Smoke and Mirrors

What if religion has become a mere illusion?

That seems to be the question that artist Giles Alexander is putting out to the public.

I was taken by the serious and religious undertones in each of his paintings as I walked into the Kristian Pithie Gallery in Richmond.

The exact locations the paintings were depicting eluded me except for the very first painting of the Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba (Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba), also known as the Great Mosque of Cordoba, whose ecclesiastical name is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption.

It was clear that they were all representations of religion.

The Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba depicted in Smoke and Mirrors by Giles Alexander

The Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba depicted in Smoke and Mirrors by Giles Alexander

The exquisite paintings appropriately, I think, were not accompanied with a description. Because they did not need any.

The blurring of the edges, playing the role of the preacher, seduces the viewer to focus on its center, its beliefs. The blurred forms that remain seem to suggest how religion attempts to distort reality or the truth. The perspectives used in the paintings also depict depth. I feel this use of depth was in a way to give a very misleadingly heightened sense of experience. Contrasted with the fact that these spaces remain empty or having no more than ghostly figures, Alexander seems to be rejecting the notion of religious thinking.

This rejection of religion reminded me of The Period of Enlightenment, a period governed by reason and legitimacy, a period that considered the Catholic Church as the enemy. Perusing the price list I received on my arrival, it was easy to be tempted to think that somehow consumerism has to be hiding beneath that serious undertone, that somehow Kelefa Sannet’s ode to hard work in his article ‘Out of the Office’ in the New Yorker can be linked to those exquisite hand painted works suspended on the hand painted walls.

Perhaps Alexander is not just rejecting religion, but also reinterpreting it as consumerism?

A general description of the exhibit included this quote by J. Bronowski in The Ascent of Man (1974):

 

“The monuments are supposed to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end, the man they commemorate is the builder.”

 

That quote accompanied by the obviously painstaking and traditional oil technique embraced by Alexander is surely a take on the humanistic pursuits of skill and tradition and how that is threatened by consumerism.

Having a second, third, and fourth look at the paintings, I find the answer staring right at me.

I find my own reflection cast on the glossy resin coating.

Smoke and Mirrors by Giles Alexander in the Kristian Pithie Gallery

Smoke and Mirrors by Giles Alexander in the Kristian Pithie Gallery

Glossy.

Superficial.

Paintings of religion are offered with a price.

Religion is for sale.

Perhaps in a single decision to coat the paintings with glossy resin, Alexander reinterprets rather clearly, religion as consumerism.

But surely there must be more to these paintings than just one reinterpretation?

I found it interesting, despite the reference to religion as a distortion of the truth, that the paintings resembled photographs. In my opinion, a photograph is an image of reality; there is a certain level of truth that a straightforward, untempered photograph can portray. On the other hand, these photograph-like images were accomplished in the most meticulous and orchestrated manner – oil painting.

I struggle to find a conclusion to this whimsical observation. Perhaps Alexander loathes photographers? Perhaps to him, photographs embody consumerism? Perhaps only by hand painting it, can he convince us to worship the humanistic artisan values?

Regardless, this exhibition urges us, very beautifully, to rethink what exactly are we worshipping.

And is worship and religion all just smoke and mirrors?

I hope we can all ask ourselves the same fair questions.

 


By Steven Chu

Steven Chu is a Burmese-Australian architect and the Founding Director of Alter Atlas.

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