ANGELS at the Carnegie Art Center

October 22nd, 2013  |  Published in October 2013

ANGELS at the Carnegie Art Center

By Marta Hewett


I have spoke with the tongues of angels
I have held the hand of the devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – 1987


Artist, curator, and Professor Emeritus of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Gary Gaffney invited 26 artists, working in a variety of media, to visually express their understanding of the subject of angels “giving them personal freedom in tackling the exhibit’s theme”.  These works were subsequently presented within the Rotunda and Duveneck Gallery of The Carnegie. The results were, in many cases, very personal, powerful and surprising.

After thousands of years of depiction in art from cultures around the world, the concept of, and willingness to believe in, the presence of angels remains persistent today.  Why does this need to continue to believe that these beings exist, particularly in an age of overwhelming secularism and materialism, remain so strong?  Perhaps it is the age old desire for each one of us to understand who and what we are.  Man is the one being that is both spirit and body.  He exists between the pure spirit of angels and the physical, instinctual world of animals and constantly wrestles with the opposing qualities of both.  And so, man must acknowledge the spiritual qualities of angels in order to understand that aspect of himself, just as he must acknowledge the qualities of animals within himself.  “You have made him (man) a little less than the angels” – Psalm 8:6  It is an ongoing part of our mortal journey to understand what we are, and what we are not.  Angels help to give us a glimpse of that part of our celestial selves, so we might know better who we are, or may be,  but we are always still looking.

So man finds himself caught between pure spirit and pure matter.  He is also caught between good and evil.  In the Qur’an, Satan (Iblis) refuses to prostrate himself with the other angels before Allah’s creation, Adam, protesting that while he was created from fire, Man was created from mud.  And so, Lucifer, the Light Bearer, a seraphim, burning one, of the order of angels closest to God, is cast out due to pride.  “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”, Satan declares in Paradise Lost.  And so the eternal battle begins on earth and in Heaven and man is caught in the middle, tempted and twisted by Satan and his servants, but guided, inspired and protected by angels.

Angels at the Carngie Celene Hawkins Angels of Death


Although angels may act as messengers, guardians and illuminators, our encounters with them are not exclusively comforting.  When angels appear in the Bible, their initial instruction to mortals is frequently, “Fear not!”.  An experience of awe is necessary for what is described in the Bible as the “beginning of wisdom”.  Fear and trembling, adoration and the subsequent diminishment of our sense of pride and self importance may often times be the response required when encountering angels.  Angels are closest to God and so are imbued with His sublime, yet fiery and furious, nature.  God and His angels are the ultimate good, but good does not necessarily connote comfortable.  In her dark and formidable piece, Angels of Death, displayed, but barely contained, within the rotunda, Celene Hawkins, causes the viewer to cower.  A dark, shifting, iridescent blue surface covers the large, loudly beating multiple pairs of wings which spiral into the air.  Seven pairs of wings to be exact, reminding us of the “burning ones”, the angels closest to God, the seraphim. This is by no means a warm and comforting work.  It is a fearsome and dynamic warning of the power of angels as God’s emissaries to end, as well as aid, the life of man.  It would have been quite terrible to come upon this piece displayed on its own in a single space.

Angels at the Carnegie Gary Gaffney


Suspended not far away from Celene Hawkins’ spiraling mass of powerful seraphim’s wings, Gary Gaffney’s Angel of Good and Evil hovers overhead.  This primitive piece, composed of found wooden objects, possesses none of the idyllic, beautifully proportioned qualities so often associated with angels.  It lacks the fearsomeness of the Hawkins sculpture, but still evokes a somewhat sinister aspect.  It is tired of policing humans and their antics. A blank face, masklike, with roughly hewn holes for eyes, stares across the room.  It defies scale, holding orbiting planetary objects in its disproportionate palms.  Objects also orbit around the right “thigh”.  Although the piece is, physically, 5’ in height, the insinuation is that it could be infinite.

Angels at the Carnegie Lisa Merida-Paytes Muses in Purgatory


Also suspended above our heads in the rotunda are three ephemeral figures, Muses in Purgatory, by Lisa Merida-Paytes. This piece is inspired by the artist’s upbringing as a Catholic and her love and loss of her sister .  Purgatory in Catholic doctrine is the door to salvation for those souls who repent before dying and will finally enter heaven. They must first be cleansed of remaining sin by fire.  In Dante’s Inferno, angels are sent by God to guide repentant souls through purgatory to heaven, helping them eliminate existing sin and illuminating their way. In Merida-Paytes’ work, angels are not depicted at all, but the souls of those being transformed by purgatory’s fire, rise towards heaven with angels as their guides.


Angels at the Carnegie Christain Schmit Damiels Room


Angels do not exist in space, which contains matter, but are spiritually present in mind and will.  Angels may focus their attention and will on a singular place in space without leaving heaven, like a telescope focusing on stars millions of miles away.  Space and matter do not contain spirit.  And so, in human beings, our souls are not contained within the limits of our physical bodies, like our brains and our hearts, because our souls do not have physical size.  Like angels, who contain the material space in which they work, rather than being contained by it, our souls contain our material bodies.  In Damiel’s Room, Christian Schmit, creates an extraordinarily detailed structure, an observatory, from which the angel Damiel,  inspired by the movie “Wings of Desire”, 1987, stores “an eternity of recorded moments”, human moments he witnesses with his companion Cassiel, which cause him to contemplate the experience of being human. Schmit’s piece, which was a tour-de-force of detail, books, furniture, celestial instruments and maps, defied space.  As I peered inside from one room to another, I imagined the piece being the size of the entire rotunda or as small as the head of a pin. An angel could easily occupy either space.

Angels at the Carnegie Ran Mullins Dust to Dust


Upstairs in the Duveneck gallery, several additional works were displayed in a more confined space.  Immediately to the left, upon entering the gallery, a very large oil painting by Ran Mullins, Dust to Dust, occupies a single wall.  The painting is dark.  Dirt and mud dark, with two illuminated figures slowly turning, inscribing a circle on the reddish ground around them with “dust” that is falling from their hands.  The two figures viewed together are strongly reminiscent of a crucifixion scene, the head dropped on the shoulder, the skewed position of the feet and arms outstretched, although the cross itself is absent.  The horizon line serves as the arms of the cross, just beneath the figures’ arms, and separates sky and ground and light and dark. This painting emphasizes the material from which we are made, the “mud”, so repugnant to Lucifer, but offers a hint of what may lay beyond.

Angels at the Carnegie Kevin Kelly Ecce Spiritus


Angels are entirely immaterial.  They are strictly energy and intuitive intelligence.  They simply “know” us, themselves and God. In Kevin Kelly’s small work, Ecce Spiritus, which was positioned wonderfully close to the painting by Mullins, we experience very little of the physical. The artist creates a lusciously colored portal into another dimension which promises boundless extension behind the silver gilt, physically distressed frame.  A vibrantly colored shadow of a human figure is surrounded by a diaphanous, bright angel form and this form is connected by vivid threads, to surrounding spots of light.  In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell describes the Net of Indra, or “the net of gems” as part of Indian mythic culture.  At every crossing of the net, one thread over the other, there is a gem reflecting all the other reflective gems. Each spot of light representing an individual soul, all interconnected with a singular intention. This small work drew me back several times and it was the image I chose to leave the exhibit with as it gave me what I was looking for.

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