Mentors, Muses and Mystery: Alfonse Borysewicz at First Things Gallery
Alfonse Borysewicz: My Catholica: Mentors, Muses, and Mystery at First Things Gallery
March 7 – May 12, 2017 (weekdays)
35 East 21st Street (6th floor), between Broadway and Park Avenue
New York City
The Roman Catholic cultural journal First Things self-identifies as conservative, but the gallery in its New York offices, whose exhibition program is organized by Father Paul Anel, isn’t necessarily so: it has shown the German painter Joerg Madlener, a student of Adorno’s as well as of Otto Dix, for instance, among other notable exhibitions. Now Alfonse Borysewicz has been the subject of a show there of 20 paintings, mostly made since 2010.
Borysewicz is essentially an abstract painter, but on behalf of a religious thematic his works have long been able to accommodate iconographic signs (Western sense). At the same time, as one who has executed an altarpiece and a processional cross for the Brooklyn Oratory (spiritual equipment, one could say), Borysewicz has always struck me as the contemporary painter best attuned to the Byzantine, and then Orthodox, icon as a highly abstract image capable of tendering a spiritual, even devotional, stance in virtue of its highly stylized semiotic. Because I had written similarly about Borysewicz in the Italian magazine Tema Celeste, back in 1991, but hadn’t visited his studio lately, I was curious to see what this ex-seminarian from Detroit was up to.
The prospect of portraiture was also intriguing, for I was told that the “mentors” of his exhibition title would include seminary professors who had inspired Borysewicz in the wake of Vatican II, such as the philosopher Fr. Paul Berg and the social-justice theologian Sr. Mary Finn. May I say that it turned out there was also a portrait of me, owing no doubt to Alfonse’s and my longstanding interest in the Eastern icon—going back to a series of articles by me in Artforum in the late ‘70s. Meanwhile, wryly enough, a finely drawn, wet-in-wet white Pope Francis looked across the gallery at an interesting full-length back (!) of Benedict XVI, heavy with patterned ‘X’s’ in the paint, suggesting caricaturally thick brocade. The portraits, however, though using some same techniques as, let’s say, the paintings proper—notably sgraffito drawing into wet paint—only highlighted the fact that icons per se are by no means snapshots of persons, but are instead paintings of ideas.
Getting back to the main theme: Angel, 2010, oil on linen with collage, is quite semiotically iconic. A beautifully painted head-like form is flanked by the marked ‘invisibility’ of a similar motif with, however, no visage, twinned by a frame of dark strips cut from the margins of photographic icon reproductions. And aren’t the negations of that process interesting? Considering that photographic reproductions of icons have always been considered grossly Western by the Orthodox Church (like expecting to get aura from a machine), here the materiality of photographic darkness as black, from a reproduction at that provides mere ‘stuff’ for a frame, manages to provide a frame for no visible thing—angels being bodiless souls.
Borysewicz’ paintings continue in the iconic mode, often indeed in the technically iconic medium of oil and wax encaustic: so extra-materialistic, as an appropriate grounding for the potentially ideal. A fine example is Flagellation, 2010-14, where Borysewicz carries over a practically decadent poverty of materials that seems more telling (even punky?) than workaday Neo-Expressionist: here, a head or skull, identifiable by its crown of thorns, is scratched into a black field organized by one major and two rudimentary Crucifixion crosses, the latter composed of tacked-on cardboard slats and covered in fragile, scuffed or scathed gold leaf, with red showing through from underneath.
In the large painting Pomegranate, 2010-16, one confronts an inversion of the usual Western-naturalistic set-up of a Madonna holding this fruit that is an iconographic attribute of the Resurrection in her hand. It is if the Madonna and Child were imagined within the fruit. Against a sky-blue field, a grey shell encases he dark red strata of presumed seeds, with the figurative motif scored into the paint ‘inside.’ Here and in Pantocrator, 2015-17, I see a new development that seems to make possible larger images in Borysewicz’ painting procedure: big areas of a color often applied in ribbons and overlaid by sgraffito (apparently stimulated by thinking of Kiefer’s scaling-up of the woodcut gouge). This technique produces not just a bigger image, but also a lyrical amplification, not unlike an electrified acoustic guitar.
Paul Anel, the curator, is a chaplain of the Heart’s Home community in Brooklyn, which in recent years has combined their remit to visit the marginalized poor side by side with his sophisticated outreach to artists (ever ignored by the totally business-dominated archdiocese of New York). Borysewicz’s opening was European-style, in that Fr. Anel gave a speech; and perhaps not so much as a priest but as a Frenchman—in a town where most people, including me, tend to think of a ‘mystery’ as tantamount to a hoax—he actually got away with making that term in the exhibition title sound aesthetically advantageous.