Light on Loan: The Shaker Hymns of Barbara Prey

Light on Loan. The Shaker Hymns of Barbara Prey

How do you paint an ethos? Poetry and drama are natural media for this challenge (think of Greek tragedy or epic). Music and dance hover close to ritual expression (gospel, Bach’s passions, even Doris Humphrey’s masterful 1930 dance work, The Shakers). Setting aside overt narratives drawn from religious sources (the acres of nativities, depositions, Madonnas, etc. in the Louvre alone), painting is an unusual medium for expressing a belief system. One of the reasons that Barbara Ernst Prey’s bold and eloquent new project is so noteworthy is the uncanny accomplishment of putting an ethoson paper visually. It takes not just consummate technique to make this convincing. It also requires the highest level of empathy that the understanding of the relationship between art and belief can offer, a depth of understanding that might otherwise go under-appreciated in the sheer enjoyment of how virtuosic these works are.

There is an intellectual grasp of the significance of the material that should not surprise those who are familiar with Prey’s educational background: among the areas she explored in the top-tier Williams College art history program were Medieval art and particularly the aesthetics of the cloister. She relayed to me the intriguing back story anecdote that she was listening to a scholarly text on Bach while she painted these works. She brings the ideal academic background, offering a world-historical context to an all-American project of this kind.

The entry and exit points for our understanding of how Prey has captured this spiritual essence are keyed to the relationship between place (topos) and ethos. The Hancock Shaker village is more than a motif for a major artist like Prey. It is not a theater set, either. Each detail is imbued with a thorough, living connection to a way of life grounded in belief. She started with the place itself and delivered a paysage moralisethat plays interiors off the exterior, pulled-back view of the iconic round barn. Having captured international attention with her monumental watercolor that managed the nearly impossible, putting a massive art museum space on the wall as a work of art in a showstopping work at MASS MoCA, Prey applies the same incisive eye and ready hand to the Shaker milieu.

Empty rooms fill with imagined activity, as in Channelled Light with its resonant stillness and arresting detail (that one white cloth hung over the wooden bucket). Transparent washes of watercolor (the pun is irresistible) invoke the ethereal aspect of an ethoseven as the substance of objects and materials is rendered in convincing detail, from the old steel of the long water pipe to the different colors and grains of the wood for the shelf, floor and wall.  A red coat offers the chromatic top note for a glimpse inside the old schoolhouse where lunch pails hang on the wall. The vivid colors of spooled thread remind us that human history, going back tens of thousands of years to the discovery of the first ceremonial garments, weaves color, art and textiles. The only other time I felt that a certain ethoswas expressed by painting was similarly works on paper, in the seventeenth-century Chinese Taoist classic The Mustard-Seed Manual of Painting, which relates the mimetic accuracy of Prey’s strokes to the scholarly keng huastyle which has as its goal nothing short of the evocation of the elusive qi(spirit or life principle. Prey later shared she has a copy of the book which she used while a Luce Scholar studying with a master Chinese painter in Taiwan).  Prey is fascinated by the Shaker phrase, “borrowed light,” and some of the most unforgettable moments in these works feature a raking light that dramatically slips across the wall and floor, catching the folds of a blue jacket and casting crisp black shadows in a crisp rhythm. The poetry of Emily Dickinson would also not be out of place in this context: “There’s a certain slant of light…”

Charles A. Riley II, PhD is the director of the Nassau Museum of Art, the author of thirty-five books on art, literature, music and philosophy, and a professor at Clarkson University. His books include Free as Gods, Color Codes, The Saints of Modern Art, The Jazz Age in France, and Art at Lincoln Center. He has curated major exhibitions in Berlin, Taiwan, Amsterdam and New York. He was senior editor at Art & Antiques as well as Art & Auction magazines, and is a former reporter at Time Inc.