Art Appreciation for Everybody—Jared Boechler, “Soft Sounds”

Teresa Cochran | Artist to Artist, Faith, In the Know, Reflection & Growth | July 22, 2021

In our “Art Appreciation for Everybody” series, we are talking about ways to look closer at artwork we may not fully grasp. In our last installment, we discussed Halim A. Flowers’s “4 Black Girls & 1 Klansman Connected to the Same Cross” and explored “flavors” of art that might be new to our artistic “palate.” Today we want to discuss what it means to appreciate art that might seem easy to understand at first glance, but contains layers of mystery and vulnerability when you take a closer look.

Today we’re going to look at Jared Bouchler’s Soft Sounds, a Visual Art Finalist in the 2020 Engage Art Contest. You may feel comfortable with this image, recognizing it as “realistic.” This article is going to look at how there might be more than meets the eye in this “fool-the-eye” painting.

Soft Sounds, oil on canvas, by Jared Boechler

Before you read on, spend some time just looking at the artwork. Ask some preliminary questions, like:

  • How does the artwork evoke emotion or set a mood?
  • Is this work more about thinking or more about feeling?
  • What does it make you think about?

The first thing to marvel at—and remind yourself of again and again—is that this is a painting, not a photograph. Well . . . it IS a photograph, but it’s a photograph of a painting, not a real 3D scene. Consider the time and level of craft required to create this image in oils. Many people can—with no effort or explanation—appreciate this artwork on that level. If you stop there, though, you’ll miss out on a lot of what this painting has to offer.

The scene is a church side altar with votive candles in front of stained glass. Lighting candles and having a display of them available in the church is a prayer tradition practiced in many churches, including Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans.

There seem to be a couple different reasons for the candles:

  • In solidarity with and as a prayer for another person, living or dead
  • As a way to focus while praying
  • As a symbol of God’s presence with the one praying, recalling Jesus’s message: "I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)
  • As a way to “extend” the length of a prayer to as long as the candle burns

If you are familiar with the scene depicted, it might conjure the type of quiet that can only come from footsteps on the carpet in a large space, or the mumbled sounds of a prayer only half spoken out loud. The title, Soft Sounds, reinforces that the artist may have been trying for that type of mood. Let’s look at this painting closer.

A set of prompts can give you a structure to evaluate a piece of art. You can find prompts for different types of art in our free eCourse Module 3.

To better understand this particular artwork, we’ll look at these layers:

  • Personal context—Grief
  • The art genres and styles referenced 
  • The artist, Jared Boechler

Personal Context—Grief

The artist writes that this work was created “as a response to a period in my life that proved to be very impactful: my mom’s diagnosis of kidney cancer.” He calls it a “reflection” that speaks to the “power of the silent individual” and the “strength that comes from invisible moments.” People who have come face-to-face with a potentially life-altering grief can likely understand what he is talking about, even if that was not their own response.

In his artist statement, he goes on to reveal that this is not a random church, but the cathedral where his grandmother worked. In fact, she worked here during the artist's formative years when he  was living with her, and she attended mass here every day. His familiarity with the place, and the value his grandmother placed on it, allowed this little altar to become a “necessary tether” during this difficult time.

Knowing this bit of information about the creation of the work, what emotions do you feel when you look at it? How is viewing it now similar or different from when you first studied it?

Genres and Styles Referenced

Now, let’s review three painting and conceptual genres that inform this painting: trompe l’oeil, Magical Realism, and Symbolism.

Trompe L’oeil

Trompe L’oeil is a French term that means “that which deceives the eye.” It is realism taken to its logical conclusion and the quest to achieve it is ancient. A famous story about fool-the-eye paintings occurred prior to 400 BC. Two Greek painters competed to see who could produce the most lifelike image. One painted a still life so real that birds tried to steal away with the painted grapes. The other asked the judge to pull open tattered curtains to see his entry, but the judge could not—because the curtains were part of the painting.

Trompe L'Oeil: A Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board, Edward Collier, c.1699

Trompe l’oeil:

  • Describes 2D art that looks like it is either rendered in 3D or is actually part of the real, dimensional world
  • Is beyond photo-realism, which remains a 2D representation, no matter how realistic
  • Requires mastering 3 skills: perspective, values (relative darks and lights), and temperature (relative cools and warms)
  • Demands uncompromising attention to detail, focus, and craftsmanship
  • Is sometimes used metaphorically to consider profound questions about the nature of reality, what humans can actually know, to what degree we can trust our senses, etc.

The popularity of trompe l’oeil has ebbed and flowed, making an appearance on everything from cathedral ceilings to the ruins of Pompei, from a side table sporting coins that cannot be picked up to a huge tunnel that cannot be driven through. It remains one of the very most accessible forms of art. Many people across continents and centuries have delighted in the visual trick, and once they have been fooled are eager to share that fate with their friends.

In Soft Sounds, the trompe l’oeil is convincing:

  • The rack holding the votives fades away into the shadows.
  • Stained glass is held securely in an old windowpane set into the thick walls of a cathedral.
  • At first glance, there is nothing to dissuade the viewer from thinking this is a photo of a real place.

So far, do you have any indication that the artist might be using trompe l’oeil as a metaphor? If so, what might that metaphor be?

Magical Realism/Surrealism

Magical Realism is an artistic genre that spans many types of art, but it was first coined by German photographer Franz Roh in 1925 to describe modern realist paintings with fantasy elements.

Magical Realism: The Painter’s Family, Giorgio de Chirico, 1926

Magical Realism:

  • Is probably most closely associated with the literature of Gabriel García Márquez and his ilk.
  • Started during a movement called “Return to Order,” a rejection of the European avant-garde art leading up to World War I, and a return to more realistic forms of art.
  • Depicts the world we live in realistically, but then also functions in ways our world does not and that are not explained. It’s like someone turned our world upside down, and most things stayed the same. This distortion of the basic rules (time, gravity, space, how people respond to things) is important because it brings up questions about what is real and what is not. How does this slightly alternate reality comment on the current one?
  • Distinguishes between the real and the true.
  • Comments on a wide range of subjects—politics, community, family, mental health, emotions, etc.

Note: Surrealism and Fabulism are similar and often considered part of Magical Realism, but for our purposes and this artwork, the differences are important. When Surrealism turns our world upside down, its dreamlike images show our inner world, and they most often show it in complete disarray (think Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks). Fables brought into modern day are the subject of Fabulist works. They want to insert universal lessons that have been crafted into familiar stories over centuries into a version of the modern world to bring relevance and immediacy to the message (think science fiction or George Orwell’s Animal Farm).

In Soft Sounds, there are a couple of elements that are mysterious and seem to fall into the Magical Realism category:

  • One of the candles is floating in the air with no support.
  • There is no explanation for why the stained glass is so bright. It looks like there is a light right behind the cross, but that illumination does not extend to the upper panel.

The artist calls out the “rising votive” specifically as “purposefully ambiguous” but “speaking … to the theme of the unknown, the unseen.” He considers it the viewer’s job to interpret what question the votive’s “movement answers.” He does give us a few options:

  • “The physical passing of a life moving on”
  • “A prayer that has been answered”

And then he reveals that the painting remains somewhat of an enigma to him, as well, saying, “the question proposed within the work remains unanswered and perhaps even undefined.” While his real life situation has resolved—his mom made a full recovery—“the quiet moments within the noise of that period have stayed, reflections that continue to impress upon me in ways I’m sure I still don’t fully understand.”

How do you interpret the rising candle? Could it hold personal meaning in your life? Would that meaning be the same or different than what the artist describes? How might you explain the brightness right behind the cross? Why is it so much brighter than the candlelight?

Symbolist Art Movement

The Symbolist Art Movement, which came to the fore in France and Belgium in the late 1800s, also spans multiple art forms.

Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, c.1864–70

Symbolist Art:

  • Is more interested in expressing an idea or an emotion than showing the world as it is
  • Uses symbols—whether they’re visual images or literary imagery—to express ideas that are hard to get at otherwise, including a state of mind or emotional state or ideas about our relationship with the Divine
  • Can draw on well-known symbols, symbols established within the work itself, or personal symbology
  • Comes from an understanding that artists can access and communicate the truth
  • In visual art, follows the practice of fellow musicians and writers to go for nuance and include obscure references
  • Provided a bridge from Romanticism to Modernism
  • Became widely available as a language for artists to use

The artist reveals that in Soft Sounds, there are, “several hidden symbols . . . that provide further insight into the themes. . . . Discretely inlaid amongst the panes of stained glass and breaking from the noticeable pattern . . . are three symbols that directly reference . . . experiences during this period of my life: a hot air balloon, a ball, and three rays of sunlight.” He does not give any more insight into this personal symbology.

Symbolism as used in Religious Paintings

Symbols have been used in the Christian painting from its earliest days. The sign of the fish, for instance, was already recognized as a symbol for Christians in the first century AD. Christian symbols in early paintings became almost like a language to be read.

In the Medieval Era, the symbols used in Christian religious paintings:

  • Were obvious symbols and well known to the audience. For example, Mary, the mother of Jesus, could always be identified with a blue cloak.
  • Were unconcerned with subtlety or complex meaning. The goal was to clearly portray stories from Scripture to a congregation that was unable to read.
  • Were the main way of understanding religious paintings—and remain so in religious iconography even today, especially in the Eastern Orthodox church. Icons, like Byzantine paintings, are illustrative and flat. The posture, clothing, hand position, what the character is holding, and any objects in the painting tell the audience who they are.
Madonna and Child, Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1290-1300

During the Renaissance, symbols:

  • Became more realistic, beginning with Giotto in the early Italian Renaissance. The characters began to look like real people, but the same symbols and written phrases explained who each one was.
  • Were included in more ambiguous ways as the Renaissance ripened.
  • Were present regularly in still life paintings, religious scenes in “modern day” settings, seemingly secular portraits,  and in paintings in the Vanitas and Memento Mori (remember your death) traditions.

Soft Sounds combines traditional Christian imagery with a personal iconography. The traditional imagery includes:

  • The budded cross in the stained glass. This type of cross was likely what happened to the pagan Celtic Cross once it was borrowed by early European Christians. The tri-foil ends can stand for the trinity, “faith, hope, and love,” or the marker on maps for cathedrals.
  • Stained glass as a signifier of a sacred Christian space
  • Candles symbolizing the “light in the darkness,” the presence of God, illumination to truth, Christ as the light. They are lit in times of difficulty, death, remembrance, gratitude, ceremony, and celebration. A Franciscan prayer for candle lighting goes:

May this candle be a light for you to enlighten me. 

May it be a fire for you to burn out of me all pride, selfishness and impurity. 

May it be a flame for you to bring warmth into my heart;

Warmth towards my family, my neighbors and all whom I meet.

  • Votive candles arranged in a recognizable array. In Latin, one of the meanings of votum is “a wish, desire, longing, prayer.”

Through successive art movements, artists employed religious symbols both in art meant to be sacred and art meant to be secular. Sometimes they included these symbols for their traditional symbolic impact, and other times, the symbols served as a counterweight, comment, or subversion. Often the symbols were widely open to interpretation.

How do you think religious symbolism is used in this work? Earnestly? As commentary? Sarcastically? Do you think the traditional Christian symbols or the personal symbols are more important or powerful? Why? Do the two types of imagery fight against each other or support each other? How?

The Artist—Jared Boechler

Jared Boechler is a contemporary visual artist living and working in Canada. Still in the first decade of his professional career, his early success is notable. His resume already includes fellowships in Japan and the US and exhibitions in New York, Asia, and Europe. Jared’s most significant exhibition was one where he hung oil paintings with the custom scents that inspired them. His current art practice includes traditional, installation, and olfactory art.

When he talks about Soft Sounds, you can sense the growth—artistic and personal—that occurred as part of creating this piece:

There are works in the timeline of an artist’s practice that represent all they could hope to say, that relay messages they weren’t even sure needed saying at the time, and that gives one the confidence and assuredness to move forward. This has become one such work.

The motivating ideas behind Soft Sounds remain a sort of touchstone for how I hope to conduct myself, both in daily life and as a creative individual. It exists as a reminder that the good comes quietly, that sometimes the softest sounds or moments can have the greatest impact, and that in the still spaces, unseen by eyes, there remains mystery.

Does the artist’s youth impact how you view this artwork? If he was in his 50s, or his 80s, would the message seem different? How does the vulnerability of the artist’s experience impact your feeling about the work? Do you see ambiguity in the artwork that might point to the artist’s questioning?

If you started this post with a reluctance to consider art that you don’t “get” right away, has that attitude been eroded a bit? If you started reading believing you already understood all the subtleties, were we able to add any new layers of meaning? We hope so! Art really is for everybody.

We hope you’ll join us the next time we evaluate a piece from Engage Art’s Gallery. In the meantime, we encourage you to find works you would like to evaluate for yourself—and do it! Evaluating other people’s work is a wonderful way to exercise your art thinking skills, expand your ability to enjoy more types of art, get your own creative juices flowing, and bring new ideas into your own art practice, art appreciation, and life.

In any case, we hope you will continue to explore new types of creativity as you Engage Culture, Engage Scripture, and Engage Art.

Teresa Cochran has been involved in various arts since she was 3. As an adult, she has been immersed in visual, literary, and performing arts for decades, over time developing a professional focus on public art, public participation, public space planning, and facilitating juries to choose artists and art. She’s also mother to two artists and wife to another, a permaculturist, 4-H leader, practiced chef for special diets, and a proponent of arts-integrated, Montessori, and International Baccalaureate education. Teresa is the Contest and Content Director at Engage Art and has been with the contest since its inception.

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