Anne Gardom visits an exhibition of paintings by a priest member of Forward in Faith.

I suspect that many people, when faced with a series of paintings that are non-figurative, switch off their minds and say to themselves “if I cannot see what it is meant to be, then I cannot possibly understand it.” This is a pity, of course, and would especially be a pity in the case of John Pelling’s paintings, which have a lot to say. Some of it is painful and difficult, some of it is positive and celebratory, and it all has to do with the role of women and feminism (not the same thing!) in contemporary society. It is a subject about which a great deal has been spoken and written, but rather less has been expressed visually.

Using the nude human body to express emotions and ideas is not new. One only has to look at 17th Century paintings of heroic deeds and legends to realize that, and John Pelling has used the female form to express his ideas. In his pictures he uses sweeping curves and rounded shapes against hard, angular backgrounds to give visual expression to the tensions and conflicts presented by current feminism in our church and society. These figures both attract and repel at the same time, with the lovely lines of the female figure also ending in suggestions of menacing claws or blades tipped in vivid red points and spikes.

The backgrounds to his paintings are harsh, angular, full of straight uncompromising lines; there is a sequence of paintings where feminine shapes and female sexual symbols are placed in front of thick heavy black crosses, all the more powerful because of their delicate and restrained colours. In Bird of Pray [sic], a major painting, church symbols – the chalice, stole, candle, are painted in combination with female shapes in a way which is very confrontational. Stylized the images may be, but they are nonetheless extremely powerful and direct.

John Pelling uses colour in a very careful and controlled way, and sequences of paintings are linked by ideas and colour – grey, cream and black; red, black, cream and turquoise; greys, pale yellows and mauves. This sense of order and control, however, is shattered when you turn from these pictures to the opposite wall, where trickles of blood-red paint run down to the bottom edges of the pictures, evoking images of gaping wounds, of female anatomy, of the wounds of the crucified Christ.

John Pelling is an ordained Anglican priest who now devotes his time entirely to painting. These pictures reflect and embody his very real concern and involvement with current sexual mores and their theological implications. They are beautifully composed and painted and this, together with an elegant sense of distance and humour, makes the exhibition disturbing, demanding, full of questions and well worth seeing.

Anne Gardom is the Art Critic for New Directions