Exhibition Review: Fra Angelico/Opus Operantis by Robert Polidori
By Ilana Jael
There is much resonance to be found in Robert Polidori’s Fra Angelico / Opus Operantis, an exhibition that appeared from March 8th to April 14th at Chelsea’s Paul Kasmin Galleries. The first half of the show’s title is the name of a devoted 15th century friar and painter who was eventually awarded the prestigious religious title of “blessed” by Pope John Paul II. In the words of writer Giorgio Vasari, "it is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.” Over the course of 2010, Polidori made several pilgrimages to Convento Di San Marco to study and photograph Angelico’s work, and a similar facility and humility is revealed in his results.
Polidori’s gorgeous large-scale images are so vivid and detailed that, at first glance, it is easy to mistake them for paintings, an effect enhanced by the photographer’s use of wide, flattening shots. Every crack in the time-worn watercolor is visible, as is every chip in the church’s aged wall. This visual evidence of decay plays into Polidori’s ongoing investigation into the “situation of humanity in the face of the overwhelming power of nature and time,” refreshing rather than detrimental; in an era largely defined by glossy perfection and constant retouching, it is nice to stumble across something that has been allowed to stay broken.
The latter half of the exhibit’s title, Opus Operantis, is a theological term which describes how the grace bestowed by religious rites is not to be found in the material objects of their performance, like holy water and rosary beads, but in the fervor and personal piety of the supplicant. And if Angelico’s paintings have been interpreted as an expression of his devotion to God or even as a kind of prayer, Polidori’s work here is quite nearly a prayer to Angelico. Yet far from being mere documentation, these immortal images are powerful works of art in their own right, and have the added virtue of being more lasting ones. While Angelico’s frescoes will continue to fade and eventually crumble, Polidori’s photographs will live on, unvarnished, nearly as eternal as their heavenly subjects.