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"Beholder" images explore man's disconnection from nature, ritual

Opening this weekend at the Gaspard Gallery on South Division, Chris Cox's photography confronts the viewer with our unease with both spirituality and direct experiences in the natural world.

/Chris Cox

Opening for Beholder

Friday, December 6

6-11 p.m.

Gaspard Gallery

235 South Division Avenue

/Chris Cox

/Chris Cox

On December 6 Chris Cox, photographer and founder of Gaspard Gallery, will release a book of photographs titled Beholder. The large, soft cover volume features two poems by Jacob Bullard, and is designed by Ben Biondo. Biondo’s design is innovative and restrained; it has a subtle sophistication without being overly hip. 

The photographs depict young male models- some with a hooded tunic, some with tattered shorts, and some nude- engaged in various activities and poses in a deciduous forest. The men step carefully through streams, lay on logs, stare at the camera and stand among plumes of red smoke. A few photos don’t feature the men at all, but focus on the landscape or a totem-like object that seems to consist of a dark blanket draped over an upright stick. The photographs have a slightly faded, analogue quality. The book has been printed in a limited edition, and Cox has taken care to not distribute most of these photos online. He’s concerned with direct experience, both with our encounter with the printed book, and in the subject of the photographs, as we’re made aware of the direct bodily experience these men are having with the natural world.

In 723, the Anglo-Saxon missionary St. Boniface traveled deep into the pagan lands of Germania with the hope of spreading the gospel. The pagans there worshipped a pantheon of gods, often in sacred wooded groves where ancient trees stood as the incarnations of deities. While preaching in a region now known as Hesse, Germany, Boniface wanted to make a point. As the pagans watched, he chopped down a holy tree known as Donar’s Oak. When Boniface wasn’t struck down by fire from the heavens, the pagans realized the truth of Boniface’s gospel and converted to Christianity on the spot. Or so the story goes.

The tale of St. Boniface and Donar’s Oak is about much more than a shift in religious identity in Western Europe, it’s about the establishment of Western civilization. The Christian Church in Europe formed the backbone for much of what Western civilization is to this day. Even developments that questioned God, such as the Enlightenment and Modernity, developed largely as a reaction to European Christendom, and bare its mark as a civilizing force.

Beholder is a record of men attempting to de-civilize themselves. These images speak of vague rituals and cryptic rites of passage. The encounters with nature these photographs capture read as an attempt to build rituals in a world where they are no longer necessary. They are a return to the sacred grove.

I don’t know a lot about Chris Cox, but I do know that he recently graduated from Hope College. I studied art at Calvin College, another Reformed Christian school in West Michigan, so the tension between theological certainty on one hand- and the open curiosity required to make art honestly on the other- is familiar to me. How can art earnestly seek truth if the truth is already known? Reformed Christianity doesn’t feature rituals the way Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy do. Reformed faith can easily become an intellectual exercise, separate from the daily reality in which we experience life with our bodies. What the Reformed tradition often misses is that there are many ways of knowing things, and our minds are only one. Beholder reads like an attempt to know spiritual reality through the body.

Whether this bodily encounter with nature is a way of augmenting Reformed faith, or a retreat from it, is not clear. The images where red smoke obscures the figure suggest that this sojourn to the forest is not about finding clarity. Rather, these men are here to become lost. The images don’t provide a solution to the problem of the modern body’s disconnect from nature. Rather, the images dwell in the anxiety of that condition, and they are stronger for it. 

The opening reception for Beholder is Friday, December 6, from 6-11 p.m.

Gaspard is located at 235 South Division Avenue, Grand Rapids, MI 49503.

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