By SARAH SENTILLES
In September of 2013, Hayley Barker visited the village of Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a site of recent war and trauma, and traveled to Apparition Hill, from which her newest show at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art takes its name. Since 1981, people have reported seeing the Virgin Mary on Apparition Hill, and thousands of pilgrims flock to the hill to try to see her, too, their cameras pointed everywhere, at rock, at sun, at each other. The land is animate, made vibrant by their footsteps, by a longing that carries them up and down the hill. Barker went to Apparition Hill as a pilgrim of pilgrims, looking not for Mary necessarily, but for the people who were looking for her, for the place where they were seeing her.
What do pilgrims take home with them? Stones slipped into pockets. Stories of rosaries turned to gold. Postcards of the Virgin Mary. Prayer cards in gift shop bags. While on the hill, Barker made pastel drawings, and when she returned home to Portland, she painted. Her paintings are made with low and high materials—spray-paint and oil on wood—because on Apparition Hill, the divine may appear at any moment in anything, tree or sky or face.
In addition to the drawings, Barker brought home other souvenirs, too—several of which appear in the show. “‘She does not touch the ground’ (Pray the Rosary Daily for World Peace),” is a pamphlet Barker altered with gouache. Gone is Mary’s face, and gone are the words underneath her. Instead Mary floats in a sea of blue.
Barker’s transformed souvenirs make visible the inadequacy of such mementos—especially those designed to point to that which should, by definition, transcend the object itself. One of my favorites—“‘Visible, permanent, and indestructible’ (Neon Green Mary with Tape)—is a small white paper bag you might be offered in any gift shop. Barker has painted over the image of Mary and the church on the bag, leaving us just the shape of her, the feeling of flame.
People of faith might have problems with these objects; they might perceive Barker’s alterations as somehow idolatrous or disrespectful, but if they do, I think they have missed the point entirely. Barker has taken objects that flatten faith into something that can be boxed and contained, something you can fit under the seat in front of you, and she has returned to faith its depth, dimensionality, immensity. She offers a kind of transcendence, a kind of mystery.
The word souvenir comes from the Latin word subvenir, meaning to come into mind. In On Longing, Susan Stewart writes, “The souvenir is by definition always incomplete.” The material object is a fragment of the thing itself – a ribbon from a bouquet of flowers, a lock of hair from the body of your beloved, a rock from your favorite mountain—and it must remain a fragment, partial. It must point to the thing, the experience, the place, the body without fully being the thing, the experience, the place, the body. The pieces in Barker’s show do exactly this work.
Mary—or what Barker calls “the longing to see her”—makes an appearance in every painting in the show. How do you paint longing? Barker’s beautifully titled paintings contain explosions of color, layers and layers of paint, allusions to other paintings, palpable energy. The paintings are small, intimate; they are like icons, Barker told me, that may or may not be empty.
Take, for example, “She is gone. Look! The Light!” The title, like almost all of the titles in the show, are words the visionaries have used to describe Mary and their experiences seeing her. These particular words—She is gone. Look! The Light!—come from one of the first sightings. “Mary disappeared and then a bright flashing light took her place,” Barker said. “I tried to convey something of that in the painting.” There are blues and greens, darkness, luminous spray painted marks of yellow, a dash of red. I can see a figure, but as soon as I move close, she is, as the title suggests, already gone.
Embodied experiences of place and visionary experience have interested Barker for a long time, and “Apparition Hill” is no exception. The hill, the sun, the trace of a human figure—Barker paints a site of religious experience that is also a site of trauma and violence.
“Being a woman on the hill, drawing these charged places and not praying, in a conventional sense, felt risky, even though I think of drawing as a kind of prayer,” she said. What does religious experience do to the landscape on which it occurs? What does violence do to the landscape? What does it do to the bodies seeking there? How are these experiences made visible?
****Negative theology is the name given to the work of theologians who recognize the impossibility of ever naming the divine. With every act of naming, a correction must follow: God is light and God is also not light. Apophasis is the Greek name for this kind of language, and it means “unsaying” or “speaking away.” In Mystical Languages of Unsaying, Michael Sells notes that apophasis is usually paired with its opposite, kataphasis, which means “saying” or “speaking with.” “Every act of unsaying demands or presupposes a previous saying,” Sells writes. “It is in the tension between the two propositions that the discourse becomes meaningful.”
It seems to me a fundamental question driving both theology and trauma studies—How do you represent the unrepresentable?—is also a fundamental question driving Barker’s “Apparition Hill.” I was in the studio with Barker for several days while she was working on this show. I had to learn not to become attached to the paintings as they were being made. I would watch her paint—brush in hand, standing back from the panel, moving close, applying paint, standing back, moving close, applying paint, standing back—and when I was sure the painting was finished, I would turn back to my own writing, the afterglow of the image in my eyes as if I had been staring too long at the sun. But then, when I would look again, the painting, as I had known it, was gone. It had become something else entirely.
When I write, I save different versions of documents I’m working on so nothing is lost. When Barker paints, nothing is saved, or maybe everything is. She paints, then paints over what she’s painted, then paints over that, again and again and again, a negative theologian at work, saying and unsaying, saying and unsaying, so many layers, so much paint, that you, too, long to enter the landscape to see what’s on the other side.
Barker’s“Apparition Hill” opens on May 1, 2014, at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art. This article is an expansion of an original essay Sentilles wrote for Barker’s show (and which is available on a postcard at the gallery), titled “What Pilgrims Take Home.” Sentilles and Barker are colleagues and friends and are currently collaborating on a project about drones.