Looking for the Consolation of Israel

Theodore Prescott, MFA
Emeritus Professor of Art, Messiah College

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At the top of the staircase in the building where I worked at Messiah College is an artwork by Loren Baker. I believe it was purchased from the exhibition “Songs of Ascent” that Loren had in Messiah’s gallery in 1997. The work, titled Where Do We Come From?, What Are We?, Where Are We Going?, appropriates the title of a famous painting by Paul Gauguin that posed those same questions about our being. I would sometimes pause to look at Baker’s work when I passed. It consists of three individual vertical slabs in close proximity; these are obviously meant as a single work, even though each might stand-alone. I took delight in the apparent cheerfulness of the colors, which seem to reference some of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. Their rich chromas confidently frame the arrangement of objects that were affixed to each slab in a kind of hermetic hierarchy.

The assemblages had careful formal relationships of shapes, volumes, and materials, and the objects that were at the center of each of the three slabs were iconically placed. But why were they there? Where did they come from? And what exactly were they signifying? I particularly wondered about a pair of old-fashioned rusted gardening shears on the arrangement to the left. They were underneath a faded color reproduction of Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross (1435–38). The shears hang straight down, with the jaws open, in front of a fragment from an old spool bed or chair that was painted a faded blue-green. The shears always gave me pause: even though they had lost their edge many years ago they introduce a slight perceptual shift as if they might signify a threat. The central vertical form has a kind of trowel-like blade, bound in cardboard and affixed to a small round breadboard. And on the right, there is a large wooden mallet hanging between neatly bundled spikes. Given the centrality of these implements in the arrangement, their associations with cutting, digging, or hammering strike a slightly jarring and perhaps ominous note for the piece, even with its sunny colors.

I had known Loren Baker since he interviewed for my job at Roberts Wesleyan College, where I taught prior to taking a position at Messiah College in 1980. I didn’t know him well then, but well enough to appreciate his wry, self-deprecating humor and the sharpness with which he perceived the world around him. I got to know him better when he invited my wife, the painter Catherine Prescott, and me to exhibit together in the new gallery that Roberts had built. He was a consummate host: thoughtful, helpful, and delightful to spend time with. I was impressed by the transformation that had taken place in the art department at Roberts, which was clearly due to his skills as an administrator and advocate for the arts. It was also clear that people at Roberts enjoyed and respected Loren.

A few years before Loren moved to Biola in 2004, he became active in the National Association of Art and Design (NASAD). He made site visits as a program evaluator and accreditor, and in this capacity he was instrumental in bringing his educational expertise to many Christian colleges. I had just retired when he came to make a periodic site visit at Messiah College in 2009. He drove out to our home, and we sat in the kitchen and talked together for a couple of hours. We talked of personal things, not art, and he was open about some of his struggles in relationships and the ways in which he saw God’s hand on his life. Toward the end of our time he told us that he was “waiting to see the consolation of Israel.” Those words of Loren’s—first used to describe the heart of the prophet Simeon before he sees the Christ child in Luke 2:25—became lodged in my consciousness, and I have thought about them often. Those words are the baseline for my reflections on Loren’s work.

The kinds of constructions and assemblages that he did are rooted in a history that began over a hundred years ago with Picasso and Braque. Baker’s smaller works resonate with the mysterious boxes of Joseph Cornell, who started making them in the 1930s while living on the evocatively named Utopia Parkway in Queens, NY. In some of Loren’s work I also see intimations of the darker moods found in the assemblages that California artist Bruce Conner did in the 1950s. In 1977 Loren studied independently with Betye Saar, a native of Los Angeles. Her collages and constructions dealing with African-American subjects had been widely disseminated since the 1970s, and it is interesting to speculate about her influence on him. While Loren’s work has some of the same visual DNA as these artists, his work—like Saar’s—was largely directed toward the exploration of one specific subject.

It is easy enough to see that Loren was focused on the Christian faith. Reproductions of famous Christian works populate many of his sculptures and constructions. There is the small plastic reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pietà (1499) in Thou Hast Fed Them with the Bread of Tears, a black and white reproduction of a crucifixion in A House Not Made with Hands, and a color print of Piero’s Resurrection (1463–65) in With the Face of an Angel. Many of the titles are also direct references to the faith. For instance, A House Not Made with Hands is from 2 Corinthians 5:1, which assures us that if “the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in heaven” (RSV). Finally, there are the numerous references to biblical figures, saints, and angels, either by title or in imagery: Adam, Eve, Mary, St. Lucy, St. Cecelia, St. Sebastian, and St. Jerome are among those making appearances in his constructions.

Loren wrote a brief article for a CIVA newsletter in the fall of 1982 in which he explained his attraction to Christian subjects, saying that he had “a continuing interest in religious objects, icons, and symbols. After traveling in Europe I could not help but remember the visual richness expressed in cultures steeped in Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox tradition. In some ways my work is a personal response to the negation of beauty and ritual so often found in the Evangelical community.” Though speaking personally, he articulated the aspirations of a generation of artists within evangelical churches or institutions. Like Baker, we wondered about the absence of beauty and imagery within our churches and schools and sought ways to reclaim or extend Christian visual traditions.

In the same article Loren talked about his habit of collecting objects. He described the types of things he gathered and the sources for them, such as flea markets and garage sales. Artists often call the things they collect “found objects” to signify that they were not made by the artist and had other uses and identities prior to being incorporated into assemblages. As Loren noted, this generates uncanny interactions within an assemblage. It requires “finding the common denominators not always readily discernible in the isolated pieces and reinterpreting them physically and psychologically to bring unity to the finished work.” To me, one of Loren’s most compelling “reinterpretations” occurs in a sculpture that places a white plaster cast of a Classical or Renaissance figure on top of an old wooden column, whose staves have started to separate. The figure is wearing a cloak, and steps forward to gesture authoritatively with an outstretched arm. Loren attached a plumb line and bob to the figure: the line dangles from the gesturing hand, and the bob hangs right over a chemistry retort filled with a blue liquid. This transformation of an image of confident authority into one of searching for a “true line” is seamless and profound.

It is intriguing that this idea—this practice of seeking and finding meaning—is becoming recognized for its theological import. In his recent book Found Theology: History, Imagination, and the Holy Spirit (Bloomsbury, 2013) British theologian Ben Quash distinguishes between what is given in the faith, and what is found by Christians as they face new existential conditions. He writes, “The presumption that the givens of the Christian faith will help to order and illuminate newly encountered experiences or challenges can work the other way too: found things, conceived as gifts of the Holy Spirit who unfolds all of the riches that are in Christ, can and must reconfigure, unlock, and amplify what is already held to be true by the Church” (xiv). Quash sees art, “which draws us to ask questions,” as helping to discipline us “against our habitual instinct to suppose that we live in a fixed element” (168).

Baker’s reconfiguration of Christian subjects often transformed high-church sources into a low-church vernacular. One way he did this was through the material presence of his constructions. They do not have the evident expense and preciousness that we find in older Christian art where gold, jewels, rare earth pigments, bronze, marble, and other costly materials were used to convey the awe and beauty of sacred subjects. Those old masterful Christian images were rare and special, and swarms of people still seek them out in museums and churches because of that. But in Loren’s work, if we discern something sacred it comes through juxtapositions full of symbolic potential but born by “humble” materials. A House Not Made with Hands includes stacks of used plastic communion cups with dried grape juice or wine in them, which are surmounted by plastic angels. These frame a photocopy of a crucifixion from art history, which is held in a glass jar with dead flowers. In front of the jar are fake diamonds. Nothing is rare or costly. Rather, the reproduction, the communion cups, and the fake diamonds all have origins in a pragmatic populism, where things can be easily discarded because they never had much value to begin with. Yet the spiritual and psychic reality the assembled items provoke is charged, unusual, and thought provoking.

Such evocative images, made with cheap reproductions and things destined for the trash, weren’t called forth by communal liturgy and worship. Their origins were personal, provisional in their meanings, and thus invite interpretation. Perhaps if we placed one of Baker’s constructions in a church to use for generations of worship, a dominant consensus about meaning would emerge. But that is not the way art works today; polyvalence and open-endedness are valued more highly than the supposed monotone of givens, at least by the dominant voices in art discourse. I believe that part of Loren’s longing for the “consolation of Israel” was fueled by his discontent with some received religious givens, as well as the visual poverty of our institutions. Reconfiguring historic Christian images was his way to explore and confront the stagnation of meaning he found in some easy pieties.

Loren’s work contains many references to suffering and human brokenness. Some of these are communicated by pictures, such as his uses of the crucifixion or of St. Sebastian, who was shot full of arrows for his faith. But other references are primarily verbal, such as the construction When Blind Eyes See: Homage to St. Lucy. Lucy was an early fourth-century martyr who according to legend plucked out her eyes to send to her betrothed, because he would not stop praising their beauty. Loren’s construction has a reproduction of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus in the lid of an open box, which appears above ancient vials locked in place by some sort of old, faintly sinister ophthalmological-looking tool. Above the recumbent Venus are celestial charts and a print that appears to show a portion of a war in the heavens. The statement that Loren wrote for his exhibit “Songs of Ascent” offers a point of entry: “For several years I have been examining the lives of early Christian martyrs. My work has consistently focused on the relationship that seems to exist between pain, suffering, and spiritual experience (ecstasy).” He went on to describe the Renaissance interest in “the neo-platonic belief that the soul, in its struggle to become complete, eventually has to transcend the physical world in order to approach the Divine.”

The painter Gregory Gillespie once observed that people could easily pass over depictions of pain in Christian subjects because they have become blinded—desensitized—by overfamiliarity with the narratives’ historic imagery. Thus the imagery is seen as “art” instead of representations that have real and particular import. Baker seems to have wanted to break through the hard shell of that familiarity and to confront anew the relation between faith and human suffering. It was and is a challenging task: the contemplation of pain and the idea that suffering might have some redemptive value goes against the grain of so much American culture, including our Christian culture.

There is an interesting divide in evangelical culture between our visual and literary practices, wherein books like Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and other works that see faith and suffering as bound together, are widely read and admired. There is no real visual equivalent to this, and no public space—with the possible exception of art galleries—where static representations of suffering are contemplated communally. This is especially true if we look back to the time when Loren was beginning his teaching career in the late 1970s. However, we did then and still do consume vast amounts of visualized suffering as entertainment or news. Apparently in these cases we distance ourselves by saying either that entertainment “isn’t real,” or that “we need to do something” about the news. Indeed, the response that we should do something is admirable, and nurtured by the teachings of Christ. Yet I don’t think that Loren’s images of suffering were meant to ask us to do something, especially if that means fixing something. Rather, they ask us to contemplate the unpleasant idea that we cannot entirely slip the yoke of earthly pain—or worse: that our spiritual wellbeing might depend on submitting to that reality. This runs against the grain of American culture.

But for Loren such spiritual assent wasn’t just an idea—something to savor as one nibbles on refreshments at an opening. The questions posed by his work originated in the reality of his life. I knew that Loren had polio as a child, and I saw during his last visit that he used a cane and walked slowly. But Loren was not one to complain nor, in my experience, to share the multiple sources of his pain. I regret that I was not more observant and inquisitive during that last visit. His suffering was really hidden in plain sight. If only we had eyes to see that we were looking at more than just art.