Sunday, December 27, 2009

Nativity by Brian Kershisnik

This is a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first walked around a corner in the B.Y.U. Museum of Art and found myself face to face with a myriad of the heavenly host, a mother nursing a minutes-old baby, and a rather grief-stricken-looking father, I didn't realize I was looking at a nativity painting. At least I didn't realize I was looking at a painting of the nativity. There was no identifying plaque on the wall next to the painting. I did, however, immediately recognize it as something very familiar and right away I felt a connection with this work. A legion of angels dressed in the familiar clothing of L.D.S. temple patrons was passing by to get a glimpse of what I saw as the newest of their earthly kin. I saw these angels as ancestors and possibly descendants of the small new family depicted at the bottom of the canvas. To me, it showed the close connection between the birthing experience and heaven. When I went up to the front desk to inquire and was told that the roughly seven foot by seventeen foot oil and acrylic expressionistic painting was Nativity by Brian Kershisnik, I felt a little foolish that I hadn't recognized the Holy Family right away. I returned to the painting and immediately noticed the stable-like setting, complete with a mother dog and her recent litter. Of course I had seen it before, but it simply hadn't clicked. And the traditional blue of Mary's dress. And the attitude of singing praises of those angels who were preparing to fly off one side of the canvas and out into the night. And the tears streaming down many of their faces. Okay, so now the painting meant even more.

I spent quite a bit of time in front of Nativity during two separate visits to the museum. It was interesting to me to see the reactions of people as they rounded a corner and came in contact with this enormous picture. Old people, young people, tiny children literally stopped in their tracks and paid considerable attention to this painting. Because it's so large? That probably has something to do with it. But I think it has more to do with Kershisnik's appealing style; he uses color, line, and texture in a way that makes me feel comfortable and somehow included in his work.

The painting's dominant line is the river of angels flowing basically in a horizontal current across the canvas, containing soft interior curves along the way. Another significant line is found where the “river” diverts up and over the stable's earthly occupants, leaving them enclosed (in the negative space) in a soft, rounded, cozy setting. Some other important lines are that of the fence cutting Joseph off from Mary, and the vertical forms of the stable occupants suggesting that, unlike the visitors passing through, they are staying put---earthbound for the time being. Even these lines have a soft, rounded quality, and it is Kershisnik's use of curving lines that creates the overall warmth that is so inviting.

The color scheme of Nativity is appealingly simple, using mainly contrasting browns and blues. The differing values of brown Kershisnik uses in the basic stable setting, Joseph's attire, the subjects' hair color, and the mother dog and her puppies remind us again that, unlike the heavenly host passing over, this place and these beings are of the earth. Mary, however, gets to wear blue. Blue has been Mary's signature color throughout the history of Christian art. Kershisnik uses the deep blue of the heavens (shown mainly in the top left corner of the canvas) and Mary's blue (in the lower right) to physically give balance to the painting. It also designates Mary as the chosen vessel of the Lord and lifts her to a more divine status; she belongs to the heavens as well as the earth. A lighter value of blue is reflected in the dress of one of the midwives to further balance and give interest to the work. Kershisnik repeats the brown values in the hair color of many of the angels. Not only does this serve to aesthetically balance the lower right stable setting with the rest of the painting, but it also reminds me of the angels' connection with the earth; perhaps it hasn't been long since some of them dwelt on earth as mortals. The balancing act is completed by the use of brilliant white in the robes of the angels. High-key is tempered by the low-key blues and browns, giving an overall sense of balance and unity to heaven and earth.

Texture plays a big part in what makes this picture so enjoyable to look at. Of course the medium itself lends texture to the canvas, especially in the stable; the artist builds up with oil paint a suggestion of straw on the dirt floor. But the more noticeable display is the implied textures in the wonderful array of fabrics that clothe the host of angels. Many common textile patterns are represented and we (especially L.D.S. temple patrons) feel a certain familiarity and sense of identity as we pick up on them. I had to smile when I saw a woman point out a specific angel and heard her say to her daughters, “Notice how the red-headed angel chose this swirly pattern for her dress.” Another texture is seen in the glossy, mosaic-like pattern that makes up the sky. It adds visual appeal and also reminds me of the mosaics of the Byzantine and Christian styles, and seems like an appropriate way to paint the heavens.

In addition to his use of line, color and texture to draw us into his work, Kershisnik masterfully depicts emotion through the faces of his subjects as well as through symbolism. While Mary and the midwives emote a sense of peace and an admiration for the newborn Christ, and the angels display various emotions on their faces, it is Joseph who stands out individually. The conflicting combination of relief and grief and despair clearly comes through. I can see what Joseph is feeling. He is physically separated from Mary by a section of fence. The placement of the fence symbolizes what I think all men must feel when their wives give birth; in spite of being present, Joseph cannot fully be a part of it. He has seen the pain and the endangerment to life and, as a man (the protector), he naturally feels like he should have been able to do something to help. He is also feeling the magnitude of being responsible for this special child, the Son of God. I think it was Joseph that originally threw me off about the content of this work; we don't usually see Joseph depicted the way we see him here. With one hand on his grief-stricken face, he reaches through the fence to attempt to comfort Mary. She places a hand on top of his and is actually the one doing the comforting. It is amazing to me that an artist can convey these emotions so clearly and so strongly. I can also read meanings on the faces of many of the angels, one of whom seems to be noticing me as the viewer and giving me a look that says “I hope you realize how important this is.”

Brian Kershisnik's Nativity expresses his vision of and his feelings about the birth of the Savior with real emotion. His amazing use of the elements of art results in a unique warmth, a welcoming spirit, and openly invites anyone who sees it to actually be a part of it. I, as the viewer, have had a phenomenal experience with this painting. I have felt an overwhelming sense of somehow belonging to this picture and feel like I now have a whole new and more meaningful perspective of the birth of the Savior.

1 comment:

  1. Everything you say is true. I bought this painting recently and it is so moving to me. Very few pieces of art actually reach inside and touch my soul, this is most likely true for all of us, but this painting did so in a wondrous way. I will have this painting in my home to enjoy forever and will pass it along to my descendants to do the same. Mahalo to Brian.