Drawing on Byzantine art, new exhibit blends mysticism with mundane

Jacob Feige, Chat Chaplain, 2020, oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 x 20 in Courtesy of RULE Gallery

MARFA — In 2018, Philadelphia-based artist Jacob Feige took a trip as an artist-in-residence to an archaeological excavation site in Cyprus, an island in the eastern Mediterranean. He had no past relationship to ancient art from that region and figured the trip would mostly involve relaxing in the beach town of Polis for a few weeks.

Instead, he found himself drawn to the ancient Byzantine artwork of the region, which graces old churches and monasteries. “It really caught my interest very unexpectedly,” he said. “I ended up seeing all these amazing Byzantine paintings.”

That trip and those artworks inspired Feige’s latest exhibit, entitled “Little Monastery.” On display at the RULE Gallery in Marfa, the exhibit opened last month and runs through May 22.

The theme of the exhibit, Feige said, involves combining everyday imagery with “some sense of the otherworldly, mystical and trascendental.” Playing with those themes represents “a pretty common desire,” he says. “People want their lives to feel meaningful.”

“A lot of Byzantine painting combined what you might call secular and religious imagery,” Feige adds. In Cyprus, “there are elements of everyday life in these frescoes, combined with spiritual imagery.”

Feige aimed to do something similar with his work — and as a member of a Unitarian church in Philadelphia, his personal faith does come into play in some of the pieces. But ultimately, he says, it’s a secular exhibit.

“It’s a fine line to trend,” he says. “I don’t want people to be offended by my secular read on” the frescoes.

Feige’s work explores themes like “messiness, disorganization and [the] paradox of consciousness,” according to a news release from RULE Gallery about the exhibit. Another theme that inevitably came into play over the past year was the coronavirus pandemic, which upended Feige’s everyday life just as it did with other people across the country.

Feige singled out two pieces in particular which he said drew on his experience of life in lockdown. The first, “Birthday in Quarantine,” was inspired by his wife’s 40th birthday. She celebrated “without friends or family,” Feige said.

Another, “Chat Chaplain,” draws on Feige’s experience trying to moderate a Zoom meeting for his Unitarian church. “I was trying to moderate a Zoom quasi-church service,” Feige said. He found it difficult to have a “spiritual experience or community experience by Zoom.”

Like others across the country, Feige is excited about the wind-down of the coronavirus pandemic and the return of in-person art exhibits. He’s visiting Marfa for the exhibit from April 22 until May 2, in what he says will be his first in-person exhibit since the pandemic started raging across the country last year.

Growing up in Denver, Feige says it’s possible he passed through West Texas once or twice as a kid. But regardless, it’ll be “my first time in West Texas as an adult for sure,” he said. It’ll also be his first exhibit in Marfa.

Feige is excited about the setting of his exhibit. With past shows, he said, he’s tried to create a “symmetrical relationship” between his art and the setting of his shows.

Cyprus is an island, while Marfa is “so far from the water,” Feige said. But like Marfa, Cyprus is a “hot desert place.” And while he often found frescoes in “tiny mostly roadside chapels” in Cyprus, his Marfa show will also happen in “a really enclosed space.”

“I’m really happy with the venue,” Feige said of the RULE Gallery.

An in-person reception with Feige will happen Saturday, April 24, from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. The RULE Gallery is asking that visitors adhere to coronavirus safety precautions when visiting the gallery, including by wearing masks and observing social distancing.

Like the Byzantine artworks that inspired them, Feige’s paintings will “depict scenes created through the blending of exotic imagery and everyday items in Feige’s near orbit,” according to the news release about the show. The exhibit will also feature audio field records from Amy Papalexandrou, an archaeologist and University of Texas professor who was also part of the Cyprus trip.