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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Onward, Christian peacemakers: Brian Kavanagh's prophetic ink

Mercy Center at Madison Mary C. Daly, RSM Art Gallery
167 Neck Rd., Madison, (203) 245-0401
A Prophet's Ink: The Artwork of Brian Kavanagh
Through July 30, 2008
Gallery talk: Sun., Sept. 14, 3 p.m.

It is fitting to contemplate Brian Kavanagh's black and white ink drawings in the profoundly peaceful environs of the Mercy Center at Madison, a conference and retreat center on the shores of Long island Sound. Kavanagh's illustrations, mostly drawn for the Hartford Catholic Worker, are animated by a deep, Christian faith. The bi-monthly newsletter, founded in 1993 by the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker community in the north end of Hartford, reflects the Catholic Worker movement's tradition of Christian pacifism and service to and identification with the poor.

These small illustrations—representing work from 1997 to the present—are stark and stylized, shot through with currents of sadness, empathy, hope and righteous anger. Aesthetically, they resemble woodcut or linoleum block prints. The line work is rich, not fussy, achieving a flow of interconnectedness. The subject matter is a mix of both Biblical iconography (Old Testament and New) and political commentary as seen through the prism of Christian allegory.

The suffering of Jesus is depicted in "The Fifth Station (A Friend Helps Jesus)" (2003). A stricken Christ, faltering under the burden of the cross, is aided by an anonymous figure, reaching over Christ's back to carry the weight. We don't see the person's face; their action is motivated not by recognition but by selflessness. "Here Comes the Sun," from 2005, is a beatific manger scene. The infant, halo around His head, is surrounded by a coterie of farm animals, exposed to the world but also of it. Old Testament resonances inflect the storm-tossed "Ark of Hope" and underlie several illustrations derived from Isaiah's prophecy that "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

But for Kavanagh, much of the meaning and importance of his faith resides in its relevance to how we live today. Here, Kavanagh's pen takes on the note of a prophet's scorn. In torture, war and the expenditure of resources on implements of war, he sees an affront to the message of Christ. In "The Great Denial," the Catholic Church's own complicity with the war machine—the promulgation of the "just war theory"—is satirized with an image of a Pope wearing a mitre in the shape of a bomb. A Madonna-like figure shelters her shriveled child in "Iraq Sanctions." Drawn in 1998, the image is a reminder that war may be conducted in many ways but with a consistent result: the suffering of the innocent. With this illustration, Kavanagh also indicts those who abet the violence of war through their active and/or passive indifference. Among the crowd surrounding the woman and child, one figure covers his mouth, a woman hides her eyes and a third individual covers their ears. Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil: in this silence lies complicity.

The iconic image of the hooded prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison, with wires dangling from his outstretched arms, is the focus of "Christ of Abu Ghraib." The box on which he stands reads "Inri," the identification purportedly carved into the cross. To the left, two women and a child observe in sympathetic witness, one woman reaching out her hand to the figure. To the right is the chaotic horror unleashed by the war: a dog to terrorize the prisoners, soldiers in the street rounding up children, mindless displays of martial patriotism.

In all of Kavanagh's drawings, there is the challenge. Whether implicit or explicit it is a call to witness, to struggle, to live in and for peace. A woodpecker in an untitled work hammers its beak into the outline of a bomb, carving out the silhouette of a dove with an olive branch. His "Logo for the Guantanamo Pilgrimage Against Torture" (2005)—a pilgrimage to the gates of the infamous detention center by pacifists and human rights activists including Catholic Worker ativists from Connecticut—depicts Jesus reaching down from his own agony on the cross to offer drink and succor to a kneeling, skeletal prisoner with shackles on his wrists and ankles.

Kavanagh's praying mantis ("Bomb Eating Mantis") doesn't just pray. It eats the bomb to rid the garden of it. This is heartfelt agit-prop for an active Christianity.

Kavanagh will join in conversation with Stephen Kobasa, visual arts columnist for the New Haven Advocate, this Sunday, Sept. 14, at 3 p.m. They will discuss Kavanagh's experience as a Christian activist and artist. While Kavanagh's presentation is free and open to the public, space is limited. Please reserve your place by calling (203) 245-0401. A free-will donation to Mercy Center will be gratefully appreciated.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone should see Brian's work in the Catholic Worker's newsletter it is inspirational. And they call them communists...........


5:33 PM


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