“The fifth day also tells of great whales and winged fowl. In the fragment at the top of Giotto’s fresco as we see St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. The abundance and diversity of a flock of birds gathered together in groups has inspired me to a form that is recognizable in my new series of pictures. It is the outlines of the flocks of birds in movement as I experienced them in the area where I grew up by the Danish coast. Here, thousands of birds would congregate to migrate together, some to the south and some to the north. There was a constant movement and constant change in the shape and colour play in the group. I have often seen this spectacle, in which birds soar up and fill the air with joy and with a start and finish in constant change like waves in the ocean as they constantly start anew. The paintings attempt to show this structure and must be seen as an approach to the moment of creation that is not a figurative representation, but a vision.”
- Maja Lisa Engelhardt, on her personal development of the show
Maja Lisa Engelhardt’s The Fifth Day, currently on display at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery in Chelsea, explores the idea that the days of Creation prior to communication (which happens on Day Six when God speaks with man) can only be depicted abstractly rather than through figurative representation. Throughout over 30 works Engelhardt expresses a variety of abstract visions that convey the experience of this particular day of Creation.
The Fifth Day of Creation in the Book of Genesis reads as follows:
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. - Genesis 1.20-23
Focused on the creation of the birds and fish on Earth, Engelhardt’s artwork utilizes a wide variety of colors to explore the chaos of her visions. Deep texture highlights the artist’s process of layering paint as she develops each work. Throughout the exhibit the viewer is able to follow Engelhardt as she experiences the confusion and discovery that come with her envisioning the creative process of God through the filter of her own artistic rendering.
The three pieces presented in sequence below show little consistency in brushstroke or color, yet they each illustrate moments in Engelhardt’s overall creative process. The center painting contains a rich purple with vertical sections that acts in contrast to the pastels and horizontal brushstrokes evident in the two others. All three works are examples of the abstract visions that Engelhardt experiences, and they highlight her inability to create a concrete image of the Fifth Day. This variety is not due to confusion on the artist’s part, but rather to the endless possibilities of abstract representation that the day has.
Compare the power of using abstraction to represent the Creation, as Engelhardt does, to a more explicit rendering, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Though the latter does not depict the Fifth Day specifically, his figural representations of Adam and Eve, and the intangible being of God, have endured in our cultural consciousness. Engelhardt reacts to this, finding a new way to examine and explain the text of Genesis, which itself has always been read both literally and abstractly.
The Fifth Day is on view at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery (529 W. 20th St.) through November 30, 2013. The gallery has hosted Engelhardt’s other shows, The Second Day (2007), The Third Day (2009), and The Fourth Day (2009).
Be sure to catch the only contemporary biblical show happening in Chelsea right now – it’s worth the trip.
- E.W. for MOBIA