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Seeing Is Believing

Art Review: Kristen M. Watson, photographs of places of worship. St. Paul's Cathedral, Burlington. Through August.

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“Congregation I” by Kristen M. Watson
  • “Congregation I” by Kristen M. Watson

It’s a daunting task to describe the essence of a spiritual space in pictures, yet South Burlington photographer Kristen M. Watson’s black-and-white series “We Wish to See God: Places of Worship” strives to make faith tangible. Her exhibition at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington gathers images taken at Vermont churches and temples to reflect on how their architectural attributes and visual rhythms express holiness. In the process, Watson takes to heart the famous quote from Mies van der Rohe: “God is in the details.”

Watson’s 9-by-12-inch photos — matted and framed to 19 by 22 inches — are alive with reiterated details. She writes in an online artist’s statement, “I do not propose any particular point of view on religion or spirituality, except to present the simple fact of its invariable presence manifested by the architecture that is the main subject of my work.” Yet Watson’s repetition does seem like a vehicle for describing the infinite nature of the concept of God. And here the “details” are expressed in terms of geometric abstraction.

“Congregation I” contains an aggregation of horizontal bars contrasted by a grid of squares in the upper right corner. Where this meeting of linear elements occurs is not evident — it’s impossible even to tell what the subject is. But this makes the abstract presence even more compelling.

“Aisle” is similarly mysterious. In the foreground of the tenebrous black-on-black composition, three carpeted stairs ascend in the lower right corner. The image’s darkness is daring: Watson grants viewers just enough light so they can adjust their eyes to the murk, as if entering a Holy of Holies. These photographs are not digital, and the subtle manipulation of grays and closely calibrated values indicate that Watson is a strong technician in the darkroom: She’s as astute with traditional processes as she is with aesthetic decisions.

The main focus of “Pulpit I” is a pulpit lectern that forms a monolithic white trapezoid in the center of the composition. A Bible sits atop the lectern — in a position of ascendancy over the geometric shape. Bibles, hymnals and devotional texts appear throughout Watson’s works. Like her architectural details, the books recur as measures of light and dark.

The photo titled “Judaica II” features a bookshelf full of The New Mahzor/Mahzor Hadash. The books have white letters on black bindings and rest in various orientations on the shelves. One book at upper left and two books at lower right are backwards, so their front-facing pages contrast with the rhythms of the Hebrew and English letters stamped on the bindings.

“We Wish to See Jesus I” has the most extreme depth of field in the show. The title phrase runs along the lower edge of the image, beneath a pulpit with an oversized Bible lying open on the lectern. Watson’s lens takes the preacher’s view: looking across the pages into the empty church. Ornate light fixtures hang from the ceiling like Baroque angels, and the tall pipes of an organ appear in a distant white wall. The photo’s brightness gives it the air of a heavenly stage, waiting for a show to begin.

Watson’s photographs generally defy narrative, however; she prefers to “speak” with eloquent formalism. Her series is also devoid of figures — no humble parishioners or clerics appear in these portrayals of the sacred; no rituals are captured. Instead, Watson’s goal is to convey the serenity of the spaces she depicts. “These places of worship are rich with a spiritual fervor that is expressed in the architectural craftsmanship of centuries past,” she writes, “and the loving maintenance of the well-used implements for connecting with God.”

Watson’s exhibition makes visible the intangible through her intimate understanding of the amazing grace of abstraction.

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