Saturday, September 18, 2010

St. Boniface's Last Days at Art Palace

The new exhibition at Art Palace is beautiful and mysterious. Peat Duggins, an artist living in Cambridge, MA, but with lots of ties to Austin, made the pieces here. St. Boniface was an Anglo-Saxon priest who went among the Frisians and Germans to convert them from paganism. His big symbolic act was to chop down a tree, Donar's Oak, dedicated to the god Donar. He challenged Donar to strike him down, and when no lightning bolt appeared, he was able to convert the Germans. (The legend has it that he didn't even chop the tree down--once he started chopping, a wind came and blew it over, proving that God was on Boniface's side.) One interpretation of this is that this represents a change in the Germans' relationship with nature. No longer was nature sacred, once Boniface chopped down a holy tree. And to be certain, Christianity is notably lacking in holy natural spots--no sacred groves, for example.

The historical record of St. Boniface (such as it is) has his last days among the Frisians, trying to convert them with limited success, when his party is attacked by Frisian bandits and Boniface is killed. But Duggins seems to imagine a different end for him. One where he makes peace with nature, perhaps. Does Boniface roam among the trees in a cloak of leaves?

Peat Duggins, Robe, felt, silk, wood twigs, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

Spooky, no? Especially the way the face is completely covered. It makes one think of the Spanish penitents who wear masks during Holy Week, as well as the itinerant Zen monks called komuso who wore woven baskets over their heads to symbolize their detachment from the world.

Peat Duggins, Robe, felt, silk, wood twigs, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

Peat Duggins, Robe, felt, silk, wood twigs, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

But Robe is not a depiction of St. Boniface. It's literally the robe. Supporting it is a custom-made tailor's dummy. It's the part of the piece made of fiberglass and wood marquetry.

Peat Duggins, Robe detail, felt, silk, wood twigs, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

The fiberglass in his pieces takes the place of finely carved wood. If he had been working a century ago, he would have made his tailor's dummy out of wood, doing some amazing decorative carving then staining it rich dark brown.

Peat Duggins, Bust, felt, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass

In Robe, the leaves were a garment. Are they still a garment here, or they actually his face? It could be a seen as a fiberglass bust with a leaf mask, or a bust with leaves for the skin. Again he uses fiberglass as a substitute for carved wood, making it deep brown and setting the marquetry within it.

Peat Duggins, Bust detail,  felt, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

Duggins' marquetry is gorgeous, and portrays nature as a violent place, as in Alterpiece (Snake).

Peat Duggins, Alterpiece (Snake), wood marquetry drawing and fiberglass, 2010

The image is grimly witty: a snake is consuming a frog, whose dying act is to eat a butterfly.

Peat Duggins, Alterpiece (Snake) detail, wood marquetry drawing and fiberglass, 2010

This suggests that seeing this show as a simple repudiation of Boniface's symbolic act against nature (felling Donar's Oak) is probably an over-simplification. After all, he is depicting nature as "red in tooth and claw." That phrase is significant. It comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H.:
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed
Tennyson, in this line, seems to be setting pitiless nature against the idea of God as love. And this is an issue for neopagans and Christians alike. If you sanctify nature (either as a holy place, in a pagan sense, or as part of God's creation, in a Christian sense), you have to accept that the snake eats the frog and the frog eats the butterfly and that there is a lot of violence and death there.

Perhaps that is what Duggins is playing with here. Our complex spiritual relationship with nature, regardless of what religion (if any) we choose. But the work is gorgeous, and maybe that makes interpretation unnecessary.

The exhibit also contains a very interesting animated video and an artists book in its own fiberglass case with wood marquetry. (Oh I craved one of those. But it was understandably pricey.)

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