was an adult in the 1980's. He saw his community devastated by AIDS. A caretaker by nature, he witnessed the horrific decline and death of many of the people he loved most.
For a long time, he sought the solution to his desires and his griefs alike in the concept of carnis. His materialism dictated this strategy: the glories and the sorrows of the flesh begin and end in the meat.
Advancing age, however, has clarified some things for him. It has loosened his desires, allowing him to think around and outside of them. And it has given him the perspective to recognize some of his materialist passion: it is not due only to his essential character. It also responds to his Southern Baptist upbringing, expressing a decades-long rebellion against its model of spirituality.
This broadened perspective frees him from his dogmatic materialism. In composing himself, he can now choose from a broader range of ingredients. His freedom allows him to depict a new quantity: air, space, light - all the immaterial things, the things between, which his horror vacui denied him before.
Prairie Study (Heaven and Earth), gouache on black paper, 11"x30", 2012
(This and all the paintings that follow are included in the Swope Art Museum exhibition.)
Alongside the innovation of space to breathe in his work, Soard's growth has allowed him to return as an artist to the landscape he fled as a youth: the Indiana prairie.
Prairie Power Plant #9, oil on canvas, 12"x24", 2013
He identifies the many miseries of his childhood, and sets them down; they are completed. He accepts his deep bond with the land he came from. Eyes opened, he lays hands on a tool as powerful as any he has yet discovered: the use of his home as a lens through which to investigate the nature of things. If we resonate most deeply with our homes, then naturally it is through our homes we can best learn what the world is. But we can only look through our homes, and not at them, when we have gone away and become free, as Soard has become free.
When he returns from New York to forgiven Indiana, what does he see?
Prairie Power Plant Study #14, oil on canvas, 12"x24", 2012 (collection of Dixie Coates Beckham)
He sees his familiar carnis as part of a greater world. The swirling meat becomes the land, and the sky the illimitable spirit. This is a prairie theology, subject to that prairie dread expressed by Kathleen Massara in her essay "Greater Omaha":
"...to grow up in Omaha is an exercise in confronting the void. The Void should be capitalized, though, because it is a big deal. ... In the winter, when the surrounding farmland lies fallow, the only thing in your rearview mirror will be sky—ominous, gray-streaked winter sky with giant clouds hanging low. It reminds you of your insignificance..."
She seems to me to say here that the mere presence of the spirit is not a solution to the problems of the flesh. The spirit is an obliterating presence, variable and cold, illegible and vast. Prairie theology finds consolation neither in the flesh nor the spirit. Where can the midwesterner turn for solace?
"In the summer, when corn and wheat are harvested, all you have are land and sky, with an oddly quaint city in between."
For her, the endless land and sky are punctuated and made bearable by the city. For Soard it is a different thing of man, bridging land and sky: the smokestack of the power plant. Each of his Indiana landscapes has one, just as the view from his childhood backyard was dominated by a power plant smokestack. In a materialist sense, he identifies the smokestack as a penis and its steam as semen. But he is not bound by his materialism any longer. He does see humanity now as both spirit and flesh, and the smokestack as having the same character. It too is a link between matter and spirit, a locus of the human struggle toward meaning. The smokestack is a mighty pen, and its steam a broad "I am" inscribed on the page of the world:
Prairie Power Plant, Moon View, oil on canvas, 20"x20", 2013
Soard finds himself transformed from a sensualist into a humanist. It is the smokestacks which anchor and focus the world, and the smokestacks are the works of human beings.
For all the harshness of this stark theology, it offers consolation. In a doctrine of unified self-awareness, of work and struggle, and of turning to one another as like turns to like, it offers an escape not only from the squalid corruptibility of the flesh, but from the overbearing infinity of the spirit. I think that in thinking over Soard's work, we can puzzle out the existential roots - or at least the existential counterpart - of the famous decency and taciturn humility of the Midwestern character.
Between Heaven and Earth: Inspirations
Jonathan Soard, part one of a two-part exhibition
September 6 - October 19, 2013 (OK, I'm reposting this a little late - but there's a part II exhibit you can still go to!)
Swope Art Museum
25 South 7th Street, Terre Haute, IN 47807
All images courtesy of the artist.