Every so often, I like to escape the Hill and see creative productions outside of Kenyon. This Friday, I visited the Schnormeier gallery to see the Matter + Spirit exhibit, a collection that features work created by Chinese and American artists. The Schnormeier gallery is a part of the Mount Vernon Nazarene University’s (MVNU) Buchwald Center, which provides classroom space for art and graphic design students, as well as a two-roomed gallery that hosts a variety of exhibits. The gallery showcased Matter + Spirit from Aug. 29 to Oct. 14. The exhibit explores what it means to be a Christian artist and culture maker in two secular societies: the United States as a post-Christian, materialistic society, and China as a completely atheistic society.
Matter + Spirit was sponsored, among many others, by the Nagel Institute of Calvin University, an agency which partners with Christian intellectual movements. The Matter + Spirit exhibit came about when a creative coalition of American and Chinese professors, artists and critics met in China in 2018 and spent two weeks discussing art and Christian spirituality while they traveled. In the aftermath, the network of artists created pieces inspired by their travels together. Many of the Chinese artists examined the endurance of Christian faith within China, while the American artists drew inspiration from traditional Chinese artistry.
When I entered the exhibit, the first piece I observed was an installation by Laura Stevenson titled Come to the Table, a serigraph lit up with LEDs displayed on a bright red table with chairs. Stevenson explains in the Matter + Spirit exhibition catalog that she drew inspiration for her piece from the many meals she shared with Chinese families.
Further into the exhibit, I examined Meagan Stirling’s Digging a Hole to China, originally a performance piece in which she progressively digs a hole over the course of her third trimester of pregnancy while also keeping watch of her daughter. The performance piece ends with her sitting in the hole she has dug with her daughter and newborn. In the exhibition catalog, Stirling reflects on China’s one-child policy that was repealed in 2015 and says she feels privileged to be an artist and a mother at the same time. The Schnormeier Gallery does not show the original performance video, but it does display three black and white photographs of Stirling and her daughters digging, accompanied by two linen aprons, a shovel and a pry bar that were used in the performance.
Another piece that struck me was Yuanming Cao’s Chinese Village Church Series 2004-08, five digital prints depicting various rural Christian churches in China’s countryside. Each photograph depicts one of the church’s gatekeepers in the background — they and the bleak landscapes behind them are black and white — holding framed photographs of the churches they serve in the foreground, fully in color. Cao comments that he visited over 600 countryside churches in one region of China, indicating the endurance of grassroot Christianity despite the overt atheism of the Chinese government.
After walking through the gallery I sat on the floor and gazed at the pieces surrounding me. There was something tremendously inspiring about being surrounded by so many creative projects — billowing banners, mourning jewelry and sweeping oil canvases. There are so many other pieces I could mention; the whole exhibit left me pondering questions concerning faith and art.
After my Friday visit, I interviewed the Schnormeier Gallery Director Laura Tabbut and discussed the thought process behind the curation. Tabbut explained the intention behind the Gallery’s curation of Matter + Spirit: “We chose the pieces that highlighted more of the Chinese artists. We wanted to make sure that they had really good representation for our international students, as well as expose our domestic population to what Chinese art looks like.” Tabbut also provided some background to the 2018 visit to China, noting the precarious situation that some of the Chinese Christian artists found themselves in: “Many of the Chinese artists were underground, and some could not participate in the Nagel institute [program] because it would be a detriment to their safety.” She went on to say that the Chinese pieces ranged in subtlety, considering that some had to create art underground in order to avoid repercussions from the Chinese state.
The Schnormeier Gallery also hosted a gallery talk and reception on Oct. 6, featuring some of the artists and collaborators who visited China and contributed to the exhibit. MVNU student Koryn Allen commented on her experience at the event and her thoughts on the exhibit. “Especially memorable was the perspective of one Korean American artist as she related the intricacies of creating art that reflected an aspect of Chinese culture while also deepening her own sense of identity as an Asian individual (and Christian). There were two distinct styles of artwork, mirroring two different responses of how Chinese Christians should best approach and interact with their context. Altogether, a lovely and illuminating exhibit,” she wrote in a message to the Collegian.
The Matter + Spirit exhibit left Schnormeier Gallery this weekend and will next travel to Taylor University in Indiana.
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