Alfonse Borysewicz

Alfonse Borysewicz on The Beekeeper Paintings

HiveAlfonse Borysewicz, a dear friend, is no stranger to this blog. I have been a fan of his work for some years now, and Alfonse has also kindly penned the Foreword to a book that I’ve edited  Tikkun Ola To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts (forthcoming from Pickwick Publications). There is a short video here of Alfonse speaking about his Beekeeper Paintings, currently on show at Space 38|39 in NYC. In his own words:

For too long I have felt like a stranger or a man on the moon with my obsession of religious imagery. All around me I see an abandonment of overt religious imagery (especially by a contemporary somewhat abstract hand) yet I not only cling to painting more ‘religious’ imagery but have sought to exhibit them in churches where even there it seems to lack an apparent audience. What authenticates this work, and keeps me faithful to it, especially in my mature years, is that ‘undertow of mystery’ in the painting itself. In that sense, the man on the moon estrangement has been transformed to the nurturing Bee Keeper. Several years ago I came across a poem by Robert Frost which seemed to encapsulate the issues and emotions of my own artistic sojourn. The White-Tailed Hornet Lives in a Balloon moves from a simple observation of a hornet in a barn to a contemplation of our humanity to divinity. In the same way my installation of six paintings begins with a stare upwards to the hornets hive and with eye moving left and right then center to the Christ experience and my/our response to it. The poetic becomes engaged with the religious. It is my own altarpiece in paint to ponder both the wonder and mystery of it all; especially for an audience of one.

Alfonse Borysewicz on his art

For regular readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem, the name of New York-based artist Alfonse Borysewicz will be somewhat familiar. While on a trip recently to the USA, I had the privilege and joy of staying with Alfonse and his family, during which time my appreciation of his work and its importance at this moment in history was more-deeply confirmed. (I was almost-equally impressed with the intimate knowledge he had of, and affection he displayed about, NYC’s subway system). Alfonse’s bookshelves betray a mind that has long-wrestled with theology, philosophy and aesthetics. But like most artists, Alfonse is more comfortable speaking into and through his art than he is speaking about his art. Still, he does a good deal of, and good job with, the latter too. Here he is in a recent interview produced by Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids:

Art that Tells the Story: a commendation

We homo sapiens are, essentially, both a storied people and a story-telling people. So, a basic human question is not primarily, ‘What am I, as an individual, to do or decide?’ but rather, ‘Of what stories do I find myself a part, and thus who should I be?’; for we literally live by stories. The Church, too, understands itself as a pilgrim people, as a people storied on the way, as a people whose very way becomes the material which shapes the narrative that has long preceded it and which is being written with it. It understands that being human never begins with a white piece of paper. As Alasdair MacIntyre rightly reminds us in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, we never start anywhere. Rather, we simply find ourselves within a story that has been going on long before our arrival and will continue long after our departure. Moreover, Christian community begins with being found in the very act of God’s self-disclosure, an act which, in Jamie Smith’s words, ‘cuts against the grain of myths of progress and chronological snobbery’ and places us in the grain of the universe. And what – or, more properly, who – is disclosed in that crisis of discovery is one who provides memory, unity, identity and meaning to the story of our life. So Eberhard Jüngel: ‘We are not … simply agents; we are not just the authors of our biography. We are also those who are acted upon; we are also a text written by the hand of another’. Hence it is not just any story by which the Church lives but rather a particular story given to it – namely, Israel’s story in which, in the words of R.S. Thomas, it ‘gaspingly … partake[s] of a shifting identity never [its] own’.

Back in 1993, Robert Jenson wrote a great little piece titled ‘How the World Lost Its Story’ (First Things 36 (1993), 19–24). He opened that essay with these words:

It is the whole mission of the church to speak the gospel … It is the church’s constitutive task to tell the biblical narrative to the world in proclamation and to God in worship, and to do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative, that is, as a promise claimed from God and proclaimed to the world. It is the church’s mission to tell all who will listen, God included, that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead, and to unpack the soteriological and doxological import of that fact.

To speak the gospel and, in Jenson’s parlance, to ‘do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative’, the Church is given a pulpit, a font and a table; in fact, many pulpits, fonts and tables. And these remain the principle ‘places’ where the people of God can expect to hear and to see and to taste and to learn and to proclaim the story into which they have been gathered, redeemed and made an indispensable character. This is not, however, to suggest that these are the only places wherefrom the free and sovereign Lord may speak, nor to aver in any way that the gospel is somehow kept alive by the Church’s attempt to be a story teller, for the story is itself nothing but God’s own free and ongoing history in Jesus. As Jüngel put it in God as the Mystery of the World, ‘God does not have stories, he is history’. To speak gospel is literally to proclaim God, speech that would be a lie and completely empty were it not the story of God with us, of the saving history which has become part of God’s own narrative, of the world which has, in Jesus Christ, become ‘entangled in the story of the humanity of God’ (Jüngel), a story at core kerygmatic and missionary, and unfinished until all its recipients are included in its text. For, as Jenson has written in his much-too-neglected Story and Promise, the story of Jesus – who is the content of the gospel – ‘is the encompassing plot of all men’s stories; it promises the outcome of the entire human enterprise and of each man’s involvement in it’. To know this man’s story, therefore, is to know not only the story of God but also our own story. Indeed, it is the story that makes human life possible at all. As Jenson would write elsewhere, ‘Human life is possible — or in recent jargon “meaningful” — only if past and future are somehow bracketed, only if their disconnection is somehow transcended, only if our lives somehow cohere to make a story’.

And here we come up against the perennial question of human speech, and it’s back to Jüngel (and to Peter Kline’s article on Jüngel and Jenson) to help me out: ‘The language which corresponds to the humanity of God’, writes Jüngel, ‘must be oriented in a highly temporal way in its language structure. This is the case in the language mode of narration, [or] telling a story’. In other words, if Kline reads Jüngel correctly, Jüngel is suggesting that narrative or story is the mode of human language which most appropriately corresponds to the form of God’s life among and with us. Commenting on Jüngel, Kline argues that narrative alone witnesses to the change from old to new, can capture the movement and becoming in which God has his being, corresponds to the eschatological event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and brings ‘the word of the cross’ to expression in a way apposite to us. So Jüngel: ‘God’s humanity introduces itself into the world as a story to be told’. Kline notes that for Jüngel, the church is given a story to tell, but, in Jüngel’s words, it ‘can correspond in [its] language to the humanity of God only by constantly telling the story anew’. God’s humanity ‘as a story which has happened does not cease being history which is happening now, because God remains the subject of his own story . . . God’s being remains a being which is coming’. The community, Kline says, tells only the story of Jesus Christ’s history, and so it constantly looks back to what has happened. Yet the telling of this story is also always new because God’s entrance into human language that once happened continues to happen again and again as Jesus Christ continues to live in the freedom of the Spirit. God is not confined to his once-enacted history, to one language or culture; history does not consume God. So Jüngel again: ‘God who is eschatologically active and who in his reliability is never old [is] always coming into language in a new way’.

‘Telling the story anew’. ‘God … [is] always coming into language in a new way’. Which brings me to Chris Brewer’s new book, Art that Tells the Story. Others have already summarised the book, so let me simply say that Art that Tells the Story is a freshly-presented and beautifully-produced book which attempts to tell the old, old story … again. Boasting some intriguing prose (by Michael E. Wittmer) and coupled with well-curated images from a diverse array of accomplished visual artists including Jim DeVries, Wayne Forte, Edward Knippers, Barbara Februar, Clay Enoch, Julie Quinn, Michael Buesking and Alfonse Borysewicz, among others, herein, word and image work in concert to open readers up to hear and see again, and to hear and see as if for the first time, the Bible’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, inviting – nay commanding!, for the gospel is command – readers to comprehend in this story their own, and to enter with joy into the narrative which is the life of all things. A book this beautiful ought to be in hardback; but may it, all the same, find itself opened and dialogued with next to many coffee mugs, and in good and diverse company. Like its subject, this is one to sit with, to be transformed by, and to share with others.

Flannery O’Connor once confessed, in Mystery and Manners, that ‘there is a certain embarrassment about being a story teller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics’. ‘But’, she continued, ‘in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or statistics, but by the stories it tells’. And so the dogged persistence of theologians and artists. Indeed, it is stories – in fact, a particular, if not very short or simple, story – that Brewer’s book is primarily concerned to tell. That his chosen medium is the visual arts reminded me of something that NT Wright once said, and which is, I think, worth repeating:

We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art [on] the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we … And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public … with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in.

Art that Tells the Story is grounded upon the premise that artists and theologians can not only help us to see better, but also that like all human gestures toward the truth of things, the work of artists can become an instrument through which God calls for our attention. And here I wish to conclude by re-sounding a call trumpeted by Michael Austin in Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination:

Theologians must be on their guard against commandeering art for religion, must allow artists to speak to them in their own language, and must try to make what they can of what they hear. What they will hear will tell of correspondences and connections, of similarities, of interactions and of parallel interpretations and perceptions which will suggest a far closer relationship of essence between art and religion than many theologians have been prepared to acknowledge. As the churches at the beginning of the twenty-first century become more fearful and therefore more conservative there may be fewer theologians prepared to take the risks that embracing a truly incarnational religion demands of them. In particular what they hear may suggest to them that their many (often contradictory) understandings of God and redemption and salvation in Christ need to be radically reconsidered if a new world is to be made.

Chris Brewer’s Art that Tells the Story is just such an attempt. It’s good stuff.

To Mend the World: gratitude

Those for whom Per Crucem ad Lucem is a regular stopping place will know that recent months have seen me involved in birthing a twin project called To Mend the World. With the exhibition now in full swing (at the Temple Gallery) and the conference furniture packed away, it’s good to be able to pause a while, to claim some space to do an initial reflection. It has been a wonderful and wonderfully-full two days.

It has certainly been a privilege to be part of a small band who together envisioned the conference, whose energy made it possible, and whose commitment to the conversation between art and theology is long and outstanding. We had a great line up of speakers who, via some wonderfully-stimulating presentations, modelled what the organisers of the conference had hoped – a humble and respectful but no less critical and intelligent conversation by artists and theologians around the conference theme of ‘Tikkun olam’. We were overwhelmed by the number of people who registered for the conference – around double what we had initially anticipated – plus a number of welcomed-walk ins too, all of whom engaged in the conversations with enthusiasm and grace. Like every conference of which I’ve been a part, this one too provided opportunity to re-connect with friends, to finally put some faces to names, and to meet in-the-flesh those with whom one has only ever ‘met’ in e-land. Of this latter category, it was really great to finally meet Paul Fromont, with whom I enjoyed a very rewarding conversation and my first pint of Moe Methode.

An event of this kind is an all-too-rare thing, and its happening has been both a real joy and a long-time goal for me personally. I hope that all who attended left the event as encouraged, challenged and enriched as I was by the encounter.

Speaking of theology and the arts, here’s a few recent links of interest:

Alfonse Borysewicz: ‘Can You Be a Contemporary Artist and a Practicing Catholic?’

alfonse-borysewicz-1I have posted on Alfonse Borysewicz before: here and here. In the latter post I mentioned that Alfonse would be delivering the Brooklyn Oratory‘2009 Baronius Lecture. He has been kind enough to send me a copy:


Baronius Lecture 2009 – Alfonse Borysewicz

Oratory Church of St. Boniface, Brooklyn, New York

Can You Be a Contemporary Artist and a Practicing Catholic?


There is a story about a rabbi going to see another rabbi and finds himself immersed in the reading of the Torah. “What are you doing?”-“I’m trying to interpret a passage that I’ve been studying for years and can’t explain completely to myself.” “Let me see: I’ll try to explain it to you myself.” “That won’t do any good, I can explain it to other people; what I can’t do is explain it to myself.”

In 1977, on my first day of seminary, after two years of college at a Jesuit university in Detroit, I found in my hands a book of poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins. To this day I still make pilgrimages with that old college Penquin paperback; particularly one poem, “Carrion Comfort,” which has become a personal mantra for me.  The opening lines of this heart-felt poem are:

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist-slack they may be-these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more….

Three decades have passed since I finished my seminary studies, and, in a clumsy way, decided not to become a priest, and instead have spent now 30 odd years working as a painter, first in Boston, with quick recognition and subsequently in the New York art world. Today when I ask myself if I can be a contemporary artist and a practicing Catholic, Hopkins’ words, “despair” , “weary” and “these last strands of man,” squeeze me hard. For me this question is a real-life drama. And it is not as simple as one might think.

In his autobiography, Henry Adams, heir to two presidents and an accomplished author of biographies, novels, a nine-volume history of the US, and works on education and art, portrays himself as a misfit. From a literary standpoint his life was an extraordinary success, but in his own estimation he had failed miserably. He saw himself as a human fossil, a survivor from an earlier era confronted with a bewildering, changing world. In The Education of Henry Adams, he wrote: “What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the twentieth?”

alfonse-borysewicz-21Like Adams, I’m often tempted to see myself as a human fossil. As a practicing Catholic I am in many ways a product of other centuries, yet contemporary art requires me to play-exclusively- the game of the twenty-first century, a world that changes even faster than the one Adams lived in. With the compounded temptation to idolize an ever increasing material and technological world at the expense of a sacramental vision of the world.

In the book The Church Confronts Modernity, published by Catholic University, several authors reflect on the church and culture in Quebec, Ireland, and the United States. With regard to the “home country,” so to speak, one author makes a distinction between two Catholicisms in America: one emphasizing authority, one emphasizing individual conscience. The former highlights knowing the church’s teachings; the other, being a good Christian. The first views modern society as evil, the second as God’s creation. And so it goes.

Regardless of which model you follow, the dilemma is the same: either you can risk denying your ultimate identity by changing (or pandering), or else by refusing to change you can become obsolete, out of step with the modern, or should I say, the lost modern world.

When I was in my thirties, my paintings, though they were full of religious meaning for me, were safely abstract, and I was welcomed into the gallery scene of the time. As I entered my forties, my Catholicism became more important to me (the culture wars, raising children, terror and war, etc.), and my paintings began to change (less abstract, more representational with direct religious imagery). This new work was no longer welcome in the galleries that had once shown my work and, it seems, in the dialogue of the culture. Recently I have come to the realization that my erasure from the art world was no fluke. Rather my initial 15 years of success was the fluke. That is to say, my intuitive drive to unite my art with my faith and religion was doomed to fail in the culture world at large from the get go. The boulder I have been pressing to move, the truncated and distorted views of God and the Faith and the Church, has been there for centuries. And it’s taken me 51 years to realize this. But the wonder and gift is I have realized this. The question now is do I attempt to participate in the contemporary culture-art world by changing and updating or  as Zsigmond Moricz wrote in the great Central European classic novel of a budding artist’s struggle, do I remain “faithful unto death”?

Why remain faithful to religious imagery in an increasing secularized world? This is a question I often ask myself at around five AM when I wait for the sunrise and the soon honking horns outside my window. Why am I still pressing this boulder that has cost my family and I so dearly?  It is an old question, and one that lives at the heart of Christian worship, which brings ancient events into the here and now by presenting us with images. Our liturgy, so beautifully celebrated in this Church, celebrates events that take place in the present, and are at the same time linked to a historical past we can barely imagine. Yet this is what both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance did: they portrayed biblical stories in a contemporary setting.

I can think of many more recent artists who do this, but one American nomadic modernist in particular comes to mind: Marsden Harltey of New York and Maine, who in 1941 painted Fisherman’s Last Supper, an ordinary family at dinner minus the loved ones lost recently at sea. From this fishing village portrait to the Ghent Altarpiece or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, all imply, as Heather Dubrow writes in The Challenge of Orpheus, that “the figure within it is, as it were, alive and well in that very church at that very moment.” Saint Augustine echoes this: “Easter happened once yet the yearly remembrance brings before our eyes, in a way, what once happened long ago.” Why this recreation of Christian events, reoccurring from medieval peasants to the geniuses of the Renaissance to New York neurotics like Marsden Harltey and myself? Augustine answers: “for fear we should forget what occurred but once, it is re-enacted every year for us to remember.”

One cannot talk about American Catholic identity, culture, and the artistic endeavor, without (forgive me) genuflecting to the writer working from Milledgeville, Georgia-Flannery O’Connor. Echoing Chesterton, O’Connor insisted that the free will essential to Catholicism also freed the imagination. As she put it: “The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom by sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain in that way.” In other words, do you live and create in an ordered autonomy where your freedom is guided by transcendent values or a radical autonomy where anything goes. Or, in short, a freedom that views life as a gift or a freedom that views life as something to me manipulated. I think the latter is the prevalent operative mode in our culture today, though recently it is showing signs of stress. As Karl Barth writes even God put limits on God’s own freedom by resting on the seventh day of creation.

So where am I?  Like Adams, am I a misfit? With my sacred obsessions, I feel like a genetic mutant unfossilized from the thirteenth century into the twenty-first.  When asked why she had a penchant for writing about freaks, Flannery O’Connor replied, “because I can still recognize one.” Why, in a culture divorced from and hostile to religious devotion, am I painting religious images and icons? Because, as O’Connor said, “I can still recognize one.”

The Czech philosopher Habermas warns us that “global capitalism’s triumphal march encounters few genuine oppositions and, in that regard, religion, as a repository of transcendence, has an important role to play. It offers a much-needed dimension of otherness: the values of love, community, and godliness to help offset the global dominance of competitiveness, acquisitiveness, and manipulation that predominates in the vocational sphere.” Or more basic, I don’t want my children or their children, my friends and their friends, or the passerby/stranger to abandon or forget their place in, as Pope Benedict illuminated in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, in this ongoing love story. To bring it back home from a hymn sang here two just two Fridays ago at the noon mass (#630 Lord, Whom Love is Humble Service):

Still your children wander homeless

Still the hungry cry for bread

Still the captives long for freedom

Still in grief we mourn our dead

As. O Lord, your deep compassion

Healed the sick, and feed the soul.

Use the love your Spirit kindles

Still to save and make us whole.

Look around, folks. You might not see anything like this for some time to come. Honestly, I have nowhere to go with these works. The galleries won’t exhibit them; they’ve abandoned religious expression.  Except for occasional moments like this, the Church and its parishes won’t display them. They have neglected or forgotten their own heritage, and so my work seems unusual to them at best, or at worst, dangerous. The universities, well, they will only show them on PowerPoint. ..Or perhaps Saul Bellow was right when he said “art can’t carry the weight of religion.”

alfonse-borysewicz-3-1My hero, the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan, saw the crisis of culture and faith years ago. In 1967, he wrote: “There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this and that new possibility. But what will count is a perhaps not a numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transition to be made, strong enough to refuse half measure and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait….”

In 1987, desperately hungry for a community to worship with, I took a bike ride to the Cathedral of St. James and found my home. After that first mass and walking up to Fr. Jim Hinchey inquiring about Baptism for my daughter in budding he soon put me to work in the bookstore. Then the transition from St. James to here when Fr. Dennis Corrado implored me to make a processional cross, do some gold leafing, and more…I will never forget his mandate: “Alfonse don’t worry about money because we don’t have any.” Though profoundly grateful to have worked in this church, to bring my art in this sacred space, I don’t think I can stomach again, like I did a few weeks ago and again ten years before, right here, holding the ladder while Fr. Mark Lane balances himself like an acrobat on these ladders to reach a hook, without a nerve in his body trembling while I shook below.

As for myself, like Saint Augustine, I have become a question to myself. About a year ago the Jesuit magazine printed an article about my works entitled “An Ordinary Mystic”. I actually brought up the Rahnerian idea after hearing about it from a friend; a beautiful idea. As my friend

Jesuit Michael Paul Gallagher writes “ future believers will have to be mystics or else they will not have faith. Clearly this cannot mean that everyone has to have the special gift of mystical saints. Rather it suggests that, in a more secular context, faith will have to be grounded in a personal experience of grace. It will need an ability to recognize the Spirit at work in one’s ordinary life.”

On the question of whether one can be a Catholic artist and be a contemporary painter, I will defer. I’m too saturated, too involved, too subjective, too neurotic to answer. They say that one doesn’t look at icons, but they look at you. My paintings, my icons, are looking down at you. Let me know. There-on my left-is Mary Magdalene. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard writes “the words of the angel to Mary Magdalene at the grave could be used here: Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus of Nazareth; because until confidence appears, the person who seeks Jesus at first actually experiences fear before him, before his holiness.” Or as the filmmaker Bresson in Diary of a Country Priest, echoing St. Therese of Lisieux , all is grace.

Alfonse Borysewicz: The Art of Lent

emmaus-2007-08-101-x-64-inchesDuring Lent, the Oratory Church of St Boniface will exhibit the works of the distinguished Catholic artist and Oratory parishioner, Alfonse Borysewicz. I have posted previously on Alfonse here.

Alfonse was born in Detroit in 1957 and has been residing in Brooklyn since 1988 where he and his family have been members of the Oratory Church of St. Boniface. He received a master’s degree in theology before studying painting at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston. Borysewicz has received two Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grants (1987, 1992) and a Guggenheim Painting Fellowship (1995). He has exhibited widely in the United States, Europe and Japan. His writings can also be found in Image. Jonathon Goodman wrote in Art in America, ‘Borysewicz’s ability to invent a language of transcendence which is both traditional and of the moment makes him a compelling artist’.

The paintings on exhibit for Lent are a continuance of Borysewicz’s work for the Oratory since the early 1990s (he has completed two side chapels, a processional cross as well as paintings for the residence chapel).

mary-magdalene-2007-69-x-69-inches1The Lenten paintings will cover the stained-glass windows for the 40 day period of Lent. These paintings with their austerity of near abstraction reverence the Icons of Christian antiquity. With a modern hand Borysewicz gives pictorial voice to the Catholic heritage. As Pope Benedict once observed, ‘next to the saints the art which the church has produced is the only real apologia for her history’.

Alfonse Borysewicz will also deliver the Brooklyn Oratory ‘2009 Baronius Lecture’ on 22 March at 4 pm. His lecture will be entitled ‘Art and Faith: Can You Be a Contemporary Artist and a Practicing Catholic?’. The lecture will be followed by a reception and tour of Alfonse’s paintings. See here for more details.

Left image: ‘Emmaus’, 2007; Right image: ‘Mary Magdalene’, 2007.

Introducing Alfonse Borysewicz

The artist Alfonse Borysewicz has already received mention in a number of my articles (including this one). Now, America: The National Catholic Weekly has published an article on Alfonse entitled ”An Ordinary Mystic’: The faith and art of Alfonse Borysewicz’. Because I’m such a fan of Alfonse’s work I thought it worth reproducing the article by Maurice Timothy Reidy here. There’s also an audio slide show of his work that you might want to check out (I recommend doing so before you read the article).

The relationship between the art world and the Catholic Church in recent years has been, to say the least, strained. To pick two prominent examples, Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ” was condemned by Catholic leaders when it was first shown in 1989, as was Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung-covered Madonna, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” when it was unveiled at the Brooklyn Museum 10 years later. While these works have their Catholic defenders, the controversies that erupted around them are a sign of a wide gap that has opened up between art—specifically the visual arts—and religion. Once the foremost patron of the arts, the church is now more circumspect about contemporary painting. The art world, meanwhile, seems glad to be rid of the church’s influence, exercising its own kind of censorship on material it deems tainted by sentimental piety.

Trying to bridge the gap between these two spheres is not for the faint of heart, and one is hard-pressed to find many artists who have the courage to try. One painter who is both a committed Catholic and a serious artist is Alfonse Borysewicz (pronounced Bor-uh-CHEV-itz), a Brooklyn-based former seminarian whose work has been shown both in Chelsea and in a Catholic church in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Gregory Wolfe, an editor at Image, a quarterly review of arts and religion, calls Borysewicz one of the most important religious artists since the French Catholic Georges Rouault. When first encountering Borysewicz’s work, Wolfe felt “he was in the presence of something sacred.” He sensed that the art was “almost being offered up, instead of saying ‘Look at me.’”

Yet despite his strong desire to exhibit his work in “sacred spaces,” Borysewicz has received little attention from the church. His work is currently on display at the Oratory Church of St. Boniface in Brooklyn and has appeared in a few liturgical art magazines, but he has failed to break through to the next level. His difficulties as a Catholic trying to make it in the art world—and an artist trying to make in the Catholic world—say much about the state of religion and art in our era.

‘Separated’ From New York

Borysewicz is an avid reader of theology. He likes to sprinkle his conversation with quotes from Karl Rahner (“Every act has eternal consequences”) or René Girard (a historian who has written on violence and religion), and recently he has been working his way through the writings of Bernard Lonergan. While he does not claim to understand it all, Borysewicz hopes that certain parts seep into his consciousness and find their way into his paintings. In the past he has found inspiration in homilies. In one, his pastor compared the outstretched arms of Jesus to an open embrace. That idea is reflected in his three-panel painting “Cross I & II and Blessing,” which shows the two outstretched arms of Jesus, as well as a hand held in a gesture of blessing.

Borysewicz lives in Bay Ridge, a traditionally Italian section of Brooklyn, with his wife and two children, ages 20 and 14. A tall man approaching 50 who still favors the clothes of a Brooklyn hipster, Borysewicz paints in a walk-up studio apartment in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, in a neighborhood known as Dumbo. Down the street is the storied River Café, and in the distance the skyline of Lower Manhattan. When he was young, Borysewicz enjoyed success across the river, where his work was exhibited in galleries in Chelsea.

Borysewicz now considers himself “separated” from the New York art scene. He sees theology and art as “one continuum,” but as of late, he says, he has been forced to choose between the two. Asked to pinpoint the moment when his fortunes changed, he recalls a show in the late 1990s. (It is a sign of Borysewicz’s liturgical-mindedness that the show was meant to mark the last Advent of the millennium.) The centerpiece of the exhibit was “Your Own Soul,” a small chapel he constructed from paintings and collages. The title, taken from Simeon’s words to Mary in Luke’s Gospel (“a sword will pierce your own soul”) was suggested by Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., a professor at the Gregorian University in Rome, who first met Borysewicz in 1993.

“It took the form of a four-sided small chapel,” Gallagher recalled in an e-mail interview, “with symbols of tears on the outside, and one had to enter the interior on one’s knees. Inside you first saw a large, dark figure suggesting a dead body, and as the eyes became used to the dim light, one discovered smaller gold hints of resurrection.”

As a Catholic, Borysewicz had always been interested in religious themes, but in early paintings, like “River Rouge and Grace” (1993-96) or in his “Strata” series (1992), the imagery was more abstract. In such works as “Your Own Soul,” his art became more representational, which, he says, was “the beginning of my undoing.” Curators and collectors were “comfortable with [his faith] in the abstract, but not in the flesh.” That may seem like a broad indictment, but Wolfe thinks it is particularly difficult for a religious painter to make his way in the contemporary art world. “Of all the different art forms, the one that is the most hostile, the most hermetically sealed against religion in any kind of dimension…is the visual arts,” he says.

In 1995 at least one critic recognized the spiritual dimension of Borysewicz’s painting. “One look around the gallery tells you that Alfonse Borysewicz is a person of tremendous spiritual intensity,” Pepe Karmel wrote in a 1995 review in The New York Times. “The problem is getting this intensity onto canvas in a convincing way.” Borysewicz, not surprisingly, disagrees with Karmel’s implied criticism—where else could the critic sense the intensity except from the canvas?—but tries to take a detached approach to criticism. What is most important to him now, he says, is “not so much how I changed painting but how painting changed me.” His goal is no longer to mount a show in New York, but to present his art in churches and to help younger artists to do so as well.

“Sacred spaces have to inspire again,” he told me during an interview at his studio. “So many churches rest on what they’ve been given. There’s a younger generation out there who want to authentically give their voice to it.”

Finding a Vocation and a Home

Borysewicz was raised in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit when the city was undergoing tumultuous change. As a boy, he learned about the importance of faith from his parents, who were still mourning the loss of his older sister, who had died two years before he was born. Every week the family would go to the graveyard, and his parents often spoke about her. That experience gave him a sense that “you were always breaking bread with your past, that the past was present…and the vehicle for that was faith,” he says.

Borysewicz attended college for two years before entering the seminary, where he met Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., who encouraged him to paint. In 1981, he left the seminary and moved to Boston, where he taught in a Catholic high school while taking art classes at night.

He describes his work from that period as “Otto Dix meets Marc Chagall.” In a few years he was showing his paintings in New York and Boston. The twin tragedies of his father’s death in 1983 and the outbreak of the AIDS pandemic, which took the lives of many friends and colleagues, gave him a sense that suffering and death were very much a part of life.

In his essay in Image (No. 32), Borysewicz wrote that he was also struggling with “guilt over my choice of vocation.” He wrote:

Given my family’s working-class ethic, what I was doing seemed strange. At times it was construed as lazy, arrogant or sissy, but the charge that hurt me the most, and still does, was that what I was doing was indulging in artifice. People make that accusation because they don’t see art as part of the real world, which they see as made up of bread-and-butter issues like building a solid career; they do not see how the struggle of faith and its representations connects with all of our lives.

Borysewicz has found an artistic home at the Oratory Church of St. Boniface. He was encouraged to paint for the church when the parish moved from its former home a few miles away to its current site in downtown Brooklyn. The Rev. Mark Lane, the pastor, coordinated the redesign of the old church of St. Boniface with the goal of bringing together “the old and the new.” He recruited Borysewicz, a parishioner, to contribute to the project.

Two of Borysewicz’s paintings are displayed behind statues in the church’s vestibule. Borysewicz would prefer the art to stand on its own, rather than behind more traditional works of art, but Lane gave serious thought to the decision. He believes the older statues—like one of St. Philip Neri—will help lead the worshipers to the more modern, challenging work.

“We’ve never had any negative comments from anyone,” says Lane. “Although sometimes you hear, ‘I don’t understand what it means’—the sort of standard response to contemporary modern art.”

The most challenging piece of art at St. Boniface is not in the sanctuary, but in the priests’ private chapel. Known as “Cor Unum,” Borysewicz’s four-paneled canvas covers an entire wall of the room. The center panel depicts a bee hive of activity; the right panel shows Jesus peering from behind a honeycomb. The images are scattered about, some difficut to discern. It is difficult to imagine “Cor Unum” displayed on the wall of your local parish, but unlike many pieces of conventional liturgical art, it provokes contemplation. When showing off the piece, Lane pointed to the honeycomb motif, which he interprets as a symbol of how, in John’s Gospel, the early church viewed life through the lens of the community.

“It’s actually quite accurate, theologically,” Lane says.

Borysewicz finds it frustrating that he cannot place his art in more churches. Too many churches are unimaginative, he says, adding that while parishes have experimented with modern music, architecture, even dance, they seem less willing to embrace modern visual art.

Why? “A cautious piety seems safer,” says Father Gallagher. “I suppose there is a fear that people will find [modern art] too strange, difficult or different. Caravaggio got something of the same reaction in his day. One of Alfonse’s favorite theologians, Bernard Lonergan, once quipped that the church always arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late.”

A Difficult Choice

Making the choice to be a painter has been a difficult one for Borysewicz. He has struggled financially and has done teaching on the side to provide for his family. “I feel like I’ve taken a vow with painting,” he says. At a conference for young evangelicals in New York in March, Borysewicz told the crowd that he is often approached by people who say they intend to devote their lives to painting when they retire. “No you won’t,” he tells them. “This life is not a dress rehearsal.”

“Alfonse is very down to earth,” says Gallagher, “often surprising audiences with his emphasis on art as hard work [and] daily waiting.” He tells them it is “not as romantic as people imagine.”

Gregory Wolfe, a fan and friend, suggested that Borysewicz has suffered some “emotional fallout” as a result of separating himself from the contemporary art scene. In our conversations, Borysewicz also suggested that he was emerging from a dark time. When pressed, he noted enigmatically, “I’ve taken hostages on this journey—my kids and my wife.”

After meeting with Borysewicz several times, I was struck by the ways he describes himself. He often identifies himself as an “ordinary mystic”—an allusion to Rahner’s comment that all modern believers are in some ways mystics. In professional circles he has taken to calling himself an “icon painter,” although more traditional icon painters might take exception to that description. It is obvious that he sees himself as part of an artistic religious tradition that stretches back centuries.

Identifying himself so clearly as a religious painter has had its consequences, but Borysewicz does not seem to regret his choice. He likes to say that the purpose of the religious image is twofold: to “tell us what happened and to remind us what was promised.” Finding new ways to present the Gospel story may be a rare artistic endeavor today, but Borysewicz’s work is a reminder that it is still fertile soil for those willing to till it.