Contemporary Depictions of Christianity: Bruce H. Smith

 In MOA Features

Bruce H. Smith, Dispensation of Virtue, 2011, oil on canvas, 43 x 38 1/2 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Museum Leadership Council members Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley, Roy and Carol Christensen, Curtis Atkisson, Craig and Marilyn Faulker, Ray and Rita Hingson, Holly and David Jordan, and Stephen and Martha West in honor of Brigham Young University Museum of Art Director Campbell Gray (1996-2011), 2011.

Guest Post by MOA Marketing Intern, Emma Siddoway

Bruce H. Smith’s painting Dispensation of Virtue depicts the well-known scene of an outcast, suffering woman reaching out in desperation for the healing powers of Christ. The LDS painter invites introspection throughout all of his compositions, including this interpretation. Christ and the woman create reciprocal gestures in their figure placement so at to affirm the nature of the healing event, yet Smith leaves the specific moment open-ended. Are their gestures indicative of Christ turning to the newly-healed outcast or does she reach forward, grasping toward the possibility of health?

Smith fills the painting with symbolism, the most palpable one being the use of color. Though the woman is seen as an outcast from society due to a blood-related illness, Smith uses color to communicate otherwise. She is painted in the pure color of white with underlying tones of red, subtly paralleling the clothing of Christ. Not only does this connect the two figures but it also alludes to the cleansing process that occurs after utilization of the atonement. The colors may also reference the purity of faith that was exercised, which enabled the healing process. The surrounding figures adopt darker, monotonously blank color schemes demonstrative of their own lack of faith. Their gazes bounce around the canvas, yet all fail to meet eyes with their Savior, failing to recognize his presence. Smith also instigates symbolic iconology by painting the figures in the image without shoes. The placement of unoccupied shoes, or figures without their shoes is a classical representation of holy ground–indicative of the miracle taking place.

Smith also combines myriad styles in his compositions. Employing elongated figures and distorted forms he references the styling of the Byzantine, Medieval, and Mannerist periods. The stylized, flattened perspectives and floating images are reminiscent of pre-Renaissance artwork, yet Smith has often referenced his style as “academic objective realism.” The spontaneous contour lines overlapping one another, relaxed and extemporaneous brushwork and hazing between detail and abstraction also presents an homage to the work of Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. This mixture of styles results in an open-ended stylistic interpretation. His use of recognizable symbols aids the viewer in gleaning a general comprehension of the composition yet he purposely refrains from placing narratives in a specific time or culture in order to make the work universally applicable. The piece’s eclecticism in terms of stylistic influence, story soaked in symbolism, and beautiful painting technique allow for any viewer with a christian familiarity to view a universal narrative in a personal way. Smith’s Dispensation of Virtue is housed in the To Magnify the Lord: Six Centuries of Art and Devotion exhibition, which will be on view until the summer of 2019.

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