How to Talk to Art Majors:

Redeemer Art: An Interview with Phil Irish

By: Anna Bailey, reporter

Photograph: Anna Bailey

    Ever walked by a striking piece of art on the wall and realized you know nothing about what happens in the art department? This year, you’ll find an artist spotlight in each paper issue of The Crown. I sat down with Art Professor Phil Irish to talk about exhibitions in the art gallery, student art displays, and why Redeemer’s art gallery matters to those of us who struggle with drawing stick figures.

   This is only Professor Irish’s second year curating the exhibitions in the Art Gallery, so he is still finding his own approach. He is trying to go beyond the network of artists that have been exhibited here in the past: both to bring diverse art into the school and to spread awareness of Redeemer’s art program.

   Before him, Chris Cuthill curated the exhibitions; Irish took over when Cuthill was let go two years ago. Irish says, “Last year was a struggle because I was picking up courses, shuffling courses around, trying to figure out how all that could work. I feel like there’s energy, there’s creativity; it’s working.” There will be a large number of students doing senior shows this year: nine or ten students compared to only 5 last year.

   He believes it is important to both Christian and non-Christian artists exhibited in the gallery. “One of the things we’re asking at Redeemer is how do we listen to other voices? How do we appreciate what their experience is and how they bring that to the table?”

    One example of this open posture is the exhibition ReOriented which is in the gallery right now. At the opening, JJ Lee spoke about how her work examines interactions between Chinese and Canadian culture but is influenced by her father’s advice to not “antagonize the culture that has played host to you.” Irish said that art “is often about pushing buttons; that was a very gracious position that she took.”

    Irish does feel that ReOriented might surprise people in other ways. “It will push against some people’s notion of skill.” However, despite the informality of the piece, he sees in it “a visual logic that’s very sensitive.”

     Irish is also involved in a new art display committee which includes several other faculty and staff. Revived in response to the controversy about student art that was displayed last year, the committee will look at how to present student art well and will also evaluate permanent displays.

     Irish comments on art’s potential to push boundaries and make people uncomfortable, saying, “God is big. God can handle whatever we’re trying to deal with. Christian art has a reputation of being fearful. This dishonors what God is about.” Irish believes Christian art has a unique power to present the heart of the gospel “without the trappings that make people recoil.”

    It is not difficult, according to Irish, to find artists interested in exhibiting at Redeemer. “Our space is quirky, but it’s getting better.” The art gallery offers some physical challenges, such as vents, fire alarms, and the openings for staircases that sometimes interfere with taller art displays. Yet, Irish points out, “one thing I love about this space is that it’s both a challenge and a blessing. It’s a space that everyone moves through. It sends a loud message about what it means to do liberal arts. Irish believes the art gallery is important, even for students not in the art program. Since all programs share one building, everyone gets to see what the art department is up to. “I hope that people make connections into their own areas.”