‘If you have a religion it must be cosmic’ (C S Lewis)
Until the 18th May, visitors to Chichester Cathedral will be able to see an extraordinary – and monumental - painting by the accomplished artist Paul Benney. ‘Speaking in Tongues’ is one of Benney’s largest and most ambitious works to date measuring 8ft by 12ft. This striking painting will be suspended, mid-air, in the Cathedral’s North Transept which is open daily to visitors with free entry.
‘Speaking in Tongues’ tells the strange and powerful story of Pentecost, where the apostles suddenly have a direct personal experience of God as ‘tongues like of fire’ descend and sit upon each of them. This contemporary painting contains a very personal message for Benney who has depicted the apostles as people who are known to him - friends and contemporaries. In this way the painting brings people from different ethnicities and religious backgrounds together, as they collectively experience a profound spiritual awakening - a state of grace that is universally yearned for, beyond the boundaries of age, race or religion.
Benney believes the depiction of light emanating from the head, as an animation of the spirit or soul, has echoes of imagery in many different religions (for example, the sacred art of Ancient Greece, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity). Referring to ‘Speaking in Tongues’ Benney says: ‘I feel that the message embedded in the work; of spiritual inclusion across a multitude of cultural and religious practices can be seen as a key issue of our times’.
When creating ‘Speaking in Tongues’, Benney was also inspired by Goya's painting 'Yard with Lunatics' (1794), a disturbing vision of human suffering painted when Goya was plagued by fears of mental illness. In contrast, Benney’s work references religious narratives that embrace mystical and visionary events, and in this way he seeks to explore the strangeness and ‘insanity’ of these moments with an open mind.
Viewers of ‘Speaking in Tongues’ are also cleverly invited to explore their own reaction to the painting, as the artwork has a highly reflective mirror-like resin surface that allows viewers to see their reflections in the same scale as the figures within the work. We are encouraged to view ourselves as participants in the scene, gauging if we are comfortable - or not - with this unexpected and otherworldly spiritual encounter.
For the past three decades Benney has produced a distinctive and singular body of work in the U.S. and U.K. and is represented in major public and private collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Portrait Gallery, The Royal Collection, The Eli Broad Foundation, AIG Houston and Standard Life, UK. Until recently, he was a resident artist at Somerset House, London.
A key member of the Neo-Expressionist group of the early 80's in New York's East Village, Benney became known for his depictions of mythological themes and dark nights of the soul. He is also one of this country's leading portrait artists and has painted many prominent cultural and political figures.
Today Benney continues to explore the personal and mystical themes that have occupied him throughout his career, engaging with a wide range of media including painting, sculpture and music.
Published 5th May 2016
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