Los Angeles

Conversion and Inversion Stories

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A column by Catherine Wagley

Still from Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light.

Tobias Wolff and a friend went to a free showing of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light one evening in 1970. Shown in the sanctuary of an Oxford church, the severe narrative about spiritual malaise seemed hauntingly appropriate and, in a 2008 essay, Wolff describes his experience with it as “harrowing”—he felt himself drowning in the characters’ uncertainty. When a self-assured preacher stood up to proselytize after the film, Wolff listened earnestly and might have committed his life to Christ that night had not the preacher projected William Holman Hunt’s Light of the World on the film screen.

The way the image turned salvation into a protected stroll through Neverland stifled Wolff’s interest. But what if the image had been Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul, Wolff wonders now, in which Paul lies beneath his horse as if frozen in an epileptic spasm, momentarily experiencing the supernatural in order to become better equipped to live in the present? Maybe then he would have become a missionary instead of a novelist.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul, 1600-1601, Oil on canvas.

In Hunt’s pre-Raphaelite world,  you can wander into a secret garden and find yourself walking side-by-side with a radiant Christ. Caravaggio positions Paul’s conversion amidst life’s complexities, not secluding him but equipping him to face the snarls of early Christianity. Yet both paintings ultimately gesture toward the same distilled narrative: life is complicated and finding a divine answer helps.

When I visualize the place where these opposing narratives meet, I imagine two vertical scaffolds standing next to each other. And what if they somehow leveled out on a horizontal plane? What if Hunt’s tall and narrow garden flipped over and opened up so that some of the brush fell out onto the sterile ground of Caravaggio’s painting while Caravaggio’s horse wandered into Hunt’s wooded background?

JP Munro, Dionysus In India, 2012, Oil on Linen. Courtesy International Art Objects.

At International Art Objects — formerly China Art Objects — on Saturday, JP Munro leveled out the verticals. His oil on linen paintings, intricate and painted so that they look like tapestries, spill different iconic or historical narratives into each other. In Dionysus in India, you see Hindu gods and goddesses amidst characters from Greek myth. In Woman Playing the Piano,  you see a lady who could’ve popped out of a Jane Austen novel playing the piano, while seaside L.A. buildings and a palm tree can be seen out the window in the distance. Naked bodies that again look like they’re from Dionysian myth lounge in the foreground. There’s no distilled narrative — actually there’s a mess of narrative — but somehow, Munro’s paintings feel more  comfortable with themselves than either Hunt’s or Caravaggio’s.