Noses, poses and love

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“Why do they have elephant trunks instead of noses?” was Stella’s question when we saw John Shipman‘s “If You Believe” at Woodmere Art Museum. Good question.

Shipman, a CFEVA artist and featured in Woodmere’s emerging artist series, makes highly stylized drawings based on Indian miniature paintings and on his feeling about the importance of love (love of one and love of the many). So, throughout his exhibition, which includes 24 small paintings and drawings on paper and board and one 80 ft.-long charcoal drawing on multiple panels, the bald-headed characters sport elephant trunks or bird beaks where other human features usually appear.

Ganesha, of course, is the elephant-headed Hindu Diety worshipped for his powers in the realm of success. He’s the “destroyer of evils and obstacles and god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. The elephant head denotes wisdom and its trunk represents Om, the sound symbol of cosmic reality.” Here’s more about Ganesha.

Shipman’s cross-cultural embrace of the Hindu symbolism works well with his delicate illustrational technique in which a character poses in a void of white space.

And while the works do resemble those early Hindu miniature works in their touch, symbolism and delicacy of pose, there’s a less intimate voice at work in Shipman’s paintings and drawings. Shipman’s pieces, especially the large mural, speak with a public voice that is on the verge of didactic. This is most apparent in the mural’s exhortation to belief and love. But it’s evident also in the small works, which seem cousins of children’s book illustrations.

There is nothing wrong with didacticism, especially one as benevolent as this. But I’d like a little more story. And I have to think that the sweet optimistic message would work better if it were couched not in static iconographic imagery but in works that told about the foibles and follies of these characters. The Hindu and Islamic gods have fire in their bellies and have amazing adventures and bloody big obstacles to deal with. A little more of that here and you’d transform nice work into amazing work.

In my panoply of gods and goddesses I worship at the altar of Rumpole of the Bailey. Now there’s a god for me. Not only does the pot-bellied and sweet-faced Rumpole resemble Ganesha (don’t you think?) but he’s an almost invincible force for goodness, justice, truth, love, and humanity. He has some fun along the way and while he doesn’t always win his case, his sheer doggedness in picking himself up and charging into battle once again is a great life lesson.

But I digress. Shipman’s show is up to March 5. Then comes the long-awaited and much anticipated second Woodmere Triennial of Contemporary Photography. We liked the show last time. See post and here’s another from Woodmere Curator Douglas Paschall about the hanging of the show in the museum’s many galleries. The Triennial opens March 26.

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