(Host) Commentator Lois Eby tells us about a thought provoking art exhibit coming to a close this weekend.
(Eby) Three years ago “The National Catholic Reporter” sponsored a contest for a powerful portrait of Jesus worthy of the new millenium. Sister Wendy Beckett, the popular English art critic, chose Vermont artist Janet McKenzie s oil painting of Jesus for first place out of over 1,600 entries from around the world. Through August 25, the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe is featuring the work of Janet McKenzie, including this portrait, titled “Jesus of the People.”
McKenzie s portrait of Jesus created great controversy, since the model for Jesus was an African American woman. To the left of Jesus head is a yin yang image from Eastern religions symbolizing the interrelated unity of masculine and feminine and to the right is a feather symbolizing Native American wisdom. While many people responded to this portrayal of Jesus with gratitude for its inclusiveness, some were angry that this Jesus was not more traditionally white, male and beatific.
What strikes me about McKenzie s portrait of Jesus is the arresting and contemporary gaze of the model. While you are looking at the portrait, McKenzie s Jesus is looking with penetrating intensity at you. The gaze conveys the suffering and compassion of a very real human being, one who
understands complexity of feeling and whose spiritual power is born of sad experience. The somber yet appealing figure invites contemplation on the possibilities for religion and religious icons in our time of cultural and religious conflict and dialogue.
In her other work in this show, McKenzie focuses on women or women with children. Some of these portraits are human and specific. Other paintings are large, symbolic and somewhat abstract. In several of the large works the women have a haughty, off putting gaze. The more time I spent with all of McKenzie s paintings the more complex power I felt in them. While a few portraits of women and children remind me of the American painter Mary Cassatt s interest in this theme, these women have little of the innocence and openness of Mary Cassatt s 19th century. They appear more aware of the ways of the world, and of the strength and wisdom it takes to survive, protect, and raise children.
In Janet McKenzie s paintings human power – whether earthly, spiritual, psychological or religious power – is just like it is in life: by turns inviting and offputting, inspiring and intimidating. McKenzie reflects our time s deep awareness of suffering and injustice. In just those depths she celebrates courage, spiritual vision, and our common humanity.
This is Lois Eby.
Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women’s issues and civil rights.