This painting is about nakedness and materiality. The passage that this painting references—a mere two verses in Isaiah’s 20th chapter—is so obviously disparate from what might be expected in the biography of a prophet. While nudity is oftentimes associated with sexuality or sensuality, Isaiah’s nakedness renders him exposed and humbled. His nakedness is a shock to the Israelites, who remark to each other with disapproval, questioning, and alarm. Brandishing a hand of condemnation, Isaiah’s nakedness sends a visual message to a people who need to be reprimanded for putting their faith in an idolatrous country.
This triptych melds Classical and Modernist painting methods, combining flat planes of solid color with a representational rendering of the anatomy of the figure and the landscape they inhabit. Isaiah’s body was rendered to evoke the organic and earthly. There’s a solidity and heaviness to his body that stand in contrast to the more transcendent rendering of the figures in Resurrection. Yet his body isn’t entirely naturalistic; his figure is so heavy it is almost carved out of stone; the paint quality makes his skin look like craggy rock. Isaiah’s figure lacks the conventional attractiveness of youth, yet certain elements remain idealized, particularly in the way his body’s simplified forms create a sense of unity and solidity. This classical idealization emphasizes the splendor of the human figure. Isaiah’s nakedness symbolizes vulnerability and humiliation, yet we see the beauty and power inherently possessed in the casting away of material security.
The technical narrative, or the story told by the paint quality, is conveyed primarily through rough impasto, those areas of raised, scraped paint. This type of texture covers the majority of the canvas, and calls attention to the paint itself. This is a modernist approach to painting, as the Modern artists sought to point to the materials involved with painting—the paint itself and the surface of the painting. This attention to the material on the canvas connects the event depicted in the painting to the viewer, as well as the hand of the painter to the viewer.
The figures in Man and Woman with Infant and A Discussion have a similar flesh texture, but their clothing is composed of flat planes of solid color. This use of simplifying forms is another way to point to the surface of the canvas. Their bright-colored clothing stands in poignant contrast to Isaiah’s flesh-colored and naked figure; in this way, the abstracted clothes are symbolic and significant markers of Isaiah’s set-apart-ness in this scene, contrasting him with his materialist onlookers. The simplistic color technique used to describe these clothes in contrast to the more modeled, yet more “earthy” pallet of the figures’ flesh harkens back to altarpieces from the middle ages. By including Modern use of paint that references medieval religious artwork, this triptych blurs the lines between sacred and secular art.
Written by Brie Stoltzfus
Prophecy means prediction, but it also means proclamation, or message-giving. Throughout the Old Testament, prophets are called to convey messages from God, and many times these messages were messages of reproach and reproof. These men were approached by God to be leaders, and yet their special status did not exempt them from disobedient actions themselves, and it’s no wonder: prophets were often despised and rejected, outsiders and town spectacles. Moses implored God in Exodus, “Who am I?” and “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Often, prophets are associated with holier-than-thou judgment, and yet they needed forgiveness too. Caught in the tension of being God’s mouthpieces and not themselves God, these prophets had complex relationships with God. For this reason, the prophets’ stories demonstrate that God alone is truly holy.
This series of paintings focuses on passages of the Old Testament that take place in Noah, Jonah, Isaiah, and Moses’ dark and painful moments, in times of disobedience, ostracization, hopelessness, and arrogance. At times, prophets were called to perform what John Sawyer in Prophecy and the Biblical Prophets calls “sign-acts,” or symbolic acts that serve as a metaphor for God’s judgment. The only true sign-act in this series is depicted in Isaiah, in which Isaiah walks naked for three years to demonstrate the coming vulnerability of the Egyptians and Cushites. In many ways, however, Christians have read the stories of the Bible (and not just the prophetic ones) as sign-acts, as metaphors to be applied in their own lives. In a similar way, the paintings in this series, as visual reminders of a bigger message, also serve as sign-acts.
The varying texture of the paint tells just as much of the story as the form.
For example, the dry and choppy paint in Isaiah gives the image material weight, emphasizing the humility of his position. In contrast, the smooth, transparent layers of paint in Resurrection gives the torsos of both figures a sense of transcendence.
Often, smoothness and roughness are used simply for formal description, as in, for example, the bubbles in Jonah. The paint quality of much of these scenes is highly textured, an important part of the “technical narrative” of the painting.
Though the subject matter is ancient, the painting technique blends Representational and Modernist elements, resulting in a fresh perspective on a subject common to art history. For example, the Isaiah triptych painting Man and Woman with Infant is composed of flat, one-dimensional planes of color that can be seen in twentieth-century abstraction. In narrating these stories with a modernized technical narrative, this series argues for their relevance today and seeks to engage a twenty-first century audience.
Written by Brie Stoltzfus