To send light into the darkness of … [humanity’s] hearts – such is the duty of the artist.
– Kandinsky from Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
Art making in the beginning, the first instinctual markings on cave walls and rock faces, was an attempt by the artists to penetrate the rock surface and access the portal to the higher spirits, that might bless their prayers and ease the human journey.
Art over time has not moved forward much from these initial scratching on the membrane between the concrete world and the divine, the unknown. Most art making, thinking mainly about painting here, has remained on the surface, with a focus on making art that is pleasing to the eye.
New Brunswick artist, Deanna Musgrave, has been developing this calling to the divine for some time now, to the point where her art tears open that membrane and pulls the viewer in with tremendous force, as she gives voice to her intention of transformation. We can see this most notably in her recent artwork in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, entitled Transcendence.
The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the official art gallery for the province of New Brunswick, the largest art gallery in the Atlantic provinces, was undergoing significant renovations when I made my first visit there this last summer. Terry Graff, former Director and CEO, who also served the organization as its Deputy Director, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Curator, and was one of the leading forces at Beaverbrook through most of the Beaverbrook renovations and building expansion, states that, “The BAG has always been known for its significant collection of masterworks, ranking it among the very best visual art collections in Canada and the most valuable art collection in the Atlantic region, with works by such renowned artists as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, John Constable and Salvador Dali.” The extent of the gallery’s physical transformation, an investment of 33 million dollars, has continued over a ten-year period. Graff adds, that “the intention of this major capitol transformation was to not only renovate and update the exiting spaces, but to add significantly more space for the primary purpose of presenting significantly more art and more public programs.” Thus, furthering the prominence of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery within the region and beyond.
Without really knowing how exactly, I arrived in a hugely cavernous room in the Gallery (which, I later learned is called the Elizabeth Currie Gallery) and there was Deanna’s work on the far wall. In that instant I felt like I had slipped into a kind of other worldliness, at least a different kind of viewing space. The relationship between the art and viewer changed. Transcendence consists of forty-four hexagon shapes strategically angled upwards, as the work moves in tonality from dark to light, covering the entire wall, and having the effect of diminishing the viewer in its expansiveness. Like most of the viewers I witnessed that day, I instinctively moved, glided, across the room to the bottom right-hand corner, the dark side – and for several minutes, I was held transfixed there. A narrative started to form as I followed the emerging and submerging figures struggling in the quagmire of dark brush strokes – a narrative which some might recognize. It played as something familiar on my subconscious.
Later, in my interview with Deanna, the connection was made – The Last Judgement by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. I remember seeing this fresco in the Vatican many years ago, a dark painting with powerful, masculine figures that fills the entire back wall of the high alter. Deanna, in my interview with her, affirms that connection as she reveals an important part of her journey as an artist.
“I feel a deep connection with Michelangelo as he created murals in confluence with architecture that were designed to acoustically support music to inspire altered states of consciousness. When I was in art school his work, The Last Judgement, really inspired me because it integrated those elements of painting with the architecture to inspire a state of awe. That painting also connected with my concerns around duality given that Michelangelo expressed his struggle with it in the self-portrait that is at the center of the work. He painted his face into the sagging flayed skin held up by St Bartholomew. Where he is held, is the dividing line in the composition where you either go to hell or you go to heaven. There is this invisible diagonal line that runs from God through St Bartholomew through the self-portrait down to the anguishing figures below as if to ask the viewer the question about his own fate in a time of less inclusive perspectives. *
“I see my painting as my answer to Michelangelo’s question, from one painter to another, that they will transcend. You can see in The Last Judgement painting that the gestures of the figures that are in hell are referenced in my work as elevating. The reality humans experience of polarity, duality and higher/good versus lower/bad doesn’t exist in Transcendence. My painting also expresses my connection with Michelangelo as he felt like an outcast and he had to express his love of painting and his spirituality in whatever way that he could.”
The dark figures in Deanna’s painting are just below eye level and as I stand close to them, I start to connect and feel their struggle. A silent dialogue emerges from my own dark side, and memories and thoughts start to form as I become aware of a personally held uneasiness.
It is in this state of vulnerability that something pulls my vision to the right of the painting, and there down the hall not that far away was another enormous painting that I readily recognized, having seen it on exhibit at the Judith and Norman Alix Gallery in Sarnia a few years ago, – the Santiago El Grande by Salvador Dali, a painting that is part of the Beaverbrook’s permanent collection. This is another rendition of an apocalyptic moment, but unlike Michelangelo’s fresco of The Last Judgement where muscular figures dominate the work, in Dali’s painting superior power is given to the horse which rears up on its back legs spewing out a toxic gas from its genitals on to the damned below, while Saint James rides victoriously on the horse’s back, holding up the halogenic figure of Jesus on the cross, proclaiming, this is The Way. Also, unlike Michelangelo’s brutal masculine angels on the edge of damnation, in The Last Judgement, the Dali is full of hundreds of transparent angels swarming around the figure of Saint James and flying upwards through the gothic vaulted buttresses into heavenly space.
Deanna deliberately connects with the Dali, stating, “When I look at the Dali I feel this overwhelming wonderful spiritual experience.” But in her own spiritual awareness she strongly resists the duality of heaven and hell, and what she sees as … “the threat and forced belief…that there will be a doomsday and we will be put under a judgement and the powers above will access our life, according to polarized beliefs, we will either ascend to heaven or be dammed to hell.”
I slowly make my way back to Deanna’s Transcendence, leaving the calling of the Dali piece for later. I am aware of two large circular pieces on either side of the Beaverbrook’s Dunn Gallery that, in the dominant blue colour at least, connect Salvador Dali’s Santiago El Grande to Deanna’s work. Deanna says, “With the way Transcendence is situated everything is considered with the architecture and layout. I wanted people to walk in to first see Transcendence, then they would see Dali’s Santiago El Grande which would lead them into the Dunn Gallery where Warrior and Nurturer are displayed. Those two pieces [on either side of the Dunn Gallery] were originally inspired by the portraits of Sir James Dunn and Lady Dunn that go with the Dali as complementary pieces. I wanted to mirror those opposite energetic qualities of Sir James Dunn and Lady Dunn. I named them Warrior and Nurturer because I wanted to express two opposite energies trying to find a flow. It is this idea that when these two dualistic energies meet
, what some might call the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine Archetype in the past, they can alchemize a non-dualistic space through merging their energies. It is important to mention that the concept of Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine are not about gender but, are about opposite energetic qualities. It might be more accurate to describe them like a positively charged proton meeting a negatively charged electron. I see this energy as finding a balance in duality and then creating a light that goes out into the world to create the possibility of serenity. I invite the viewer to experience this when coming back from the Dali. The viewer can stand in the Dunn Gallery where you are between Warrior and Nurturer and can also see both the Dali and Transcendence. If they wished to participate, they could invite these polarized energies of the paintings to work within them to find balance, peace and non-duality. If you balance that within yourself then that helps you transcend into other spiritual states. I would like to think that they could also offer that non-dualistic light to travel up the hexagons of Transcendence and move out into the world to create peace in what is a highly polarized time.”
In retrospect, now having a deeper understanding of Deanna’s work and the way she engages the viewer, I regret not having dwelled longer in the hall between the two powerful circular pieces, and between the Dali and Deanna’s Transcendence painting. If I would have spent time in that space and just listened to what the two circular works were trying to convey, I might have connected to the balancing of these polarities held within myself that Deanna wanted for the viewer.
I returned to Deanna’s work, this time at eye level and directly in front of me is the Dali horse, the Appaloosa, but instead of front facing and aggressively rearing as in the Dali, this horse appears to be using its strength to pull itself upward, swimming away from the deep murkiness of the struggling human figures below, empowered with a sense of purposefulness and determination in carrying its rider with him. The rider is an illustrative rendition of a naked female figure whose face is illuminated and her arms held open, receptive to what is before her. The female image is alluringly seductive in her sensuality and when I ask Deanna about this image of the female as being more solid and representational, she responded, “The mostly solid form of the woman of “Transcendence” acts like an anchor that gradually leads you into a space where bodies dissolve into the aether. It is a little easier to maybe connect with this idea of going into a non-dualistic space when you see the gradual steps from solid representation to fluid abstraction. Instead of an absolute of either a physical or ephemeral space, “Transcendence” offers a space where they are coexisting. This visual and gradual merging of the physical to the ephemeral makes it easier for someone to visualize the steps it takes to get to other transcendence states.”
As I step back from the painting, trying to take in its moreness and my eyes continue upwards, I hear myself sigh deeply, like a release, a letting go. A bright explosive light hangs in the upper left corner, like a cosmic energy force. The imagery in the painting is made clear in its intention, an offering of direction, a way out of the human struggle and the mental anguish, an altered version of existence like that found in the illuminated cross of the Dali piece. Also, reflecting Dali’s angels that travel through the vaulted ceiling carrying the viewer upwards, Deanna’s work leads the viewer’s eye out the floor-to-ceiling window on the left side of the painting. I stood for a moment looking through the window, down the embankment outside, out onto the St John River below that flows through the middle of the town. The St John River, Deanna tells me, was originally called Wolastoq by the Wolastoqiyik people who first lived in the area which means “beautiful and bountiful river” – a visionary image, a statement that leads to further contemplation on what is yet to be known.
Water is a dominant aspect in Deanna’s more recent work. The colour blue and energetic flowing brush strokes are readily seen in work such as Tropos (2011/19), Cloud (2015), and Diversity (2021) – all large works – and suggests a strong undercurrent that pulls the viewer in and along. In many spiritual practices water is an important image, denoting cleansing and purification, reflection and meditation, a suggestion of transformational moments. The lyricism of the Transcendence piece in its graceful movement from deep darkness to the brilliant lightness and in its powerful flowing movement could ignite in the viewer a belief that enlightened transformation can happen. My mind dwells on that thought for a moment. This moves me to ask, who is Deanna Musgrave.
I ask Ingrid Mueller, a long-time New Brunswick art consultant, who once represented Deanna at her Fredericton gallery for a period, how she would position Deanna’s art in the New Brunswick art scene, how she fits in. Ingrid responded: “She doesn’t. She really doesn’t. She is a league of her own. She has her own voice setting her apart from other New Brunswick artists. And she is an artist who remains committed to her own style despite all the adversity she has had to face.”
I had not heard of Deanna Musgrave before seeing this work, so I needed to ask John Leroux, curator of the work and Manager of Collections and Exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, how it came to be that an artist who is not much recognized outside of New Brunswick would be selected to have just one work occupy an entire wing of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. John Leroux says, “In the space that it is in was built about five years ago, and it has very high walls, about 20 to 22 ft high, and we have never had anything in that space that went even halfway up the wall. Deanna and I have worked together before where she asked my advice on a number of other projects. And I said, wouldn’t it be great if we could have you do an enormous wall work and really fill that space. She was enthusiastic from the beginning. So, I was completely on board when she proposed to do the piece.”
Leroux goes on to add that his architectural background might have played a role in some of Deanna’s decision making. “We share a couple of similar sensibilities as far as space goes, so it was a real pleasure for me to work with her on it. Sensibilities like the idea of not having to fill every inch of space, allowing for white space and embracing voids. Asymmetry – balanced but things that don’t necessarily have to be ordered randomness. But anything that she presented to me – it was great – it was perfect. It didn’t take her long but intuitively she had a great composition and a great idea.”
Leroux sees Deanna as an artist deserving of broader recognition, beyond that of the New Brunswick art scene. How Deanna becomes recognized as a good or even outstanding artist is left to the discernment of others. But what I see in her work is that Deanna has much to say to a much broader audience, especially in her Transcendence piece, especially at this time. We are moving into a world of tremendous uncertainty and chaos where environmental disasters of biblical proportion are happening more frequently, when nations appear to be on the verge of nuclear war, where infectious diseases are threatening to wipe out huge populations, and tremors are heard and being felt in the financial world. Deanna in her thinking of the divine and its place in human existence as it is played out in her Transcendence piece speaks to these spiralling events that one could certainly define as apocalyptical.
Nida Home Doherty, arts writer for Centred.ca.
Video of Transcendence TRANSCENDENCE (2019-2022) — Deanna Musgrave
For more work by the artist: Deanna Musgrave