- _Sanam_, Jon Gernon, egg tempera and gold leaf on panel, 2006.
The idea for the painting Sanam came to Troy-based artist Jon Gernon, as he puts it, in a “flash” when he saw a family friend wearing a T-shirt she’d made based on the “Coexist” bumper sticker. There she was—Sanam, a young Pakistani immigrant, raised in the Muslim tradition, proudly displaying on her body a statement about peace that was written with the combined symbols of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. In that flash, Gernon visualized an iconlike image that would embody a myriad of contemporary and historical issues, as well as a few of his own, while retaining its simple truth as the portrait of a friend.
A self-described nonbeliever, the 38-year-old artist is nonetheless a reverent follower of art history (including its vast store of religious imagery) and an avid reader of books about religion. He is something of an anomaly in the contemporary art world—someone who decided not to finish college in favor of learning his techniques through experience and directly from other practicing artists. After a long period of making mezzotints, a very exacting printmaking technique, he has settled on the equally difficult medium of egg tempera, which is the second-oldest method of painting (after encaustic), and one of the longest-lasting.
Gernon is inspired by such sources as 16th-century Dutch paintings, Russian icons, and the American magic realist George Tooker, but he works in a modern way, starting with a photo session from which he will choose a single pose in black and white as the basis for a painting. With this method he can create a high degree of realism, but he is also creating the colors from memory, which allows an element of expression that is different than painting from life. “I can’t paint from life [in egg tempera],” he says, explaining that the medium builds up slowly with multiple layers. “The model would be there way too long.”
Gernon does not intend his painting to be an attack on any religion, but he admires Sanam’s gutsiness in wearing the shirt when she knows it could draw anger from other Muslims. Perhaps intentionally, his depiction of her with averted gaze defuses the image’s sense of confrontation, giving it instead an air of mystery. As one admirer recently wrote, “Jon’s work reminds us that mysticism is still to be found in our modern age, and that the history of human experience and the art that has captured it from centuries past still resonates today.”
Gernon has deftly woven that combination of mysticism and modernism, the past and the present into his contemporary icons, but he is still seeking clarity and meaning as an artist working outside the mainstream. “Egg tempera is not a dead medium,” he says. “It’s just a misunderstood medium.” Maybe so, but Gernon’s message comes through loud and clear.
Jon Gernon’s paintings are on exhibit through December 21 at Visions Gallery, 40 North Main Avenue, Albany, (518) 453-6645; and through December 26 at Clement Art Gallery, 201 Broadway, Troy, (518) 272-6811; www.clementart.com. www.jongernon.com.