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Place of Christ and the outcast

21 March 2014

Katy Hounsell-Robert sees an exhibition on the wilderness theme

© Simon Dorrell

In the show: Simon Dorrell's Grieving for John on Butternut St.

In the show: Simon Dorrell's Grieving for John on Butternut St.

THE gentle countryside of the Welsh Borders, where sheep graze peacefully, is itself a type of green wilderness that people find conducive to spending time here to reflect on their inner and spiritual selves. So it is very apt that the tiny medieval shepherd's church of St Michael's, Discoed, has titled its third Lenten art exhibition "The Way of the Wilderness", using particular biblical verses from the Old and New Testament to reflect how the prophets and Jesus sought the mountains or deserted areas onland or water, to be in communion with God and confront temptations and cope with grief.

As with the previous Lenten exhibitions "Stations of the Cross" (2012) and "The Last Supper" (2013), the curator, Charles MacCarthy, and the Friends of St Michael's have kept the eventfresh, exciting, and thought-provoking by inviting 15 different artists of varied beliefs and philosophies to interpret the verses, working mainly in traditional oil or watercolour paint, and also in stained glass, sculpture, woodcut, and photography.

Whether or not Moses would have sent picture-postcards to his family of his climb into the cloud- capped mountain to listen to God, Alex Ramsay presents, in Wild, 12 digitally produced postcards of beautiful sky and mountains, with a large image of brilliant sunshine as Moses enters the cloud.

In her stained glass The Still Small Voice, Nicola Hopwood conjures up the terrifying power of heaving earth, shattering wind, and destructive fire, followed by the peace of absolute power witnessed by Elijah.

Moving on to the New Testament and A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, Julienne Braham reminds us that the wilderness was a popular pilgrimage place with the charismatic John the Baptist and his eccentric lifestyle, calling people to repentance and preparing the way for the Christ. She scatters pieces of newspaper reports around, and a suggestion of loudspeakers beside the bubbling blue water of the baptism pool.

Trying to experience the grief of Jesus when he heard of the death of the Baptist, who was not only a close member of his family but one of the few people who really understood what he was, Simon Dorrell recalled how he had felt when his own father died. Grieving for John on Butternut St. (in ink, watercolour, and gouache on paper) is of a deserted area in Detroit almost covered in snow, and whose abandoned empty wooden houses are like coffins. The effect is of total desolation.

Also allowing his own personal experiences of depression and doubt to guide him on the third temptation, The Devil May Care, Dan MacCarthy's woodcut on tracing paper over a light box shows a roof apartment with a view of the city below and a figure looking down into a pool of water, from which a reflection of the devil dares him to fall from a great height, to prove that God will save him.

Moving back to the desert forthe other temptations, Tangible/Intangible by Roger Percival is a hypnotic acrylic on canvas, portraying large stones on the baking-hot sand in the glaring light of the desert, with a mirage of pieces of bread beyond, indicating perhaps that what seems to be real temptation has no substance to it.

Bronte Woodruff's Serve Him Only is a naïf figurative piece using earth pigment on gesso on board, showing a figure of Christ facing the golden calf and a huge sun representing God, with a background of cities that the devil promised to give Jesus if he would worship him.

Exquisite Torture by Mandy Pritchard portrays the painful sensation of returning to normal physical activity and mental adjustment after fasting and meditating for forty days and nights. Jesus's elongated body is stretched to the limit, but balanced by Susannah Royle's Rest, which offers a soothing abstract of the gentle flapping wings, in soft pinks and blues, of angels ministering to Jesus after his ordeal.

People may through no fault of their own be lost in a mental or physical wilderness, and to these Jesus showed great compassion. When the disciples were terrified of drowning in the storm at sea, Lois Hopwood has painted Dŵr dwfn - Deep Water, a dark expanse of night sky and sea with a distant streak of beautiful blue and green light, with its long reflection in the water, and Jesus standing in the boat, calming the disciples.

A different type of wilderness imposed by society is presented in What Remains by Carolyn Blake. In a more abstract approach to the woman taken in adultery, the shadow of a finger writes in the dusty ground; or perhaps it is the shadow of a finger pointing at the woman.

One of the most moving pieces is Outcast. Tania Mosse's sculpture, in Hornton stone and bronze, of the despised and "untouchable" leper kneeling before Jesus, shows his huge warning bell hanging from his neck, and his face, almost eaten away by the creeping disease, turned slightly away from Jesus in embarrassment. Nevertheless, he is convinced that Jesus would heal him. The healing of more than eight lepers was one of the signs of the true Messiah.

In ironic contrast, Charles MacCarthy has used the parable of the lost sheep to show both the compassion of the shepherd for every single one of his sheep, and yet how Jesus, as the Lamb of God, has to face his own sacrifice alone. In The One, a pure white lamb stands alone on a high rock among blue-green hills.

More rejection and suffering is also symbolised in Gethsemane by Allison Neal, by the sharp and unfriendly steps of marble and stone where Jesus has been left by his sleeping disciples to face his agony alone.

For "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" Andrea McClean moves away from the crucifixion itself and uses a space-and-time view of the death of Jesus in a diptych Time Beyond the Wheel and Satellite, where we can see a new planet glowing in soft colours and shapes, and take hope in our liberation from the treadmill of mortality.

The prices range from £300 to £1000, and 30 per cent of each sale will be donated to Herefordshire Mind.

"The Way of the Wilderness" is at St Michael's, Discoed, until 27 April. Opening times are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. www.discoed.org

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