Home ANS Feature Avant-Garde Icons: Metaphysics Made Manifest

Avant-Garde Icons: Metaphysics Made Manifest

by Brian Nixon

Avant GardeIcons smallerALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – June 2, 2017) — As a painter I’m often asked what medium I work in. When I tell the inquirer, watercolors, they usually respond in one of two ways: One, they say something to the effect, “How quaint, I love watercolors; they’re so pretty.” And for those that know the medium, they respond with: “That’s the hardest medium to paint with. What type of work do you do with watercolors — realism or abstract?”

When I tell them that I don’t use watercolors in the traditional way, but in a color-field sense, trying to capture a metaphysical reality, they usually just stare at me. A follow up question ensues: What do you mean metaphysical? I get more blank stares when I let the person know that I yearn to paint Christian ideals revolving around being, essence, knowledge and spirit as best communicated through avant-garde icons.


After a nod of the head and a smile, the conversation continues: Avant-garde icons? Aren’t icons a Roman Catholic or Orthodox thing? As a Protestant, how can you paint icons? And what do you mean by the term avant-garde anyway? It’s here when the explanation gets interesting. My response goes something like this.

MalevichIcons are an early Christian painting practice, established within the 2nd to 4th centuries. Prior to this Christians used symbolic icons in their art: doves, anchors, fish, vines, mosaics, and the like. Icons are not meant to be realistic imagery — as in perfect representations of a Biblical or Christian event, but were meant to be physical representations that reveal metaphysical truth, a type of reverse and spiritual perspective [1]. Andrew Spira reminds us, “The definitive characteristic of icons goes beyond artistic or sociological significance; it lies with their metaphysical identity.”

Icons were emblems of God’s eternal ideals. Icon’s typified transcendent reality; a means to ponder God’s works as they takes on physicality through His creation, God’s thoughts made visible. The best Biblical representation of this concept (to the most sublime degree) is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the letter of Colossians Paul uses the Greek word eikon to describe Christ (Colossians 1:15). Icons are a painterly means to represent Biblical truth, as words do through a sermon. As an early church council stated, “Whatever the doctrine says with words, the icon carries with lines and colors.”

Over time, religious painting became codified through differing branches of Christianity, most notable Eastern Orthodox (including Russia) and Roman Catholic. Rome’s use of icons came with some notable skirmishes between the Iconoclasts (those who rejected images) and Icon painters. By the late 800’s AD the controversy died down, with both Eastern and Western churches practicing the art as a means of spiritual renewal and discipline.

God’s Being

Because of Protestantism’s emphasis on Scripture culminating with the Protestant Reformation in 1517, some branches within Protestantism were not overly friendly towards icons, viewing icons as idolatry or the making of a graven image. If icon painters were worshiping the painting, this accusation would be warranted; there is only One God, and He is not made — or painted. However, as mentioned above, the historical basis of icon painting was not to worship the painting (which is idolatry), but to use the painting as a means to look beyond this world, pondering God’s being and essence, His work in history and creation.

Since then, many Protestant churches, while not incorporating Iconography in their worship are at least tolerant of its practice, seeing icon painting — like creation itself — as a means to make God’s actions in history and nature visible. As is often stated with icon painting, many Christian denominations view icons as a window to heaven, a means to worship God in spirit and truth. How the various streams of Christianity understand the “window” aspect of an icon’s use is still debated to this day. Most Protestant churches don’t incorporate icons in worship, but will incorporate painting or imagery to teach Christian truth (think of stained glass windows or Biblical pictures on a wall).

Oil and acrylic on canvas: Faith, Hope, and Love

And though I, personally, don’t use icons in worship or venerate them as the Orthodox do, I do find in them a spiritual discipline whereby I seek metaphysical meaning, encompassing, as the Scholastics would say, the two books of God: the Word and world. I understand and use icon paintings as an opening to truth, a way to ponder metaphysical reality, an intellectual journey that has spiritual dividends. For me, the historicity of icon painting is important to the Church. And as someone following in the tradition, painting provides personal renewal. It’s been said that true icon painters pray the painting into existence. I find a similar notion: I get more prayerful when painting; it’s a meditative and thoughtful practice, affording me time to be still and think, contemplating God’s nature and His relationship to the world.

Abstract Iconography

But if you view my icon paintings, you’ll notice a few things. One, they don’t have Biblical imagery. I don’t paint Jesus, Biblical personages, and usually stay away from literal Biblical events (like the nativity). Two, I don’t use traditional methods (wood, egg tempura paints, gold leafing, etc.). As pointed out at the beginning, I use watercolor, and consequently paper, largely because watercolor is see-through and has an ethereal effect. Three, the paintings are text heavy. I include lots of thought-provoking textual imaginary. As an example in the painting St. Agnes of Rome I have a journal page from the artist Agnes Martin copied beneath the painting of a dove. And in St. Nicolas of Myra I have the notebook entry from the songwriter and composer, Nick Cave, beneath the skull of a bull.

Furthermore, as a Protestant I’m inclined towards scripture. In many of the works I include pages from the Bible within the piece. God used language to convey truth; I follow suit. The other way the Lord communicates truth is through creation, the world (and the properties that govern it: natural laws). Because of this I use both “books” in my painting — the word and world, the Bible and nature, scripture and science — as the means to communicate metaphysical truth. Finally, in my recent paintings I incorporate three-dimensional geometry as a way to impress upon the viewer the physical and metaphysical nature of the painting, going beyond our four dimensional world. Math is one of the most precise ways of explaining metaphysical truth; math is metaphysical in its complexity. And though some of the doctrines of the Christian faith are mysteries (that which transcends our understanding), math brings clarity that can help show that God is not illogical, but embodies what is true, beautiful, and good.


And all of this discussion answers the question about being an avant-garde icon painter. Avant-garde is a French word meaning “vanguard” or “advanced guard.” It’s used in association with groups or individuals that like to experiment or take a radical, non-traditional approach to something. And since I’m not a traditionalist, but experimental in my approach, I’d fall within the avant-garde grouping (though I’m not a fan of any title). For a more detailed study of avant-garde icons, I’d recommend the book, The Avant-Garde Icon by Andrew Spira.

Marilyn by Andy Warhol

And though I’m appreciative of the history of Iconography, I view my work as a means to put into the present a practice of the past. People that paved the way before me include the Ukrainian-Russian, Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) [2], the reverse perspective ideology (which incorporated mathematics) of Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), and several modern movements such as Abstract, Minimalism, Color-field, Hard-edge, and Pop (all of these movements sought the essence of the painting through fundamental properties, with an emphasis on line, color, form, and shape, and with Pop—an icon, seeing the painting as a means of thought, leading to deeper truth).


Contemporary painters that incorporated elements of Iconography into his or her work include Roman Catholic, Andy Warhol (1928-1987) [3], and humanist, Erin Currier (b. 1975) [4]. And though each of the artists who incorporate Iconography in non-traditional means has his or her own style, my approach remains focused on the icon’s original intent: to communicate metaphysical truth, a way to ponder the profound nature and characteristics of God. As someone trained in theology and metaphysics, God is the First Cause and Necessary Being, and as a consequence of God’s creative act—all creation, from man to molecules—are the effects of His work in the world; we are His artwork. And as an artist and Christian, I understand there’s a Who behind the why; the work I do attempts to manifest this truth, continuing the creative act through painting.

1) As the Russian mathematician and theologian, Pavel Florensky, would remind us: https://monoskop.org/images/1/11/Florensky_Pavel_1967_2002_Reverse_Perspective.pdf

2) http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/five-ways-look-Malevich-Black-Square

3) http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pop-artist-provocateur-catholic-who-was-andy-warhol-28151/

4) http://erincurrierfineart.com/

Photo captions: 1) Avant-Garde Icons. 2) Supremacist Icon by Kazimir Malevich. 3) St. Nicholas of Cusa by by Brian Nixon (watercolor and mixed media). 4) St. Nicholas of Cusa geometrical webbing. 5) Art Theorist, Pavel Florensky. 6) Brian Nixon.

Brian NixonAbout the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.

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