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Art Cislo: Icons for a New Age

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


The University of Saint Francis is currently presenting "Saint John's Bible Exhibition and Works by Art Cislo," a combined exhibition depicting the works of renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson's hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible with Art Cislo's monotypes, wood block prints, and watercolors. This exhibition is a rare treat for the Fort Wayne art community, as Cislo has been exhibiting his work selectively, and has not shown a large body of his work for a number of years. In his current exhibition, Cislo expands upon his exposition of Christian imagery and thought translated through his unique vision that strongly references early modern masters and a renaissance sense of perfect and complex composition.

Long time USF adjunct drawing professor and student favorite, Cislo has perfected his art in the quiet spaces carved out of the din of academia. Cislo's mastering of the gestural and figurative drafting — the signature of his work — is constantly honed through the hours of educating young artists, and being reminded of the artistic cannon and exposed to the most contemporary work. This constant refining of his skills allows Cislo to be so ambitious as to tackle Christian themes and context in his work, certainly the most expansive and articulated subject in the Western world, and one of constant importance even today. Cislo explains, " As a visual artist I relish the challenge of forming a heartfelt response to the sacred text of the Bible...I strive to create an art that may be many layered, mysterious, graceful, symbolic, and sacramental."

Certainly, the sacramental form for Cislo's work is quite evident. The proper definition for the Christian sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace". A better definition could not exist for Cislo's work, which contains a piety and a discrete nature which veils the intensity and precision of his expression. What look at face value to be beautiful imagery, and illustrations of the biblical stories, with a moment's patience become much more. Pieces like "True Happiness", "The Sacred Heart", "The Baptism", and "The Portal" are extremely dense images which carry parables and ecstatic emotional states in the same basic way that they are composed of colors and forms. Cislo infuses these pieces with so much visual and metaphorical information that they become verbal.

Many times there is a critical urge to speak of the vocabulary that an artist is creating or using in there work. In this case, Cislo's work embodies this sentiment, but to a much stronger degree. Images like "The Baptism" become so verbal that the viewer must nearly create a generative syntax just do get "through" each piece. Because of Cislo's ability to push the viewer into this method of opening the mind a bit, the intellectual and physical experience of his work can be raw, which is always a treat for visual art. Even in pieces like "Christ Calms the Sea" which are calm in comparison, Cislo uses a concert of single brushstrokes to fashion a ship with battered sail, and an active crew floating atop a turgid sea. The physical expression that Cislo gives Christ, who in this instance is formed by approximately five small brushstrokes, is palpable as he is depicted as holding back and containing the storm.

Similarly, Cislo uses the medium of the monoprint to create those vivid forms in a bit more concrete way in pieces like the afforementioned "The Baptism", "Magdalene", and "Expulsion from the Temple". Unlike watercolor which is more in the moment and responsive, the monoprint can give same ephemeral visual qualities, but be controlled in such a way as to allow images that are well-planned, more time intensive, finely detailed, and containing a multitude of textures.

"Magdalene" is a perfect example of Cislo's abilities with this technique. The image seems somewhat referential to the controversial Edvard Munch piece "Madonna", with a similar quality of its' textures, mood, use of the color red, and raw construction. However, unlike Munch, Cislo's "Magdalene" represents a melancholy mood, and represents Mary Magdalene's place within the context of the stories of Christ. The contemplative body language and facial features of the main figure are accentuated by her massive hair which nearly doubles as a halo. While certainly Cislo has the capable skill to recreate an image which is visually similar to this one in watercolor or some dry media, the nostalgic/memory-based quality of the monotype is not replicable.

FInally, Art Cislo's piéce de résistance, "Icon for a New Age," is masterpiece combining wood block printing and watercolor techniques to create a piercing image. Cislo notes that he is "drawn to (woodblock printing) because of its expressive possibilities and its rich historical tradition." The power of "Icon" is in its departure from some of Cislo's other work, being much more visually simple, and in the way that he effortlessly creates a hauntingly intense image which defies most "norms" associated with images of the Madonna. Cislo's Madonna, as the title suggests, is more akin to the Orthodox Church's icon visual vocabulary with a flattened figure, with a stronger sense of design to delineate features more than form, except in the facial features, which take on a Francesco Clemente-esque feel. Unlike more cannonical representations of The Virgin, Cislo's "Icon" is cropped in close to her face, making her gaze the primary interest. Other than the cloak which surrounds her, "Icon" is also without much humility, a central tenant of Madonna's, and is actually quiet aggressive or confrontational, starting straight into the viewer. Cislo's "Icon for a New Age" is most interesting as it is one of the only images which he breaks with traditional interpretations in a significant way, placing his contemporary voice directly into the history of these great Western themes.

-"Saint John's Bible Exhibition and Works by Art Cislo"
February 28-April 3, 2011
The Lupke Gallery
North Campus Facilities
(on Spring Street across from Bass Mansion)
Monday-Friday 9am-5pm

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