Painting the mystery

By Thomas Brezing

When I was a child, my father’s two aunts used to read to me from an illustrated Bible. I remember pestering them with endless questions about the images of Jesus on the cross (“Why is the sky so dark?”), the empty tomb (“Who rolled the stone away?”) and the resurrection.  In a way, those questions linger in that room, with my great aunts and me, although the two ladies are long dead and the house where I grew up was demolished years ago. 

When Bertha, the first of them, died, her death was a moment of fracture and brought me inconsolable sadness. It was a spectacular birth of grief and a million unanswered questions. I asked how death would call me and what stood between death and me? – wholesome but heavy questions for a child to ponder. 

And then I saw her lying in the coffin. She had an amazing smile on her face. I remember thinking she must have seen something beautiful. This left a lasting impression. I always believed she saw God in those moments. This smile, in the presence of her maker, seemed to justify all existence; as if her whole life was needed to produce that one smile when it counted most; when, in the eyes of God, she was complete. 

As the coffin was placed into the hearse, I drew a picture of the undertakers, the hearse and the coffin. Then the picture ‘disappeared’ and, at her funeral, the pastor held it up in front of the congregation. I felt embarrassed and sank into my seat. This was my first “accidental” showing of “art” in front of an audience - quite incredible to think it happened in a church! In hindsight, what a privilege!

I want to make art, informed by my faith, which connects with everybody.

Making a Connection
Fast forward to today: the world I have worked in for the past two decades, the world of contemporary art, is a distinct civilisation.  It has its white cube temples, its esoteric value system, its priests and saints, its festivals and rituals. I want to make art that steps outside the contemporary art world and infiltrates its secular system with my Christian faith. I don’t want to make art that hides my faith nor art that stays in a little bubble for the Christian audience. I want to make art, informed by my faith, which connects with everybody.

There are no crosses in my paintings or installations, no images of Jesus holding a lamb, or tranquil scenes of charming churches in winter light. While there is nothing wrong with that, it’s not what my art wrestles with. I look at how we live our lives and where we fall short, our carelessness, brokenness, my own failures and how all this relates to Biblical teaching and faith. 

The Bible is full of mystery and so is art.  This is where the Gospel and art correlate at their zenith. If we believe that imagination and creativity are gifts from God, why have we neglected them for so long? Can art be brought back into churches? 

Here are two of the projects I am currently working on:

Carpet Man is a performance project, which started around 2011 during my show at Highlanes Municipal Gallery, Drogheda. Carpet Man is a man dressed in an old piece of carpet. His only possessions are the carpet, woolly socks and a suitcase.

Fifteen years ago, I spent a few nights rolled up in an old piece of carpet sleeping on my studio floor. It was a low point in my life and, although I wasn’t homeless, I had a small glimpse into what it must feel like. When I perform as Carpet Man, people generally feel compassionate. 

Sometimes they come up for a hug and I am reminded of Galatians 5:22: “When the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Being inside a carpet is a humbling experience.

If we believe that imagination and creativity are gifts from God, why have we neglected them for so long?

A Long and Arduous Process
Painting is my first love. It has to be real but I never paint something that already exists. I have to surprise myself with a painting, so I can also surprise the viewer. Paintings often resist closure. The way I paint is a long and arduous process. Made Of Breath Only (see image) was ‘built’ over time and it went through different phases. 

It was loosely based on an old black and white photograph of my late grandparents on their wedding day. What were images of them, in silhouette form, repeated across the painting are now hints and fragments. 

When I rework a painting, I turn it on its head and start anew but some of the old painting might remain. These things go unnoticed in the ‘new form’ - comparable to our past, gone, yet still part of us, shards of memories of loved ones still within us. Through the centre of the painting, unresolved building structures flow like a cityscape. In the foreground, we see box-shaped junk, perhaps the suggestion of pollution, a rubbish heap or illegal dumping.  

Flowers grow in and around them, like flora on a landfill, rendering the pollution barely discernible, but lurking one layer beneath the surface. Boxes to me stand for houses, cars, rooms, TVs, computers… we spend most of our lives insides boxes. 

The title relates to Genesis, when it describes God forming man’s body from the dust of the ground and breathing into it the breath of life. The rainbow with the “wrong colours” also connects with Genesis and God’s promise to Noah. 

Made Of Breath Only is shrouded in mystery and ambivalence. It doesn’t set out to provide a single frame of reference or to answer any questions. Depending on the viewer’s personality, it can be interpreted as the end of something, as the beginning, or both.

Thomas Brezing was born in Germany in 1969 and moved to Ireland in the early 1990s to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. He is married with three children, lives and works in North County Dublin and has been exhibiting his work nationally and internationally for 20 years.