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Obsessed with the numinous


Remember ‘Seeing Salvation’? An exhibition in Huddersfield brings it up to date, says Malcolm Doney

IF SEX, according to Philip Larkin, began in 1963, salvation, according to the National Gallery, stopped in 1951. "Seeing Salvation", the hugely popular exhibition at the National Gallery in 2000, examined the way art had treated the Christian story throughout the previous two millennia. But there were only three 20th-century pictures — by Holman Hunt, Salvador Dali and Stanley Spencer. So how might contemporary artists treat Christian themes?

This was precisely the question that occurred to Mark Brooke, Director of the North Light Gallery in Huddersfield. So he gathered a group of selectors to draw together works by contemporary artists under the title "Seeing Salvation Now".

The idea, explained Mr Brooke, was to find "new visual metaphors and parables" for faith, against a background of our too heavily "word-based, word-understood religion". The setting is a former wool mill owned by the Brookes family, now a splendid and roomy gallery filled with the natural north light that gives the venture its name — ideal for an exhibition of this scope.

This is a show mostly of paintings, and the new media (video and installation, for instance) used by so many younger artists of faith is missing. In that sense, the title is a slight misnomer. But 15 very credible artists were chosen, all with a mature body of work behind them. The result is a powerful exhibition in the form of an engaging visual conversation among people who share a faith, each of whom exhibits a very individual perspective on what this means. This is not the product of collective thought or doctrinal orthodoxy, but a feast of eccentric imagination. It shows that Christianity is a faith community, not a cult or a sect.

We see a series of fascinating creative tensions between ancient and modern (postmodern at times), universal and concrete, sublime and ridiculous. These are artists who were (mostly) born this side of the Second World War, but who tackle narratives rooted in the peasant culture of the Near East. It is in narrative that most of the featured artists see salvation worked out: human longing and encounter with the presence of God.

In this respect, it is worth noting that the spirit of Stanley Spencer, featured in the original "Seeing Salvation" is still alive and kicking. Spencer famously depicted biblical scenes in his own beloved Cookham.

In this show, Kate Wilson envisions the Israelite’s pillar of fire in south London; Roger Wagner’s Dartmoor crucifixion takes place on telegraph poles with the telephone wire still attached; Mark Cazalet sees the ascension in Kensal Rise; Anthony Green — the most Spencerian of them all — wraps his entire family history into a spectacular resurrection piece that would not look out of place in a funfair. There are cinematic allusions, and there are 21st-century appropriations of Rembrandt and the Eastern icon tradition.

Kate Rose and Paul Martin in particular, envision, in their own way, a kind of parallel universe that feels both ancient and Mediterranean, but is also clearly 21st-century. Only Francis Hoyland disappoints: his masterly constructions are an object lesson in craft, but they feel like history — more salvation then than now.

The work of Garry Fabian Miller is an oddity in another sense. His lyrical, more abstract, sensibility invites a different kind of visual contemplation, more akin to Rothko: an honourable tradition that might have been given more room.

"Seeing Salvation Now", and the artists involved, do not fit into any mainstream, and that in itself is something of a British tradition. Samuel Palmer, William Blake and Stanley Spencer, for example, were all preoccupied by the mysterious and the numinous, and regarded to some degree as outsiders.

Perhaps this is what lends the coherence that is undoubtedly a mark of the show. It is a collection of splendid obsessives who are either relentlessly pursuing God or who find themselves dogged by the divine. Which way you choose to look at it may depend on how you see salvation.

At North Light Gallery, Yorkshire Technology Park, Armitage Bridge, Huddersfield, until 18 December. Phone 01484 340003; www.northlightgallery.org.uk

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