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Further Reading

The Crux Project Archives: Art

A PRIMITIVE OF AN OLD WAY

An interview with Neo-Baroque painter Edward Knippers

by Bobby Maddex and Johan Conrod

Edward Knippers is a world-renowned Neo-Baroque painter whose work has been exhibited widely throughout the United States, including one-man shows at Cheekwood in Nashville, the Virginia Museum in Richmond, and the National Gallery in Washington D.C. His invitational exhibitions include "Setting the Stage" at the Los Angeles County Museum, a four person show of installations, and "Anno Domini: Jesus through the Ages" at the Provincial Museum in Edmonton.

Knippers is perhaps best known for the controversy that his work has engendered. Painting most of his figures in the nude and with all manner of puss-encrusted sore, wound, and gash branding their battered bodies, the 58-year-old artist has seen, and on more than one occasion, his canvases slashed and defaced by vandals who took exception to such vivid depictions of the human form. His work has also been banned from several American museums, a circumstance that might lead one to believe that Knippers dabbles in subject matter of a most provocative and suspect nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, this intelligent and gracious artist actually confines his work to exploring Biblical narratives, of all things. Here I talk with Knippers about faith, art, life, and reality.

How would you describe your paintings?
Well, they're growing out of the Baroque tradition. And this is interesting because I was actually taught to dislike Baroque. For my generation, it was too emotional, unmannered, and strange. But once I decided to paint large figurative paintings, I couldn't get around the old Baroque masters. I hope that I'm continuing their tradition into our time. But I would also hope that my paintings are very twentieth century.

Your paintings are indeed passionate—to say the least—and graphic. Why?
A popular religious notion is that the more vague something is, the more spiritual. Hogwash. I think this [knocks on the toolbox on which he is sitting] is more spiritual than vagueness because it's real. God could have created the world in any way, but he chose to do it like this. Therefore, this [knocks again] tells us something about God. A cup on a table has more reality than all of our virtual states. It's wonderful—very human. But we're getting away from that and creating a virtual world. We've begun living in little rooms created by computers. We're afraid to be honest somehow. Perhaps painting can bring us back to the real world.

As for the graphic depiction, what do people expect to see? I could conceivably make them more graphic than they are. Part of art is knowing how far to push viewers so they are forced to deal with the art and are horrified in an appropriate way.

What about the nudity in your paintings?
The nudity is a whole different story, and I get in trouble here. One guy actually attacked my paintings and tore up three of them down in Tennessee. In an interview he claimed that I made the Old and New Testaments into a nudist colony. And I got to thinking about it, and that's exactly what God did. He stripped us of all our pretenses. The spirit isn't hidden somewhere behind our bodies. It's all one. These Biblical men looked like me, and I look like them. If God could talk to them, then He can talk to me. That's part of it.

Of course, if Christ didn't come gender-specific, He didn't come in the flesh. That's pure and simple. I think that it's a sort of gnosticism that has kept American Christianity from the arts. For instance, there's a catechism of the Presbyterian Church that says we are not to picture Christ—not even in our minds. That's heretical. They're essentially saying that Christ didn't come in the flesh.

Are there depictions of Christ that you might deem a disservice to Him?
I think there are—anything that would damage the true nature of Christ. Strangely enough, I wouldn't put Serrano's Piss Christ in that category. I'm getting on thin ice with a lot of people, I know, but to show Christ in a vat of urine shows exactly what He did when He came to earth. He came into all of our filthiness in order to reach us with His love. The image of the suffering servant does not blaspheme Christ.

What is blasphemous? There was a cartoon that was handed around when I was in high school. It was the Statue of Liberty being raped by a robed figure, and it was captioned: "One Nation Under God." Now that's blasphemous. It lies about the nature of God. Serrano's work is shocking, but Jesus did come into our filth, and this artistic image holds that in a very interesting way. I'm not sure about tax dollars going into its creation, but that's another story.

You seem to place more emphasis on subject matter than on self-expression. And yet the belief that has grown over the last century is that a painting is only true and real if it comes from within the artist himself.
I'm ultimately responsible for my own work, but the purpose of painting is not to somehow express me even though I am inevitably expressed. All of my art goes to clear the way to the subject matter. In other words, I want the viewer to be emotionally involved in the stories I paint. My art isn't to be contemplated as much as it's to be experienced.

It seems that if the notion of self-expression is devalued, then context is as well.
I have a friend who is a sculptor up at Messiah College. He says that when you throw the narrative out of painting, you have to go to the stories in the artist's life. I think he's right. We need stories. But we shouldn't be interested in the artist's personal story. Why should someone off the street care what I feel? Everyone tries to psychoanalyze the artist. People ask me, because of the brutality in my paintings, how I sleep at night. I say I sleep fine. People want to explain my art through me so they can dismiss it. But they miss the point entirely. All of my work comes down to the crucifixion.

What are you hoping to achieve by depicting this brutality?
I hope people have to come back to it. A lot of people would say that I'm just doing Biblical illustrations—but that's bad. The difference between fine art and illustration is that with an illustration you can take the meaning away from the vehicle and tell it to a friend. And you go away and never come back. With fine art, you can't do that. Take, for example, the Rembrandt portraits of Christ. He called them portraits, but no one questioned him because he gave a form to the reality of Christ that can't be separated from his painting. I would hope that my paintings would be like a Flannery O'Connor story in that they kind of get inside you. That's what her stories did for me.

You've addressed the individual, but what kind of impact are you looking to have on society?
A graduate student came up to me when I was having a show at the University of Oklahoma and said, "I was reared in a good Christian home, but I got away from it. I just wanted to let you know that it was seeing your work that brought me back." This is the side of society I'm trying to reach. The church people get upset, but they're not my audience. I don't mind them looking at my work. I would love for them to see it and have understanding, but I need to keep my raw edge so that I can show the rest of society exactly where they live. My job is not to please everybody. I'm trying to throw up some road blocks and do something thoughtful—something that people can bite.

How do you sit with the art world?
They don't know what to do with me. One of the top curators in the country came to my studio and told me that because of my subject matter I can't be as good as my generation; I have to be better. Well, that's prejudice. In other words, I have to blow people's socks off in a way they don't expect. But I take it as a challenge.

I am also challenged by William Rubin, one of the old guys from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He wrote his dissertation on modern sacred art in the church and state. It says that Christianity has lost the ability to inspire great art. My art may not be great, but all I can do is try and not be afraid to fight. Cézanne said, "I am a primitive of a new way." I like to tell people that I'm a primitive of an old way.

How do you feel about the direction of current art?
Most of it's just assemblage. Some of these pieces are fascinating, and I actually have some at home. But I think art should somehow come through drawing. We've been very lazy as a generation and haven't been forced to learn our art. There's a notion that anything is art, and everyone is an artist. I'm much more elitist than that. Why would anyone want to be an artist? That's the question. The problem may be our idea of creativity. My generation thinks that to be creative you have to think outside the box. But I think real creativity takes place within the box. If I give you a million ways to do something, and you take one or two, are you creative? But if I give you three ways to do something, and you pick one of them and surprise me, that's a creative act. Georges Braque said, "I find my greatest creativity in my greatest limitation." My generation thinks that they can't be creative without unlimited freedom, but they're just experiencing a poverty of ideas.

I understand that we all can't be artists, but can everyone understand art?
Yes. A group of African students came to my studio to see my work, and they asked how they were to view it. I told them that I try to paint as clearly as I can in the Western tradition of painting and within a Christian worldview. But it was their responsibility to find out about this tradition and how I've differed from those who came before me. It's not my job to go out and make my work intelligible to just anyone coming off the street, though I find people on the street respond to it because there's an emotional content. The viewer has a responsibility to the work.

Art is not for everyone. It can enrich you, but in no way does your worth depend on your interest in my field. People don't need art, but civilizations do. We define civilizations according to their creative output. When people look back at this generation, they will have a hard time finding Christ. So the best I can hope for is to be an exception. I want to be part of that crowd that you can't quite do away with. As Christians, we need to be involved in art because of civilizational concerns.

If Christians are up to this responsibility, what's the best surrounding for them to be in when viewing art—a museum?
Walker Percy once asked, "Why is it so hard to see art in a museum, but so easy when a friend takes you by the hand to the attic, and you are surprised by it?" He has this wonderful part in his book The Last Gentleman. The main character goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art whose paintings, he says, "were encrusted with a public secretion." But he is frustrated because he can't get at the paintings. He even tried to watch people and experience the art vicariously. But he can't get at them. There is a worker up in the skylights, and, suddenly, both worker and light come crashing down. And the worker is sitting there gasping for air because the glass has powdered him like he was dipped in flour. Well, the main character goes over and reaches down to lift the worker up so he can breathe. As he's doing so, he looks under the worker's arm and sees a Velasquez. He says it was as though he had passed before the artist's studio just as he had finished the painting. Percy is saying that it took a life and death situation to make the painting come alive. Maybe that's how art should be approached. •

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