Edward Knippers is a hard-working painter, and what he’s been at work on since the ‘70s is exploring a visual vocabulary capable of expressing the remarkable things Christians believe.
In the old days, you could just paint a halo, but not anymore. Christian art once had a symbolic vocabulary at its disposal that included all kinds of ciphers for spiritual things, and pointers to the transcendent. Those halos meant holiness; a beam of light from a golden hemisphere in the sky meant spiritual illumination; an almond-shaped mandorla around a body signified that the person in it was simultaneously occupying our world and a world beyond; an angel meant an angel.
Knippers is not dismissive of all that traditional visual vocabulary; all of his work is carried out under the blessing of the fifth commandment’s charge to give your father and mother their due honor. His paintings show a deep gratitude to the tradition. He knows his art history and understands the place he occupies in the stream of influences flowing through him. What is rarer, he has pondered the theological implications of his place in the Western tradition.
But for all that, a Knippers painting doesn’t deploy the ancient visual language of pre-Renaissance painting. There are no halos here -not in the form of golden circles painted on the background, nor yellow dinner plates attached to the backs of heads and improbably becoming ellipses in obedience to the laws of perspective, nor sunbursts conveniently occurring behind holy figures. He doesn’t try to press those ancient symbols into service in his work.
Instead, Knippers paints human bodies. He paints big, solid, fleshy forms engaged in vigorous, muscular movement. There is a monumentality to a Knippers painting that you can sense even from a catalog photo or a tiny jpeg on a web page. The images are well composed enough that seeing little copies of them is meaningful, but you should jump at any chance you ever have to get in the same room with one of his Truly Gigantic Panels (–one of those six or eight foot tall things, like The Anunciation of the Shepherds (below) (for more, visit Knippers’ website).
Up close, a Knippers painting is a revelation: in your space, in your face, confrontational and aggressive. His pinkish giants don’t stay in a polite middle distance in his images, but crowd the foreground. A room with three or four of them in it feels more like a wrestling arena than an art gallery.
None of this is accidental, because Knippers is an artist who knows what he is about and is unusually articulate about his work. His work poses questions, and he has answers that send you back to the work with greater motivation to look harder. Why are these people so naked? –So they can be specific people but not culturally distant, universal and particular. Why are these images so big? –To get your attention. Why are they of Bible stories? –Because story invests them with meaning. Why bodies, bodies, and more bodies? –Because Knippers is exploiting the place where Western art and Christian doctrine overlap strategically: The human body is central to the tradition of Western painting that reached a certain perfection in the Baroque masters. The human body is also central to Christianity: in solid doctrines like creation, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection. If you want a symbolic language that can communicate God’s message, look no further than the body.
My favorite question posed by Knippers recent work is: What are all those strips of color fluttering around in the paintings? And he has answers: it’s a modernist vocabulary of transparent overlappings, pressing a cubist-type language into service to speak of the ancient truth of a multi-dimensional world that is not just this present life.
I’ve followed Knippers’ work since I was an art student at a state university in the 1980s, and for me these most recent paintings are a revelation. This, after all, is the Edward Knippers who staked out artistic territory for solid, meaty, naked human figures who occupy painterly space in which they are tugged on by gravity. What he paints is both earthy and earthly; the whole point is embodiment in this world. Can it be that he is now turning to visions of another world? Can he paint theophanies like what Moses saw on the mountain and what Isaiah saw in the temple (above right)? Can he paint angels rescuing Isaac, announcing the birth of Christ, and traversing Jacob’s ladder? Knippers has spent a lifetime achieving mastery of body language -painterly, baroque body language. What language can he borrow now to paint these other things?
Before we saw these recent paintings, we could have predicted that a Knippers angel would be the sort described in John Updike’s 1960 poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter: “And if we will have an angel at the tomb, make it a real angel, weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen spun on a definite loom.” Knippers is the mortal enemy of the widespread religiosity that thinks “spiritual” means “vague” or “detached from reality.” That means that most of the Baroque vocabulary for theophanies and visions is inadmissible: no ethereal figures floating in a gauzy cloudscape of muted colors, no heavenly scenes pushed to a safe background and hazed by atmospheric perspective. Even Rubens, he of the fleshy statuesque female nude, tended to release his figures from gravity and let them become paler, thinner, and further away when he tried to paint heavenly things.
In this most recent set of paintings, Knippers’ solid figures do not dissolve in airy abstraction, but they do become entangled and enmeshed in a network of strips of color, a refractory maze of splintered light and form. It’s a brilliant expedient: a modernist technique solving a baroque problem. In the hands of a lesser artist, these undulating strips of something-or-other could just be a gimmick good for one or two pictures, but Knippers has deftly teased them out of his own painterly preoccupations. In retrospect, you can start to spot their ancestors in Knippers paintings going back several years. Any time Knippers has depicted something truly overwhelming, or any time he has let his accomplished brushwork dominate his representational goals, there are those ribbons of form and color. So their advent in the later paintings as a “visual metaphor” hinting at “movement behind the veil” is not without precedent. Instead, they are the just-emerging elements in Knippers’ long project of developing a visual vocabulary capable of depicting Christian things truthfully. With these elements in place, Knippers can say things he hasn’t been able to say up until now: all the biblical accounts of angels, visions, and divine self-manifestations are within the range of Knippers’ enriched formal vocabulary.
Who knows? Maybe we’ll even get plausible halos and mandorlas back –this time without losing the solidity of the bodies.
Fred Sanders is an evangelical Protestant theologian with a passion for the great tradition of Christian thought. He holds a degree in art from Murray State University and an MDiv from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, with a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Since 1999 he has taught in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University (Visit his blog at The Scriptorium).