Dale Johnson: Shields of Faith

Date Thursday, February 7
through Thursday, March 13, 2008
Location Olson Gallery

Event Description

The title of Dale Johnson’s exhibition, Shields of Faith, is a phrase taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. There, Paul speaks about good struggling against evil on a cosmic spiritual level: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places.” Using a strongly militaristic metaphor, Paul calls for the believer to resist evil by arming him or herself: “Take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day.” Among the pieces of armor called for is “the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one.”

What specific shield imagery this conjures up might depend upon the reader’s knowledge of warfare, but in general one expects weaponry that is metallic, heavy, dark and violent. But this is not what Dale Johnson gives his viewers. Instead, these “shield paintings” suggest bursts of life, beauty, fecundity and celebration. They are explosions of color flowing and radiating out of long vertical folds in the bodies of tapering, curving metal forms. These forms, though metal, lack the thick weight of war shields. They almost hover or ascend on the walls, as their colors flow in serpentine rhythms, interspersed with spiky black elements. Certainly there is in them a reference to a warrior’s shield, but they seem just as much about ritual and celebration as about the violence of killing in battle. Indeed, their colors and shape resonate as much with things of life—palm leaves, seeds, pods, even (thinking of this artist’s other work) fish and lures as well as with fabric and designs from the Dominican Republic—as they do with anything overtly militaristic.

It is as if the artist asserts that the armor of faith is of a different order than the militaristic armor of this world’s power systems. Johnson, it seems to me, insists that the affirmation of life, of celebratory color, pattern, rising and curving forms, rich and lush brushwork are the unlikely but true signifiers of good’s resistance to evil, much as love in the Gospel is the counter-intuitive force that undoes evil.

At the same time, the positive beauty put forward here is neither a naive nor a cheerful beauty. There is enough darkness and intensity in these works—somewhat in the color, but more in the sharp-edged metal, the spiky points at top and bottom, the scratches and tears in the surfaces—to make the beauty of these become more fierce, more aggressive, yet without yielding the visual premise that what is rich and life-giving is best “able to resist in the evil day.”


Michelle Westmark
Gallery Director and Assistant Professor of Art