MAY 2005
John O’Brien 

I have noticed that there has been a marked increase of talk about religion in the discourse about art these days. Whether it is in a discussion with video curator Joe Santarommana (who recently converted to Buddhism) about his upcoming DVD magazine that deals with healing, or reading articles in local newspapers, religion comes up often, even in the generally secular realm of contemporary visual art. So what does it mean to be religious and ill the art world today? How can artists work with religion and dogma? How are artists to accept faith, when they are trained to question? The mainstream focus on religion is fueled by our media induced hypnosis as we witness the various political battles waged by organized groups over their clashing views of human rights, or look on in horror as religious zealots kill self righteously in the name of their religious beliefs. What I have been charting lately is how the art world reflects the tensions created by these conditions and contained in those questions.

One result appears to be that artists have begun to deal with the religious aspects of their work (if there are any) more openly. They are less reluctant to articulate how their personal religion influences their art, even when that relationship seems to lead into direct contradiction with the historically transmitted values of modern secular utopianism (read Modem Art). Now that the secret is out, it is important to judge such work fairly within its self defined context. It is simply unacceptable to dismiss a serious contemporary artist's work just because they profess a religious faith. Further, I don't think we can evaluate the success of artwork that engages such content without considering the religious values embedded within it.

My impression as to the unacceptability of working with the terms of religion as a conceptual category in the contemporary art paradigm was first sparked when reading about Tim Hawkinson's sculpture "Pentecost" when it was first exhibited at Ace (in West Hollywood) several years ago. I thought it was both an amazing sculpture and a profoundly meaningful reflection on the religious event after which it is titled (in the Christian Church it is the day on which the Spirit descended upon the apostles). That most general as well as art media managed to never mention the title nor discuss the Pentecost is paradoxical proof of the high esteem they have for Hawkinson - and the suspicion they hold towards discussing art and religion. It is a reluctance that I have noted frequently since then. 

Will Seen, Will Said 2003 - oil on panel 15 ½ 36¾

Will Seen, Will Said 2003 - oil on panel 15 ½ 36¾

Laura Lasworth's recent exhibition "The Gray" (at Hunsaker/Schlesinger Fine Art. Santa Monica) is an excellent example of how a contemporary artist can work in clear relationship to their religious beliefs and still make profoundly satisfying artworks. Titled "Et lux in tenebris lucet"--the light that shines in the darkness - the beautifully painted ensemble of small and medium sized paintings possess multiple levels of significance. On the formal side, her handling of this dullest of colors (celebrated for its strange and elusive perceptual qualities by painters as diverse as Velaquez, Goya and Whistler) is predictably subtle and unpredictably sumptuous. Shifting gray planes are pinched inward as though space were convex, small colored jots flit about, and there are hints of different colors just seething below the surface. Honestly. I kept thinking about the peculiar color handling of Jules Olitski as being the palette of inspiration.
Then there is the narrative dimension of figuration: images stand out against the gray. They are dreamy but recognizable, and relate both to the history of painting (surrealism. in particular) and also refer to artifacts and images drawn from Catholicism. These works keep your mind oscillating between the sheer beauty of the scenes imagined/depicted and the religious meditation conveyed by them. In "St. Therese. Pray for us!" the influence of metaphysical paintings with their characteristic enigmatic objects are intertwined into the liturgical symbols derived from the artist's religion. "Very simply," writes Lasworth, "the paintings and drawings in this exhibit represent a journey through a gray region where faith or faulty intuition at best is the only tool of navigation. Be it a region created by the dark of war or mourning after a great loss." These paintings incorporate more than one kind of value into its making, and are valid whether regarded strictly in a formal context or engaged in terms of the more protracted meditation on faith and intuition that the artist emphasizes.

At the Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral (just ending on May 1st), an interfaith exhibition of works by artists from different religious backgrounds serves to bring these diverse traditions together, and also became an unplanned homage to the late Pope John Paul II, whose Papacy was importantly marked by efforts to bridge the different faiths of the world. Titled "Passion/Passover: Artists of Faith interpret Their Holy Days," this multi-medium exhibit could be another example of the overt ways in which the art world reflects today's tensions. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Testament are the sources of inspiration for a contemporary art exhibition of works by Christian and Jewish artists. The art on view explores the spiritual significance of Easter and Passover, and symbolizes and celebrates the bonds of friendship and respect between the Christian and Jewish communities of Los Angeles. The 14 featured artists were selected by the Cathedral's Arts and Furnishings Committee, chaired by Gayle Garner Roski, and they include seven Jewish and seven Christian artists, representing painters, photographers, and sculptors. What is particularly significant about this grouping aside from the venue, is that alongside artists like Ruth Weisberg and Patty Wickman, who have always acknowledged the importance of religion in their work, there are others such as Stas Orlovski, Michael Dvortcsak or Barbara Drucker, for whom this connection has been more subterranean.

Another recent event regarding the subject of art and religion was the publication of Eleanor Heartney's "Post Modem Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art" (published 2004, Midmarch Arts Press). It examines the work of many well known contemporary artists in what one assumes is author's desire to ease current adversarial relations between art and religion. I am not convinced that this book is successful as art criticism, although some of the analogies drawn out from the extreme practices examined are interesting forays that attempt to argue for asacramental quality in contemporary art. I am certain that from the point of view of mainstream Catholics Heartney fails to illuminate the living reason for ritual experience. While the artists she considers, such as Karen Finley, Andres Serrano and Ron Athey, emulate some religious forms, they so without ever finding (nor desiring to, in my opinion) the nexus which would make it compelling to a believer. If Heartney's intent was to reconcile, the opposite is really the case-which may, after all, be precisely the point.

As the discourse about religion in the arts becomes more pronounced and open, the ways in which art in the art world is written about and the ways it is being curated into exhibitions has undergone gradual modification in an inverse direction. I believe it is drifting away from its critical and curatorial specificity.
While this tendency is less overt than the emergence of religious reflection, it is connected to the mores of what we do and what we don't talk about. If you think back just a few years ago, most writing about art, in the art press at least, had propensity for evaluating the theoretical framework in which the art could be said  to spring from. Theoretically driven writing has the tendency to generalize, and often readers are left puzzled by the relationship between the appearance of art that they have seen and how such theory asked them to perceive it. Little by little, theory ceded its terrain to criticism, which is a little less general than theory, since it tends to contextualize the work being critiqued within a more localized position. Now it is becoming clear that much writing is settling for "re-viewing" artwork, in which the focus is on the individual case, and less on contextual or incidental relationships to other art with which it contributes to a larger point.

I see this tendency in the curating of group shows and recent surveys. There is in a moving away from the grouping of artworks under the aegis of an Idea to a grouping of artworks in the form of sampling. A current exhibition of sculpture at the UCLA Hammer Museum (on view through June 5th) is a good example of this tendency. “THING: New Sculpture from Los Angeles” features art by 20 Los Angeles-based artists and, in the words of the Museum's release,". . .work whose innovative and provocative works reflect the energy and originality of L.A.'s lively art scene." It is ". . .a chance to examine how the range of provocative sculpture and objects being produced by L.A.'s younger generation extends local traditions and lineage, and also taps into and shapes broader cultural streams." But what I saw was that “Thing" made no pretense of being a theoretical threshold through which to view object-making in the contemporary art world. It is nothing more than an interesting selection of what is being done in Los Angeles today by recent graduates of local art schools. The critical parameters of this work appear to be nothing more than a byproduct of the curators' (James Elaine, Aimee Chang and Christopher Miles) leg work. There is no programmatic setting forth to search out the new materials being employed, the 3D games and computer simulation programs being emulated, or the popular culture images from the 1960's being re-invigorated. This lack of curatorial agenda can be understood as a desire to "let the work speak," however it also amounts to an avoidance of just the kind of overarching prerogatives which were once the accepted terrain of curators and critics. The curators may well possess informed taste and perceptual acuity, but their neutral approach differs greatly from that of the recent past.

These tendencies have negative and positive connotations, but it seems to me that this closure on the generalizations of theory and the specificity of highly orchestrated curatorial ensembles, together with the opening up to talk of religion in relationship to art is a response to the tensions of our times. As America has broadly moved away from the certainty that reason will suffice and secular order will prevail and especially as power exercises itself ever more capriciously, it is as though we are all trying to re-group, to prepare for what is coming.