“Altered Allusions: New Works by Nate Szarmach” at Davis Gallery

In these paintings of Christian figures, the lack of focus is the focus

Untitled Christ by Nate Szarmach

The face on the canvas appears just as the world does to me when I'm not wearing my glasses: bereft of edges, indistinct, all soft shapes and blur. Still, even in this undefined state, with no sharpness to the features, the face is instantly recognizable. The long brown hair parted in the middle, the high forehead, the mustache and beard, and most of all, the placid demeanor – it's Jesus of Nazareth. At least, it's the Jesus I've seen in countless pictures in Sunday school and art history class, the Jesus commonly depicted in Western art for centuries, the pale-skinned Prince of Peace so prevalent in our culture that he may be as familiar to non-Christians as to Christians, even blurred.

This Jesus is joined by several others in Davis Gallery's "Altered Allusions," and all share the same hazy aspect. Indeed, every subject in the show – which includes a handful of Virgin Marys and the hands of God and Adam from Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam – has been painted by Nate Szarmach to look like it's behind a pane of frosted glass. The effect is impressive, a kind of reverse trompe l'oeil, where the eye is tricked into seeing less depth instead of more: just one flat surface layered onto another. The thing is, the eye doesn't necessarily find this trick as satisfying as seeing three dimensions where there are only two. As I find when I shed my specs, my eyes still want to pull those bleary images into focus, to resolve those blobs of light and shadow into shapes with edges. And they'll squint and strain in an effort to make that happen.

In looking at the works in "Altered Allusions," you may find your eyes involuntarily doing the same thing, as if they can eventually see these familiar figures with all the details you recall. It's much like what we do with past events that hover at the edge of memory: rehashing the parts we do remember again and again in the hopes that if we do it enough, we can recover those specifics – this person's name, that person's outfit, who said what when – that elude us. But no amount of looking at or thinking about Szarmach's paintings will give them clarity. The familiar faces in them will always remain in memory's haze – which can lead one to wonder: Did I ever know those faces that well? It doesn't help the viewer that Szarmach places bold marks on top of many figures: thick slashes of white or red, great loops of ochre, long drips of red and blue. As pure visual elements, they activate and, at times, violate the faces. But they also add to and take away from the images we recall. In Woman, a Lamb & a Baby, a delicate gold line is drawn around the infant Jesus' head: Was a halo supposed to be there? In Help My Unbelief, splotches of color cover the eyes of Jesus: Did his eyes not look right?

The fact that Szarmach uses Judeo-Christian figures in all of these paintings may prompt in some questions of faith. How well do I truly see Jesus? What does it mean that I can't bring him into focus, no matter how hard I try? These are matters the apostle Paul addressed in a letter to the Christians in Corinth. As long as we're here, he says, we'll see things as if we're looking in an unpolished brass mirror: fuzzy and unclear. It's only later that we'll see everything clearly, "face to face." Szarmach provides an elegant, striking illustration of that scriptural lesson here – and leaves it to us to fill in the details.

"Altered Allusions: New Works by Nate Szarmach"

Davis Gallery, 837 W. 12th, 512/477-4929
Through April 24

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