Unity and Mystery in the art of Bruce Herman

Posted: February 14, 2012 in Dark Art Cafe
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In the video above Bruce Herman introduces himself and his unique approach to creating art. Trained in the classical, figurative tradition, Herman has been painting for over forty years, venturing into what is called “abstract” art to explore psychology and spirituality, but also melding figurative imagery with abstraction to create a visually stunning and deeply moving sacramental vision of “the real world.”

“Melding”, however, is not quite the right world to describe Herman’s blend of figurative and abstract imagery: he sees abstract art as a “distillation of visual experience from the real world,” arguing further that “all art is abstraction because all art is artifice.” This explains the deep visual unity of his work where the figurative and the abstract coalesce rather than jar, like in his 2007 polyptych “Second Adam.”

The piece works visually like a traditional triptych (i.e. Matthias Grünewald‘s Isenheim Altarpiece); however, its “panels” are not separate but of a piece, just as the figures are not separate from their “abstracted” settings. The figures, in fact, draw the eye into the settings, visual representations of psychological  and spiritual realities that are not separate from physical or figurative reality: they are all of the same fabric, the same substance. The Christ figure is the central representation of this sacramental union of classical and abstract imagery, seen and unseen reality: the classically-rendered archway is shattered by the mystical blue filling the negative space around Christ but the rough-cut crossbeam, bent with the weight of a “real” body, visually restores the shattered arch, bringing vertical and horizontal lines of sight together in a holistic (and holy) vision.

This, of course, is only the central image, but this central Christ-figure (and the figure bent below, who could be the old Adam bowing or the new Adam rising up) draws together Mary as a young virgin (left) and Mary as an old woman (right), facing life with death, youth with old age, innocence with wisdom, joy with sorrow.


This is not “religious” art that looks beyond this earth to “some bright morning when this life is over.” Herman’s art is deeply religious but it is so in the sense of religio, as poet and carpenter John Terpstra defines it in Skin Boat“a word that has the words ligature, and ligaments, built into it: the living stuff that ties the body’s bones together, allows the bones to move in concert, stops them from rattling.” Herman’s art is about life, in all its givenness and constructedness, its nature and artifice, its joy and sorrow – life in its fullness.

As an artist, this is how Herman sees his work in relation to the modern art world: “There is, in my way of thinking, a genuine alternative to the witty endgame of a tired art world that resorts to one-upmanship and shock or schlock—with Christ’s Incarnation the thing-ness of things is hallowed and we can have it both ways: We can have a relationship with God our Maker, and also make and enjoy art without needing to artificially pump it up with a false sense of mystery or worship it like a new golden calf. There is genuine mystery enough in the world our Maker has created—and as a believing artist, more than anything I desire to honour that mystery, even if it places me beyond the pale of a sophisticated art scene that has developed an appetite almost exclusively for irony, shock or momentary shopping buzz.”

(From “Art and Market: Mystique or Mystery”, published in Comment)

For a great conversation on these and other pieces by Bruce Herman (and on his artistic vision and faith), check out the interview SACRA CONVERSAZIONE, with Walter Hansen, originally published in IMAGE. And of course, pull up a chair and feast your eyes and mind on his art and essays cataloged on his website.

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