… a sense of intense coloration and sensual delight
… of suspended joy, and possible ecstasy
… that deepened our worship
The Art of James Drinkwater, Altar/d 6, Adamstown Uniting Church
The final instalment of the six part Altar/d art installation series arrived with a definite flourish! The painter James Drinkwater provided a stunning and intensely coloured oil painting for the front wall which he matched with three large scale ceramic pieces which he had commissioned and which he then decorated. These were set with palm branches upon a table covered with a rich red cloth. This ensemble addressed the space and filled it with a sense of intense coloration and sensual delight. Before we even knew the genesis and inspiration for these works, the congregation were aware of a heightened level of physical engagement. The colours of the painting were vivid and seemed to float within the composition, with references to an abstracted figure and foliage in the background. This approximated a moment of intense looking when colours float and blur. It’s a moment when we are seemingly looking at nothing, except we find life has been intently gazing back at us. The over-sized amphora, jug and bowl on the table invited a generous and ample provision for whatever purpose they were put to. This was an inviting and generous feast for all the senses.
The artist explained that the works arose as a response to visiting the Polynesian island of Tahiti, attending the church services and enjoying the music and visual impact of the culture. Brought up in an Irish Catholic context in Australia, this Tahitian culture of visual and aural joy left a lasting impact, and it was these memories that he drew on to create these works for the Adamstown space. The works therefore invite a response through a heightened sensuality from viewers. The large painting, Beauty, A Pursuit, 2017, offers swathes of vivid coloured bands that tend to give a swooning affect in the eye. This is not a stable object easily apprehended, but a reminder of those moments of looking when our eye drifts into a moment of reverie, of suspended joy, and possible ecstasy. This is where time drops away and we are suspended in a timeless moment of delight! Seeing is not just a detached process where we get distance from the object we are observing. In seeing we are also invited to access our essential physicality as we apprehend the world through the touch of our eyes. Seeing touches thing, and those things return our gaze. We find through such experiences that we are touched by such beauty and experience a moment of grace. We are seen with the same beauty we behold. We are ‘apprehended’ by this imagined gaze.
Such possibilities may not be explicit in the awareness of worshippers in this space. But such invitations to see are amplified by the ceramic pieces that are slightly larger than is required to fulfil a useful function. The great amphora is abundant and large, and the bowl and jug, which might have a liturgical function to wash someone’s feet, is again generous in its proportions. This washing, touch and hospitality amplifies a sensual engagement and a direct and simple love for seeing and touching human flesh. We are reminded that ritual forms offer containers of meaning for the body. They train the human flesh in activities of devotion, respect and communicate forms of grace in a tradition. Islander cultures are a very visible part of the Australian Church. These cultures love to dance, feast and celebrate. They bring discomfort to Anglo-Saxon habits of piety, as they are more extrovert and gregarious in nature. Any embarrassment felt by ‘white’ folks is gift waiting to be opened. Such learnings invite us to a bigger picture of the divine space that we are invited to explore through such culture crossing explorations.
A final note of acknowledgment was the theatrical scale and physicality of these pieces. As liturgist, while sharing the Eucharist and preaching, I spent a lot of time circumnavigating these large items placed on the table. It forced me to preach and to distribute the elements in and around the works, therefore emphasising their physicality and presence. At times it was nearly comical, with palm leaves towering over my head, as I darted around to pass the cup. I enjoyed the challenge that I had to find my place in the changed environment rather than the art work being required to fit perfectly into the requirements of the space. This playfulness was matched by the many gasps of ‘wow’ from people as they first entered the space. Here was something playful, invitational and embodied that deepened our worship as the sensually alive body of the Church.
- Rod Pattenden