Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

December 23, 2008

Back after the holidays

Filed under: Uncategorized — mocraslu @ 4:33 pm

The MOCRA blog will be quiet for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, we wish you and your loved ones a season of peace and joy and a New Year abundant with promise.

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December 18, 2008

Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre

Georges Rouault, "Obedient Unto Death ...," 1926.

Georges Rouault, "Obedient Unto Death ...," 1926.

Georges Rouault ( 1871-1958 ) is an isolated figure in twentieth-century art, a man who remained outside of the group movements and manifestoes that dominated the century, and was possessed of a fixed and persistent artistic vision. A devout Catholic, Rouault’s faith informed his work, which at times seems to serve as a vehicle for moral judgment and retains vitality and relevance today. Rouault himself said, “All of my work is religious for those who know how to look at it.”

One of the highlights of MOCRA’s collection is a complete set of Rouault’s series of etchings titled Miserere et Guerre. The entire set was first shown at MOCRA in 1994, then in 2000 and again in 2003. Individual prints have been included in other exhibitions, including MOCRA’s two fifteenth-anniversary exhibitions, Pursuit of the Spirit and Good Friday.

Rouault’s project was originally conceived as 100 huge etchings to illustrate two books, Miserere (“Have mercy”) and Guerre (“War”), to be written by poet André Suarès. The books never appeared, but under the strenuous demands of the artist’s publisher and dealer, Ambroise Vollard, Rouault composed the majority of the images between 1914 and 1918 and continued to rework the plates in succeeding years. The 58 images (which can be seen here and here) were finally published in 1927 in an edition of 450 copies, and the copper etching plates were canceled. However, because of Vollard’s untimely death in 1939 and legal struggles with his heirs, the etchings were not exhibited until 1948.

The etchings are landmarks in expanding the technical and expressive range of the print. Rouault’s initial ink sketches were photoengraved onto copper plates. He then engraved, used sandpaper, files, edged rollers, scrapers, and painted with acid to achieve amazing effects. He would often work his plates through as many as twelve and even fifteen states to achieve as much depth, variety and richness as he did in full color paint on canvas. Yet always, technique is subordinated to expression in Rouault’s art.

Georges Rouault, "This Will Be the Last Time, Father!" 1927.

Georges Rouault, "This Will Be the Last Time, Father!" 1927.

Miserere presents a gallery of scenes and characters. Many of them—clowns, kings, and prostitutes—are familiar inhabitants of Rouault’s paintings, joined in the Guerre section by soldiers, generals and war profiteers. Rouault admits some tenderness into Guerre, as with his image of a gothic Madonna and child echoed in a war widow cradling her son.

But the central recurring figure is that of Christ, from the first title plate that resembles some ancient death monument with the bowed head of Christ in the bottom half, to the image of the Man of Sorrows on Veronica’s Veil in the last plate. Rouault’s caption for this plate, “It is by his stripes that we are healed.” (Is. 53:5), suggests that all the suffering, all the blindness and loneliness, all the wish for love and the fact of war, all that has gone before is compassed in the broken body of Christ. For Rouault the divine face reflects suffering, compassion, and finally hope.

Born out of the unprecedented violence of the First World War and Rouault’s intense compassion for the marginalized and underprivileged, the Miserere stand as a singular achievement in the realms of printmaking and religious art. They speak as forcefully and as poignantly today as when they were first printed nearly 80 years ago.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

December 17, 2008

Taking a breather

Filed under: Exhibitions, Pursuit of the Spirit — Tags: , , , — mocraslu @ 12:36 pm

Pursuit of the Spirit, the first of MOCRA’s two fifteenth-anniversary exhibitions, closed on Sunday. Now for a couple of weeks of decompression and holiday break before installing the second anniversary show, Good Friday, scheduled to open on February 8, 2009.

Pursuit of the Spirit had good attendance and positive feedback from those who visited. Among my personal metrics for gauging the success of an exhibition are the amount of time visitors spend in the museum, and the amount of time they spend with individual works. On both counts, this exhibition scored high marks.

I don’t have the opportunity to talk with individual visitors as much as I would like, to find out how they have responded to particular works or to the exhibition overall. When I do, invariably I receive a new insight into works that I thought I knew pretty well.

So it’s great to discover that at least one visitor has blogged about his experience at the exhibition. Read what Chris King has to say about Seyed Alavi’s Noli me tangere.

You can also read Chris’ ruminations on the Pursuit of the Spirit opening reception, replete with sketch of MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

December 12, 2008

Body and Soul

MOCRA’s second exhibition, Body and Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, opened on October 24, 1993, and ran through the end of the year. Some audiences may well have been asking, why was a contemporary art museum featuring a retrospective of a dance company?

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993.

Installation view, "Body & Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993.

The key is in the company’s namesake and founder, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. “It is evident that religion had a profound impact on Alvin Ailey’s life,” MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J. wrote in a press release for the exhibition. “Spirituality is pervasive in his work. Some of Ailey’s greatest dances were his spiritual dances.”

Body and Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was organized by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with the cooperation of the Dance Theater Foundation, Inc., and private collections. The exhibition was a celebration of (then) 35 years of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and its exceptional contributions to contemporary culture.

Ailey and his dancers have entertained and educated the public by bringing to the stage lyrical and energetic works inspired by the African American experience. He saw his company not only as a place in which to present his own works but the works of other aspiring African American choreographers as well. Furthermore, he felt an urgency to create a permanent company so that the great dances of earlier African American choreographers could be preserved.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993.

Installation view, "Body & Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993. Note the famous dress from "Cry" at left.

Above all, Alvin Ailey affirmed the dignity of all humanity. Dempsey told The University News, “One of the reasons for bringing this show here is that Ailey was one of the great bridge builders between the various races.” “Ailey celebrated the Black heritage, but his dances are not exclusive. He wishes to include all of humanity, and somehow we are all touched by the power of his dances.”

At the time of the exhibition, Ailey’s company had appeared in over 65 countries and performed before 13 million people. Now in 2008, as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary, that number has grown to 21 million people. The anniversary has been an occasion for reminiscences about Ailey, and for a gala tribute performance.

Ailey died in 1989, but his rich legacy lives on in a vibrant company that continues to thrive under his successor Judith Jamison, one of America’s greatest dancers.

The exhibition traced the development of one of America’s most important dance companies through the costumes, original drawings by Romare Bearden, videotapes of the major dances (including Cry, Blues Suite, and Revelations), and over 200 archival photographs.


Along with the exhibition, MOCRA offered a number of related programs. Performances were given by the St. Alphonsus Rock Choir and the Katharine Dunham Junior Dance Company.

James Truitte, Patricia Jacobs, and Danny Clark.

Panel discussion titled, "I Remember Alvin Ailey," at MOCRA, 1993. From left: James Truitte, Patricia Jacobs, and Danny Clark.

Two special evenings featured people closely related to the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. The first, “I Remember Alvin,” was an evening of reminiscences about Alvin Ailey with Patricia Jacobs, Director of the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey; James Truitte (d. 1995), choreographer and original member of the Ailey company; and Danny Clark (d.1997), a dancer with the company at that time.

Katherine Dunham reflects during her lecture at MOCRA, 1993.

Katherine Dunham reflects during her lecture at MOCRA, 1993.

Most wonderful was “An Evening with Katherine Dunham,” on November 5, 1993. This a dance legend discussed the famous “Dunham Technique.” She provided valuable insights into Ailey the man, and her influence on his career. Dunham, who died in 2006, moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1969 and founded the Dunham Dynamic Museum, through which she brought the power of dance to the children and adults of the community. Dunham’s life and work are chronicled in the exhibition Katherine Dunham, currently on display at the Missouri History Museum.

Katherine Dunham and a young admirer, at MOCRA, 1993. Dunham's legacy lives on in new generations of dancers.

Katherine Dunham and a young admirer, at MOCRA, 1993. Dunham's legacy lives on in new generations of dancers.

December 11, 2008

Preconceived Notions

Roughly two years ago, I decided to do a solo gallery walk around Grand Center and other areas of St. Louis. I compiled a list of galleries and museums through a Google search. There was one venue that stood out amongst names such as The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, The Sheldon Art Galleries, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Saint Louis University Museum of Art and Bruno David Gallery. That venue was MOCRA, the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art.

Outward Movement, 1948. Oil on canvas.

Oskar Fischinger, "Outward Movement," 1948. Oil on canvas. © and Collection of Fischinger Trust.

I was worried about what I would see in a museum of strictly contemporary religious art. Visions of Werner Sallman’s Head of Christ almost prevented me from walking through those doors, but, as a student of art, I decided it was in my best interest to venture into uncomfortable territory.

The exhibition on display was Oskar Fischinger: Movement and Spirit. As I made my way through the side chapels turned galleries, a calmness took over. The museum had low light levels and was quiet… it sounded like an empty church (MOCRA is housed in a building that was once a chapel). There was a meditative presence in Fischinger’s technique… you could see that each line was painted one at a time with a steady hand. It was clear to me the man who painted these works was patient and deliberate.

In particular, the painting Outward Movement struck me as a tremendous example of Fischinger’s technique. There must be hundreds of gridded squares made with thousands of individual lines. They are placed one on top of the other and give a true illusion of outward movement from the center of the canvas. Fischinger used no stamps or silkscreen techniques when creating this work. He placed each line in position with a brush… one at a time… carefully spaced… producing a painting that captures your attention.

The connection of that exhibit to MOCRA’s mission was not obvious, but it was there. The act of creating paintings for Oskar Fischinger was a form of meditation, which is a common practice in most religions. And, because the religious connection was not “in my face,” I walked away with a better understanding of the spiritual as MOCRA presents it to its visitors. It is not sentimental. It is not aggressive. It is not obvious. It is something else entirely.

–Bob Sullivan, Museum Assistant

[According to the Fischinger Trust, Fischinger’s original title for Outward Movement was Manhattan.]

December 10, 2008

“Pursuit of the Spirit” closing Sunday

Filed under: Exhibitions, Pursuit of the Spirit — mocraslu @ 6:50 pm
Frederick J. Brown, "Madonna and Child."

Installation view, "Pursuit of the Spirit," at MOCRA, 2008. Foreground: Jeff Miller, "The Holy Spirit"; background: Frederick J. Brown, "Madonna and Child."

MOCRA’s fifteenth-anniversary exhibition Pursuit of the Spirit closes this Sunday, December 14, 2008. MOCRA is open now through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a long-time patron, this exhibition has something to offer. It includes works spanning a wide range of media and subject matter, and represents over 40 artists who have been exhibited at MOCRA in the past 15 years.

If you are in the St. Louis area, we hope to see you between now and Sunday!

December 9, 2008

“Pursuit of the Spirit” reviewed; questions raised

MOCRA’s fifteenth-anniversary exhibition Pursuit of the Spirit was featured in the Sunday, December 7, 2008 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reviewer David Bonetti praises MOCRA’s “vigorous program” and highlights a number of works in the exhibition. At the same time, he voices some common questions and objections about what MOCRA aims at in presenting contemporary art that engages the religious and spiritual dimensions. For instance, how does one identify the “spiritual” in art if a traditional iconography is lacking?

We invite you to read Mr. Bonetti’s review and then share your own thoughts about the questions he poses. Have you visited MOCRA to see Pursuit of the Spirit? How does your experience compare with his?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Read David Bonetti’s review of Pursuit of the Spirit.

December 5, 2008

Sanctuaries

Filed under: Exhibitions, MOCRA mission, Sanctuaries — Tags: , , , , , , — mocraslu @ 1:33 pm
Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.

Installation view, "Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art," at MOCRA, 1993.

MOCRA’s inaugural exhibition opened Sunday, February 14, 1993. Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art featured more than 100 works from an wide-ranging roster of artists, including

Seyed Alavi Steven Heilmer Jim Morphesis
Lita Albuquerque Tobi Kahn Daniel Ramirez
Craig Antrim Paul Kos James Rosen
Nick Boskovich Frank LaPeña Susan Schwalb
Frederick Brown Charlotte Lichtblau Thomas Skomski
Michael David Stephen Luecking Kazuaki Tanahashi
Stephen De Staebler Bernard Maisner Michael Tracy
Eleanor Dickinson Ann McCoy Brian Tripp
Donald Grant

MOCRA’s Founding Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J., noted at the time that

Sanctuaries offers an overview of a movement that gained momentum in the 1980s and has grown in strength in the early 1990s. A generation of artists have begun to renew their interest in the religious and spiritual dimensions of art, and within the last dozen years or so they have achieved recognition in the mainstream art world for the spiritual concerns which form the substance of their work.

Fr. Dempsey had assembled an extensive list of such artists in the course of writing his doctoral dissertation. These artists were generally in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They tended to be disillusioned with the celebrity mentality of the 1980s and in response were seeking the “spiritual.” Their faith or religious practices were not always particularly orthodox, and in fact many would draw from various beliefs and philosophies.

Fr. Dempsey had concluded from his research that this artistic concern with the religious and spiritual dimensions was pervasive and yet not an organized movement, having no group manifesto. For the artists, this pursuit was risky. One artist, warned that his work would not sell, replied that the ideas were too important to ignore, whether or not the art was salable. Fr. Dempsey reflected,

For some of them, having faith is tough. They have to struggle. These are not commissioned works-they are the work of an artist pursuing personal vision or questions. … These artists have often been met with indifference and sometimes suspicion by religious and cultural institutions. Yet they have pursed this exploration even when it was financially unwise. They have done so because they perceived something was in danger of being lost: a sense of mystery, ritual, tradition-a sense that a major dimension of being human was being ignored.

The title Recovering the Holy in part alludes to the rediscovery by many contemporary artists of the power of art with a spiritual dimension to engage the viewer affectively. Indeed, said Fr. Dempsey, their art is compelling precisely because of the struggle.

Recovering the Holy In Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.

Installation view, "Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy In Contemporary Art," at MOCRA, 1993. From left: Steven Heilmer, "Nativity Stone: Mother's Milk"; Don Grant, "Rope and Candle"; Craig Antrim, "Icon Wall."

And so, for this inaugural exhibition of what was believed to be the first museum of its kind in the world, Fr. Dempsey assembled 100 works by 25 contemporary American artists reflecting the country’s religious and ethnic diversity. Artists came from Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Native American backgrounds, and their styles ranged from traditional Western figuration to minimalist and geometric abstraction.

(more…)

December 4, 2008

The Artist and Sacred Space

Yesterday we looked briefly at how MOCRA came to be. Today we continue the story with some of the surprises that come with renovating an older building, and the encouraging response to a pre-opening conference.

Several months prior to MOCRA’s official opening in February 1993, St. Louis Post-Dispatch cultural news editor Robert W. Duffy reported on the “race to finish” the gallery prior to a November 7, 1992 meeting of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture (ARC) to be hosted in the new museum.

Asbestos! MOCRA gets a new ceiling.

Asbestos! MOCRA gets a new ceiling.

Construction had begun in the spring of 1992, and with the target of a completion date of early September 1992, everything seemed on track for the November 7 opening conference with plenty of time to install the art. Then, in late August, asbestos was discovered in much of the museum’s ceiling, and all construction stopped until it was removed and a new ceiling installed. To describe the abatement process as messy would be a severe understatement. By the time the project was completed the museum had a new ceiling and new drywall around its whole circumference.

Fr. Dempsey and the installation crew consider a work by Michael David.

Just days before the conference, Fr. Dempsey and the installation crew consider a work by Michael David.

Undaunted, Fr. Dempsey and the small MOCRA staff turned their energies to the ARC conference. The last of the scaffolding was removed on November 4, and the entire inaugural exhibition (which was to be previewed at the conference) had to be installed in two days. On top of that, there was an overlap between the installation completion and the arrival of the artists, speakers, and guests for the conference. Adrenaline and frayed nerves were in evidence—but it happened, and the museum was ready for the conference.


The program, titled The Artist and Sacred Space, featured lectures and reflections from a number of distinguished speakers (titles and institutions are given as at the time of the conference):

Dr. Jane Daggett Dillenberger (Professor of Art History, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA)
Dr. John Renard (Professor of Theological Studies, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO)
Rev. Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J. (Founding Director of MOCRA and Assistant Professor of Art History, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO)
Doug Adams (Professor of Art History, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA)
David Miller (Watson-Ledden Professor of Religion, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY)
Rev. Maurice B. McNamee, S.J. (Professor Emeritus and Founding Director of Samuel Cupples House, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO)

These presentations were followed by a panel of 12 artists participating in MOCRA’s inaugural exhibition:

Seyed Alavi (Oakland, CA) Charlotte Lichtblau (New York, NY)
Lita Albuquerque (Los Angeles, CA) Stephen Luecking (Chicago, IL)
Craig Antrim (Los Angeles, CA) Bernard Maisner (New York, NY)
Frederick J. Brown (New York, NY) James Rosen (Augusta, GA)
Eleanor Dickinson (San Francisco, CA) Thomas Skomski (Chicago, IL)
Tobi Kahn (New York, NY) Daniel Ramirez (Madison, WI)

The artists and the audience engaged in an animated conversation on why many of today’s artists were addressing the religious and spiritual dimensions in their work.

The conference and its discussions reflected the excitement among the participants about the imminent launching of MOCRA. Artist Eleanor Dickinson remarked, “Art of the spirit and the soul is not very saleable. This museum is something we’ve needed for a long time to counter the excessive commercialization of art.” Over 120 people from across the country—St. Louis, New York, Washington, Chicago, Syracuse, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston—attended the conference, including about 30 members of ARC.

After the excitement of the conference had subsided, it was now time to attend to the final preparations for MOCRA’s grand opening.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

December 3, 2008

Genesis

The prospectus for what would come to be MOCRA cites the Mission Statement of the Society for the Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture (ARC)–authored by a group including theologian Paul Tillich and Alfred Barr, the founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art:

Religion in isolation from the arts is starved of concrete insights into the fullness of human life. Art gives religion the eyes to see man [sic] in all his dimensions, the ears to hear the voice of his inner life, and the instruments with which to communicate with man in his actual condition. At the same time, our knowledge of the past suggests that the arts excel when realized within that transcendent, unifying vision which is the heart of religion.

The prospectus also recognizes that the actual situation was more of “an uneasy relationship between organized religion and the visual arts,” “often characterized by suspicion and misunderstanding,” with the result that “one of our most important avenues to religious experience, the imagination, has been deprived of contemporary, evocative images that point to God.”

The prospectus offers an alternative vision. It takes note of “a growing number of artists” who have “created art that reflects faith expressions of, or explorations into, the religious dimension. … As diverse as these expressions are, they all are marked by a sense of profound respect and genuine awe.”


This vision was explored concretely in the doctoral dissertation of Jesuit priest Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J. Fr. Dempsey studied at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, with such noted art historians and theologians as Peter Selz, Jane Daggett Dillenberger, John Dillenberger, and Doug Adams-all pioneers in the study of art and religion. Fr. Dempsey’s focus was the re-emergence of sacred content in American art of the 1980s.

His research brought him into contact with hundreds of artists throughout the U.S. as well as gallery and museum personnel who assisted him in his quest. The word of mouth spreads quickly in the visual arts community, and soon artists who had spoken with Dempsey were letting other like-minded artists know about Dempsey’s research, and they, in turn, began contacting him.

Terrence Dempsey, S.J., and Maurice McNamee, S.J., discuss the installation of MOCRA's first exhibition.

Terrence Dempsey, S.J., and Maurice McNamee, S.J. at MOCRA in Nov. 1992, during the installation of the inaugural exhibition.

In 1990 Dempsey was hired as an assistant professor of art history at Saint Louis University (SLU), and as the assistant to Maurice B. McNamee, S.J., founding Director of Samuel Cupples House on the SLU campus. Though Dempsey curated small-scale shows in the Cupples House basement gallery, he was uncertain of where to go with his ideas and his research.

Then an opportunity presented itself: the chapel of Fusz Memorial Hall, a building that for 35 years had functioned as a house of philosophical studies for Jesuits in training to be priests or brothers, was vacant. Fr. McNamee suggested that the spacious chapel would be an ideal space for Fr. Dempsey to present large-scale exhibitions. Dempsey’s proposal to use the space as a museum was accepted by SLU President Lawrence Biondi, S.J., and on March 20, 1991, Fr. Biondi formally announced the development of a new interfaith museum of contemporary art.

As with all such projects, there were some hitches and surprises along the way (as we’ll see tomorrow), but on February 14, 1993, MOCRA officially opened to the public with an exhibition titled, Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

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