V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





Paradoxes seem to abound in Porter's painting,
challenging viewer preconceptions of the subject
and engaging the viewer so that the artist's
enthusiasm for and interest in the subject becomes infectious.

The Brauer Museum of Art is proud to have in its permanent collection a lovely 1998 oil on canvas painting entitled Santuario de Chimayo by Dean Porter (born 1939), director emeritus of the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, an accomplished artist, and a recognized authority on the art of the Southwest.  Porter in addition received an honorary doctorate from Valparaiso University in 1995 and currently serves on the Brauer Museum of Art's Collection Committee.  In 2002, the Brauer Museum held a major exhibition of Porter's recent paintings of southwestern subjects which was well-received by campus and community members.  Santuario de Chimayo was an anonymous gift to the museum in 1998 and was purchased from the silent auction held by the Brauer's Friends of Art membership group in conjunction with their annual ball.
    The Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico was built in the early nineteenth century and has come to be known among the faithful as the "Lourdes of America" due to stories of miraculous healings taking place over the years when pilgrims visited the sacred structure and its grounds.  Built of adobe brick and stucco, the Santuario receives thousands of visitors each year who admire the organic appearance of the building's architecture and the atmosphere of reverence and respect.  Porter has represented the Santuario in numerous paintings on canvas and paper.
    While the subject of this painting is rendered clearly enough for viewers familiar with the structure to see it easily, the painting does have an abstract appearance.  Fluid, painterly passages suggest that the work was executed with the artist keeping the entire surface of the canvas wet, so that Porter could move with his brush from sky to earth, background to foreground, and create an overall appearance that shows all elements infused with the same energy.  Santuario de Chimayo's expressive method of paint application and active composition presents both a subject dear to the artist and his delight in inventing from or improvising on this subject.  As much as the work is about a specific building in a specific place, it also is a portrait of sorts of the artist who, inspired by a certain area, gives his inspiration form by manifesting through gesture and color the spirit of the scene as it appears in his imagination.
    Paradoxes seem to abound in Porter's painting, challenging viewer preconceptions of the subject and engaging the viewer so that the artist's enthusiasm for and interest in the subject becomes infectious. For example, architectural subjects are typically represented as being stable, immutable, objects of strength in the face of time and the destructive elements.  In Santuario de Chimayo, however, straight lines indicating stability are absent, and the building assumes an organic appearance, nearly capable of moving and twisting as a person would.  The nature of structural endurance is thrown into question, as for Porter the structure seems to survive through its almost living character, as opposed to the defiance suggested by a building composed of hard angles, straight edges, and elements of visual weight.
    Likewise, one typically does not think of snow in relation to a southwestern scene.  Yet, snow does occur in this setting, and Porter surprises by including the material in a scene occupied by adobe and stucco.  Viewers must take a moment to reconcile this juxtaposition and enlarge their thinking about a geographical area that possesses far more dynamism than the dry lifelessness one commonly thinks of as characterizing a desert.  Assumptions can easily give way to re-evaluations as artists encourage through their creations an engaged mode of seeing, free of preconceptions that limit experiences and perhaps overall enjoyment.
    The irregular contours of the areas of accumulated snow and other landscape elements, the organic character of the Santuario, and the gestural brushstrokes of pigment keep the eye moving in such a way that viewers' eyes do not lock on the building's configuration to turn the painting into a mere portrait likeness of a single structure.  Santuario de Chimayo, then, becomes not just a significant place that the artist is content to illustrate; instead, it grows out of the landscape around and beneath it.  Porter's metaphorical message seems to be that the southwestern landscape is of such energy and life that it affects, even has a hand in creating, all that comes in contact with it.  His representation of this scene and subject is one where every inch of the canvas has equal visual weight; perhaps the spell of artistic invention in this setting causes an artist to embody a force that links man and nature so that everything is connected and made of the same living material.
    Finally, one typically thinks of shrines and sanctuaries as being symmetrical, depicted in atmospheres of light that symbolically present enlightenment and joy through a spiritual appreciation of their sacred function.  Porter is able to communicate a sense of drama and respectful wonder through an asymmetrical composition where viewers' eyes move from one stylized form to another.  The composition is active without being chaotic; the picture's tone is mysterious and intriguing without being threatening or unnerving.  Conventional spiritual light is replaced by the darkness of winter which offers its own enigmatic peace. The white fingers of tree branches that reach into the painting from the top edge offer a haunting detail to the picture, but the overall effect never seems to lead the viewer into a land of gloom or dread.  Instead, one feels the drama of being alive and perceptive in a place that follows the grand cycles of the seasons, and does so in a way that is exciting and moving to experience.
    Porter's vibrant colors, unusual in certain instances because most do not see these colors frequently occurring naturally, are indeed present in all their loveliness in the Southwest's sky, soil, and vegetation.  These colors, in fact components of the restless and exotic spirit of the land itself, leap from the real-world setting into Porter's artistic consciousness, and the transcription that takes place is the artist capturing those impressions, those inspirational details to produce a visual narrative that begins to share his affection for and fascination with an environment almost magical in character.  By offering viewers curious and interesting seasonal and environmental characteristics, Porter is able to present a form of true seeing, not dependent on conventions that could cloud or prevent an appreciation based in the heart.  The liveliness of his southwestern landscape is the liveliness present there to the sensitive viewer, and one that leads both the artist and admirers of his art to a plane of delightful spirituality.  The life of the Santuario and its surrounding landscape is the same life that flows through Porter's veins as he shares through his work the exciting experience of being in a place and seeing and feeling all that the place has to communicate.


© by Gregg Hertzlieb


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