Josh Tiessen’s new solo Vanitas and Viriditas at Rehs Contemporary

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

T.S. Eliot

Are you yearning for art which delves a little deeper? Perhaps your heart and mind long for a series of visual delights which can remind you of what is important in your life – and what is not. Whether you prefer paintings which spark deeper thought on philosophies or simply provide a stunning experience to enjoy, Josh Tiessen’s solo exhibition Vanitas and Viriditas will keep your cup filled. Comprised of 23 meticulously crafted paintings and drawings, crafted through over 5,000 hours of studio work over three years, Josh Tiessen’s show at Rehs Contemporary is not to be missed!

“Josh Tiessen is an international award-winning artist based in Canada, best known for his hyper-surreal and uniquely shaped oil paintings. His pieces often delve into the interaction between the natural world and humanity, drawing on his studies in philosophy and theology. Continuing on that, Vanitas and Viriditas is an exploration of two divergent perspectives on wisdom and how we might flourish in a modern society filled with facts but mired in confusion.

Tiessen’s Vanitas paintings include a figure named Qohelet (Hebrew for “Teacher”). Inspired by the Jewish wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, these works represent the vanity of humans striving for power, wealth, and knowledge, often at the expense of the earth. The Viriditas paintings are built around a figure named Sophia (Greek for “wisdom”), inspired by the female personification of wisdom from the book of Proverbs. These works espouse virtues such as simplicity, humility, wonder, and awe, which are vital for cultivating ecological wisdom.”

I interviewed Josh to learn more about his upcoming solo show at Rehs Contemporary.

Josh Tiessen: Vanitas and Viriditas

Greening the White Cube
Auguries of Innocence III

Opening Reception: Friday, April 28, 2023 | 4–8 pm

Exhibition Dates: April 28 – May 26, 2023

Rehs Contemporary

20 West 55th Street, 5th Floor | New York, NY 10019

For press inquiries or sales, please contact Rehs Contemporary Gallery Director Lance Rehs at lance@rehs.com

Phone: (212) 355-5710

Monday – Friday, 10am – 5pm

Interview with Josh Tiessen

I love the way your exhibition theme holds a mirror to two juxtaposing sides to humanity which feel in constant push and pull of each other. You’ve explained that this is “an exploration of two divergent perspectives on wisdom”. As well as there being individual groups of thought, I think many people genuinely struggle between both perspectives within themselves. What made you decide to focus on this theme: your own inner conflict, or a more general interest to explore this as a student of philosophy?

That’s an excellent question; I was waiting for someone to ask if the characters Qohelet and Sophia represent my inner turmoil. From reading Søren Kierkegaard I was intrigued by how he wrote many of his books under pseudonyms, allowing him to process various ways of thinking without committing himself. In a similar vein, Vanitas and Viriditas provided me the chance to explore what seems like two contradictory forms of wisdom.

I have a melancholy temperament, and often experience existential angst over the chaos and suffering in the world, and the inevitable heat-death of the universe. Yet, on the other hand, I am frequently filled with child-like wonder when I am out in the natural world. I want to believe that we live in a moral universe where goodness and justice will ultimately prevail. I oscillate between “life is absurd” and “life is beautiful.” I suppose I am the quintessential tortured artist, haha.

Modern idols

Your Vanitas paintings explore the urge to find meaning and purpose in life – something which is a natural impulse for many. The series focuses on the use of “modern idols” – science, technology, material consumption, and pleasure – to find such meaning. Searching outwards to fill an inner hole may seem contradictory, but we live in an age where the media and general society has trained us to look outwards for answers…

When I use the term “modern idols” I’m referring to that which humans place their ultimate value in, or give greatest attention to in their lives. While I believe there is value in science and technology, and we are meant to enjoy the material comforts of life, eventually all these things let us down due to their temporal nature.

The quest for scientific knowledge exposes our finite limitations (hello, COVID pandemic). This is reflected in my paintings Refracting Infinity and The Ferret Trials. Technology, like social media, can become toxic, and the metaverse fuels escapism. Of course, it’s not hard to see that wealth doesn’t satisfy either, as some of the richest people in the world are some of the most unhappy.

My painting All Creatures Lament, which features a dying pelican, is a critique of oil spills, ocean plastics, and toxic waste, which often arise when corporations ‘cut corners’ for profit.

Josh Tiessen
All Creatures Lament

So you’re right. Many of the problems in our society stem from false hopes that external means will fulfill us. I am noticing more artists calling this out, like Lorde in her song Royals, voicing Gen Z’s refusal to be “caught up in [society’s] love affair” with luxury and materialism. Or, Bo Burnham’s Inside comedy special, which exposes the vanity of our contemporary world: woke capitalism, celebrity worship, sexting, political virtue-signalling, and health crazes, all meant to fill our “inner hole” of meaning.

A reflection on technology

That constant discord that can occur within oneself when trying to find meaning and purpose through external sources is something which feels more ingrained in us now than ever before. Without over-simplifying, how much do you this is due to the rise of technology at our fingertips replacing face-to-face human interaction? On the other hand, is it rather that we’ve just misunderstood as a species how to best utilize technology to enhance our understanding of the world without losing our connectivity?

I am certainly not a curmudgeon when it comes to technology, as I’m not opposed to the technological tools available that enhance my artistic practice. Our devices improve our lives in many ways – connecting us to long-distance family and friends, providing educational opportunities, and the simple pleasures of media entertainment. But as Carl Trueman asserted in his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, if we’re not careful technology will define our ontology. It can dictate the nature of existence. This is something I was pondering in my painting Nirvana 5G. If we are not careful, virtual reality will become our true reality, the only world we care to live in. Embodied activities like “slow art,” nature hikes, and time with friends, remind us that physical reality, lived out face-to-face with people and in the natural world, is our true home.

I think Neil Postman was prophetic with the title of his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Sadly, much of the art today, whether that be visual art, music, video games, or film, is merely used for “entertainment.” So, while technology is an issue for its inherent ‘excarnate’ (dis-embodied) essence, the bigger problem is how we are using it to numb ourselves from having to deal with the deeper questions of life. For me personally, I believe art is at its best when it provokes us to ask the deeper questions and seek meaningful answers.

Nirvana 5G
Concept drawing for Creation Cathedral

Knowledge vs wisdom

It is said that with knowledge comes power; the more we know the more we can make educated decisions on our own accord. But in this age of the internet and social media, the downside to information at our fingertips is that misinformation is just as rife. We are not taught from an early enough age how to distinguish truth from fiction. Would you say this is one of the differences between “knowledge” and “wisdom” in your series?

Yes, that’s exactly right. As I was gathering inspiration for my series, I came across this quote by modern poet T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Contrary to what our ‘smart’ phones would have us believe, we are sadly no more the wiser! We are experiencing what Charles Taylor termed the “Nova Effect”: a rapidly increasing array of life philosophies that are now on offer.

Josh Tiessen

My painting Swallowed by Knowledge wrestles with the reality that we are living in a society filled with facts but mired in confusion. Qohelet discovers that what we really need is not additional information, but true wisdom. Although I am a proponent of studying broadly (I have a Bachelor’s in Theology and Philosophy, and am working on a Master’s in Art History), the reality is that some of the most diabolical eugenicists and dictators were (and are) highly-educated individuals.

Swallowed by Knowledge

When we seek to find our entire purpose and meaning through the acquisition of knowledge we self-delude, as no one can possibly read every book that has been written. This is where Qohelet realizes that a relationship with the omniscient Creator is the Light who can help us discern true wisdom from the wisdom of this age. While Qohelet and Sophia’s paths diverge, both affirm that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. By fear, they mean a healthy respect, which leads to an intellectual humility that affirms our human limitations of knowing. When “loving our neighbour” guides our conversations, mutual respect and understanding can take place, even on polarizing issues.

Time and connection

Your Viriditas character, Sophia, symbolizes virtues for cultivating ecological wisdom through her connection to nature (simplicity, humility, wonder, and awe). Humanity’s mark is imprinted on the environment within every artwork in Vanitas and Viriditas, and it is interesting how Sophia interacts less with her surroundings than Qohelet. She continues on, less distracted… I read that you spent three years and over 5,000 hours on this body of work. This leads me to wonder, just as Sophia finds herself attuning to the cyclical rhythms around her, did you find your rhythm? Perhaps even your own connection to similar positive virtues through this painting journey?

In my painting The Kairos Stones, Sophia and her Arabian horse travel through time, surrounded by Neolithic Stone Henge. Scholars theorize that the standing rocks served as an ancient lunar observatory, and a place for ritual activity. Throughout history, megaliths and cairns (rock piles) marked sacred places and events. In Greek antiquity, there was a distinction made between kronos (linear time) and kairos (a decisive moment in time). In the pre-modern era, such as the medieval age, time was apprehended as multi-dimensional. A greater emphasis was placed on sacred days within the liturgical calendar, distinguishing this as holy “higher time” from the profane “ordinary time.”

The Kairos Stones

Sophia, like the ancient peoples, expresses her connection to the land – ecological wisdom – through celebrations such as the winter and summer solstice, equinox, new moons, harvest time, and sabbaths. As I worked on this painting, I reflected on the way in which time in our secular society has been made largely “horizontal” and how I want to grow in observing the “vertical” dimensions of changing seasons and sacred holidays.

I embrace a weekly practice of sabbath: a day off from work, technology and consumption, to engage with my faith community, and delight in nature, family and friends. Abraham Joshua Heschel calls sabbaths “cathedrals of time,” which I think is a beautiful way to put it. Even if you are not religious, finding a healthy rhythm of work and rest is important for all of us.

Josh Tiessen

Finding freedom from modern pressures: time well spent

Overall, has this project allowed you to personally find more clarity and a better way forward to connect with a more meaningful life?

Painting allows me to get out of my head as an embodied practice. Wisdom is not simply head knowledge, but relates even to making a skillful painting and, more broadly, a beautiful life.

My previous painting series Streams in the Wasteland, which debuted at Jonathan LeVine Projects in 2019, was inspired by nature’s reclamation in the prophetic book of Isaiah, as well as environmental stewardship passages throughout Scripture. Vanitas and Viriditas, which focuses on the wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible, is a natural progression. Drawing on Aristotle’s virtue of the good, I recognize that an ecological ethic is much deeper than theoretical philosophies or environmental policies, i.e. “What should I do?”. Instead, it must penetrate my very character:  “What kind of person should I be?”. Vanitas and Viriditas seeks to critique vices such as greed, self-centredness, and arrogance. It commends virtues such as humility, justice, love, and hope, through presenting two dialectical perspectives as a way to discover what it means to become a wise person on this planet, living up to our name Homo sapien (wise human).

I have learned from Qohelet’s perspective, accepting the sobering truth that everything in this world is fleeting and will ultimately not satisfy our deepest inner longings. I am at peace with the endless paradoxes, and that so much in life just doesn’t make sense. Yet I also value Sophia’s path to wisdom through a re-enchantment with the earth and its Creator, manifested in embodied skillful living (the Hebrew understanding of wisdom, hokmâ).

Alpha and Omega (detail)
Alpha and Omega
The Auguries of Innocence I

Generally, I do believe that flourishing can occur when we align ourselves with the wise grain of the universe, as outlined in the biblical book of Proverbs. When I embrace Qohelet and Sophia’s guiding compass, a reverential awe for the Creator, I remember my human limitations and the importance of Scripture to guide me, as well as Christ, whom I believe is the incarnate wisdom of God. Through this painting series, I have come to experience freedom from the modern pressures of self-centred individualism, the overwhelming sea of options, and the frantic pace of having ‘everything everywhere all at once.’

Enjoy Vanitas and Viriditas at Rehs Contemporary from April 28th through May 26th, 2023.

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About Author

Based in the UK, Natalia Joruk enjoys a life surrounded by art, nature, and curious trinkets. As Deputy Editor, she's worked closely with the Editor-in-Chief for over a decade, supporting with the design and growth of Beautiful Bizarre and the maintenance of the annual Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize. Natalia also oversees sponsor partnerships for the Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize, and distribution of the magazine, so drop her an email if you know someone who would like to sponsor or stock! She also writes for both the Beautiful Bizarre Magazine website and print publication. One of her favourite perks is getting to know artists, gallery owners and their teams personally, so feel free to email her if there is anything she can help you with – or just to connect.


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