Finding the Way 3: 1999-2015

During the 1990s, I drew the interiors of Welsh chapel (in situ) and made constructions based upon them that fused their internal and external aspects. The pared-down simplicity of chapels in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries provided a proto-minimalist aesthetic that informed the formal character of both these artworks and those that I’d make after 1999.

John Harvey, Gospel Pews (1991) pencil on paper, 37 × 37.9 cm & interior of Siloam (Welsh) Independent Chapel (rebuilt 1902), Morfa Bychan, Porthmadog, Gwynedd, Wales (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

This was the year in which my book Image of the Invisible: The Visualization of Religion in the Welsh Nonconformist Tradition was published. It marked a turning point in the development of my work. At this juncture, my commitments in art history and art practice coalesced. My interest in the relationship of invisibility to Protestant expressions of religious representation became the driving force behind the conception and production of visual art.

The austerity of Welsh chapel interiors had been, to a great extent, conditioned by the strictures of Calvinism. (Calvinistic Methodism was by far the largest denomination in Wales in the nineteenth century.) The sixteenth century Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-64) insisted that since God was invisible we should not attempt to portray him as having outward form. Likewise, we should not worship him by any means other than those prescribed in Scripture: preaching, prayer, the public reading of the Bible, and hymn singing. Thus pictures and statues of God, along with representations of Mary, saints, prophets, and martyrs, were excluded from Calvinist churches. For their use in places of worship wasn’t sanctioned by God’s word and inevitably lead to idolatry, Calvin believed. In their place, the Word of God was turned into an image. For example, in nineteenth-century chapels, biblical texts proclaiming the attributes of God, and commending a correct attitude of heart and mind in which to come before him, blazed down from above the pulpits.

Painted text and scroll (nineteenth century, second half), Carmel (Baptist) chapel, New Tredegar, Monmouthshire, Wales & John Harvey, Bethel III (1995), acrylic and woodstain on plyboard, 45 × 60 × 7 cm.

My ambition was to conceive an artform that honoured the limitations, and explored the positive potentialities, of this particular theology and culture of text-based images and aniconicism. To this end the artworks pictorialise the scriptures, but without recourse to either figurative or typographical representation. Moreover, the texts (their letters, words, and semantic content) inform the images’ structure, size, format, colour, surface, and regulating ideas. The outcome is an abstract, Protestant, and biblical art that proceeds from a rationale practice. The artworks eschew emotional content, limit intentionality (insomuch as the text ‘predestinates’ the pictorial outcome, to a great extent) on my part, and aim to be as simple as possible and as complex as necessary. Moreover, they aren’t intended to be either an aid or an accessory to worship. Rather, the artworks are cyphers derived from, and serving as a focus for an abstract contemplation upon, Scripture.

John Harvey, ‘The First Day’ (Gen. 1-1.5) (2007) oil on board, 70 × 70 cm (Hebrew) & Foundation Piece II (2007) (Ezk. 4.1) 45 × 45 cm (King James Version).

‘Word’ is fundamental to the Judaeo-christian religion. It’s a manifestation of the divine fiat, by which all things were made ‘in the beginning’: ‘God said …’ (Genesis 1.3-5). That ‘Word was made flesh’ at the incarnation of Christ — ‘who is the image of the invisible God’ (John 1.4-10, Colossians 1.15). The Word became the image; the image is the Word. This idea was, for me, a Möbius loop wherein text and its visualisation were two sides of a surface that formed a seamless continuum.

John Harvey, Bible Studies: God/Word (Gen. 1.1-24; Jn 1.1-7) (2013) letterpress ink and carbon powder toner on paper, 18.9 × 24 cm (King James Version) & Bible Studies: Lamentations (‘He Hath Pulled Me to Pieces’) (Lam. 3.11) carbon powder toner and gouache on paper, 15.8 × 20.7 cm (King James Version).

The artworks are framed within a trilogy of projects — entitled The Pictorial Bible series — that spanned fifteen years: Settings of the Psalms (2000); Seal Up the Vision and Prophecy (2007); and The Bible in Translation (2015). The outcome of each project was an exhibition and accompanying illustrated catalogue. The catalogues include an extensive essay describing the visual, biblical, and theological underpinning of the artworks, and their procedural systems.

The Pictorial Bible series (2000-15).

I’m now sufficiently distant from the series for it to sit comfortably in my past. ‘It is finished!’ Nevertheless, the undergirding principle — that of translating biblical (and, now, religious) texts in the form of found sounds and recorded speech, presently — into artworks, endures. The third instalment of the series was conceived as both a visual and an audible enquiry; as such, it built a bridge to The Aural Bible series. This began in 2015, and has preoccupied me ever since. The transition from visual art to sound art represented a more uncompromising response to The Pictorial Bible series’ objective: to render the Bible ‘invisibly’. For, the sonic ‘image’ is immaterial and without perceivable form — other than as a graphic representation on a Digital Audio Workstation application. (Which, too, is an abstraction of the source.)

John Harvey, ‘Matt. 19.3b’, from The Floating Bible: Miracle of the Risen Word (2015) 54-part visual image, carbon powder on Bible paper on board, 21 × 28 cm (King James Version) & Matt. 19.3b’ [detail] from The Floating Bible: Miracle of the Risen Word (2015) 57-part sonic image, 7. 25 min., (King James Version).

By the close of the trilogy, my ambition had been realised. I could no longer justify casting any further artworks in this direction. In effect, my visual art practice drew to a standstill. Painting, drawing, collage etc. may come into focus once again, but only when ideas that require a visual articulation present themselves. If and when they do, the visual conceptualisation and image-making process will be coloured by what has taken place, creatively speaking, between the end of The Pictorial Bible series and The Aural Bible series to date.

John Harvey, 5000 Series: John (Jn 6.5-15) (2000) multipart inkjet print, 71.25 × 142.5 cm (American Standard Version).

Just as art history and art practice came together in 1999, so too visual art and sound art practices are presently and steadily closing-in on one another, like parallel lines moving towards the centre of vision on the horizon. ‘Integration’ is a word of exhortation that has blazed down from above ever since I began my career.

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