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by Shirle Gottlieb

"Vates," oil and gold leaf on wood,
16 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 21 1/2", 1998.

"Rector," oil/gold leaf on wood,
13 x 14 x 5 1/2", 1998.
(Circle Elephant Art, Silverlake) Just when we thought we'd seen it all in this hyped-up, appropriated, Post-Modern Age (where almost anything goes and anyone can be famous for the proverbial fifteen minutes), along comes an exhibit that draws us up short. Reading artist John U. Abrahamson's excruciating statement, then staring at the tortured images in his latest Icons series, we think of unfashionable questions that are no longer asked in the year 2000: "Does art imitate life?" "Can art heal?" "Is transformation the ultimate purpose of art?" "Is the process of artmaking therapeutic?" "Can art help soothe the suffering of the human condition?"

Totally obsessed with the act of painting, the self-taught Abrahamson is--by his own admission--looking for answers to his anguish in the creation of his work. Once a devout follower of the High Mass Episcopal Church, he lost both his faith and direction after an ongoing series of traumatic incidents left him terrified and suicidal.

Standing before the tortured Gothic figures that inhabit Abrahamson's dark world, one is astonished at the high level of technical skill that this "outsider" artist brings to this exhibit. Sometimes painted with oil and gold leaf on a single plank of wood recessed in a Baroque frame--other times executed on gesso-coated paper, or painted on canvas--Abrahamson's mysterious, trompe l'oeil, erotic nude figures all refer to human suffering and his personal search for redemption.

Beginning in 1997 with the Angel of Death (a menacing presence that rises out of a fiery inferno against a sky of pitch black), he creates one frightening apocalyptic horror after another: burning crosses, fallen angels, winged devils, armored skeletons, chained and tortured sinners, even a terrifying nude Self-Portrait.

All of these hellish scenarios are painted in a stark Gothic style that evokes the Dark Ages. The figures are nude (but their faces are covered); and all of them reference sex, physical pain, spiritual torture, and eternal damnation. In short, the artist's Icons depict the heavy price that was paid for straying from the path--for daring to question the existence of God.

After years of expressing rage in his earlier work, Abrahamson feels he has found catharsis through this recent series of paintings that is still in the making. Finally coming to terms with his long lost faith, he has found solace in an excerpt from Milton's Paradise Lost: "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell."

In addition (though you'd never know it, or see the connection, from the paintings in this body of work), Abrahamson has come to believe that "Within lost faith, even love. . .and the wonders and beauty of this world," we are capable of transcending any notion of the hereafter.

"Aeternus Proelium," oil/liquid
iron on canvas, 38 x 38", 1997.

"#6 Downtown at 56th St.," oil on
gesso coated paper, 30 x 22", 2000.