Looking together at the way Beijing-based artist Stephen Gleadow brings together color and texture, surface and depth, abstraction and symbolic representation in his 1995 work Sublimation III—Baptism, let us consider that in an age dominated by digital information and its manipulation, our sense of knowledge often seems strictly analytic: we desire clarity and certainty, and the work of scholarship seems to be as much about “disambiguation” (a key aim of Wikipedia, it seems) as it is about discovery or description of the new. But historical investigation—whether of the cosmos, earth or the life thereon, or the Bible and God’s works of salvation—is often focused on resources that stubbornly refuse to be disentagled or treated discretely. Instead, what we know of the past is nearly always gleaned from an amalgamation or interleaving of earlier sources, not neat layers that can be peeled back one by one.
As Gleadow himself has suggested, perhaps the best image for the way revelation of the past so often comes to us is the palimpsest, a page of parchment or vellum that has been scraped down (sometimes repeatedly) to remove previous writing so that new words may be added afresh. In such cases the original writing is never fully effaced, but remains at least faintly visible and subject to recovery, by which process the history of the page and those who have used it is revealed. In some cases, the once-hidden text is considered more helpful and more valuable to modern readers than what replaced it, as with the discovery of a previously unknown work of Archimedes discovered beneath a 12th-century liturgy. But even in these cases, the process of inscription, erasure, and re-inscription leads always to a kind of conversation between the two or more still-extant texts, their authors, and their times; the conversation itself gives the richer and more meaningful account of the relationship of past and present than any one lost-and-recovered book.
In addition to that basic connection between meanings laid down in sequence, we should also note that palimpsests of the medieval period reveal a subtle reverence for the material substrate upon which they were created. The reason such a form exists at all is because the intentional labor required to turn animal hide into parchment suitable for preserving the works of Archimedes, or the Apostles, or the Desert Fathers elevated that ordinary material into something special, valuable and rare, nearly as much as the words that would be written upon it. This became even more true as technological innovations like paper and the printing press came to replace parchment, and fewer people retained the skills required to produce the more traditional and elegant materials and forms of the illuminated manuscript. The palimpsest, then, is a testament of the lasting value and nobility of ideas, but simultaneously a reminder that ordinary matter (sheep skin, or the oatmeal and milk or pumice that were used to scrub parchments clean) has a nobility of its own, amplified by intentional human engagement.
It is with the palimpsest always in mind that Gleadow explores the complex character of the past and present, of idea and matter, in his mixed media works—pieces that hover near the boundary of sculpture and painting.Sublimation III—Baptism is composed of many strata of shapes, colors and textures on joined panels, each layer variously scraped, sanded, or cut and then re-covered by the next. The piece includes “art” materials like inks, paint, resin and wax, but also “non-art” materials like plastic bags and sheeting, and even artifacts (such as sandpaper) from the production of previous layers. In two places Gleadow cut away nearly all of the overlying material to reveal small sections of his own early practice sheets of Chinese characters, windows to ideographs relating to fire and water. (See detail 1, below) In the lower left corner, though, the opposite of such revelation occurs, as he has entombed an almost-identifiable object in a thick casting of wax that is solid, but seems to call out for excavation or incision (detail 2).
Fittingly for this tension between erosion and re-deposition across the surface of his work, Gleadow has described the individual layers in his works as the “fossil record” of his creative method, which is very often gestural and intuitive, rather than specifically planned. “Veil” is another term that occurs repeatedly in discussions about how each layer of meaning and process relates to those beneath, suggesting again the “palimpsest” idea of only partial effacement of what has come before. It is the work’s two-part title itself, though, that points us in the direction that may be the most helpful in bringing together issues of knowledge in the scientific and spiritual realms. This piece is part of a series of Sublimation paintings, indicating Gleadow’s interest in the transformative element of processes of effacement and change in both art and (human) nature. Both the chemical and psychological senses of “sublimation” may apply here, as, in the lab, the state change directly from solid to gas can be used precisely to purify a compound; in psychological terms, sublimation refers to the transformation of baser drives into actions and expressions that are culturally or spiritually more refined.
Other works in the series (Sublimation—Transformation of the Ordinary I, 1995) makes explicit the idea that common, even “junk” matter may be given greater meaning through context and refinement. But the subtitle here—Baptism—puts a slightly different spin on what might otherwise seem merely a paean to artistic agency and clever recombination. Both baptisms spoken of in the Scriptures (by water and by the fire of the Holy Spirit) involve the symbolic partial destruction of what was there before, along with the imparting of something new: water scours and drowns and covers even as it refreshes and cleans, fire sears away impurity as well as offering warmth and light. Though both transform, neither obliterates the old, but rather leaves it selectively laid bare, and changed. What emerges then, is a new surface than is more than superficial, bearing words (sometimes one at a time) of renewal. In referring to the series as sublimation, Gleadow is suggesting that the very process of hiding, submerging, wearing down and even burning away that occurs in the lives of all things, including people, is what unifies the layers of past and the present, making way for a future.
How, then, might these linked images of palimpsest, sublimation and baptism as brought together in Gleadow’s work help us think more Christianly about our knowledge of the world as we find it? Principally, his paintings—with their glimpses of buried truths—reflect the state of our inquiry into those areas we’d most like to understand, whether spiritual or material, including the process by which we have received the text of Bible and the process that has produced the current panoply of life on earth. In other words, the way Gleadow’s erasures of his own work contributes to the final beautiful surface/image may a good way to think about all the "lost" information we deal with in other areas, whether the partial fossil record or the uncertain history and original context of texts in the Bible.
Some Christians complain that the fossil evidence for common descent is incomplete and therefore unreliable, while skeptics similarly note differences and omissions in the Gospel accounts as reason to distrust the entire narrative. But should either side complain that we don’t have the whole, unabridged story when we are privileged to have any at all? On the contrary, the partialness of our knowledge ought to remind us that even incomplete recoveries of the past ought be regarded as gifts. And again, perhaps there is as much to be learned in how and why we don’t know—in identifying the specific erasures, omissions and reformations—as there is in cataloguing what we do think we fully understand.
Neither the record of biological life on earth nor of spiritual life in Christ is less important or beautiful or trustworthy merely for our inability to fully see and know it in the current age. Moreover, the specific elements we are given from the distant past along with the evidence of their damage and renewal may be part of the revelation (and broken beauty) God intends. In this, the “imperfect” medium may indeed reflect the message of the ordinary transfigured through weakness, of our clouded vision of the Kingdom being perfected only by the Lord in His good time. Let us, then, be neither overly credulous, nor unduly skeptical, but, like the Apostle Thomas, make ourselves available to be scraped and smoothed and remade by laying our doubts directly before the Lord. Though we still read and identify with the words of denial and disbelief that were first upon Thomas’ tongue, may we always see them through and transformed by the new text the Lord wrote upon his heart—the same words of life that He is ever willing to write upon ours.
Stephen Gleadow is a painter, sculptor, photographer and multimedia artist from the United States. He is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and has exhibited his work in various forms throughout the US and internationally. He currently is involved with various projects as an artist and curator in Beijing, China. Other examples of his painting and photography are available on his website.
Detail 1: Chinese Characters revealed in early layers.
Detail 2: wax casting at lower left corner of painting.