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. Continue reading