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.

Sanctuaries was an ambitious inaugural exhibition, so large that is was presented in two stages. Part Two featured several major works, including Chartres Bleu by Paul Kos, Pietà by Thomas Skomski, and the massive triptych Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Stations of the Cross for Latin America: La Pasión by Michael Tracy. The latter two works have remained at MOCRA on extended loan and will be featured in later posts. But we’d like to take a look here at Chartres Bleu, a skillful and beautiful blending of ancient and modern technologies.

Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.
Installation view, "Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art," at MOCRA, 1993. Foreground: Paul Kos, "Chartres Bleu"; background: Thomas Skomski, "Pietà."

Paul Kos is a San Francisco-based artist who has an extensive catalogue of video and performance works (find samples here and here). Working through Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco, Fr. Dempsey was able to borrow Chartres Bleu for Sanctuaries. For this work Kos stacked 27 television monitors on their sides, 3 across and 9 high. Each was hooked up to a VCR. But it was what was played on the monitors that was so arresting: Kos had spent a week photographing a window at Chartres cathedral, taking advantage of scaffolding that was in place. He then assembled these images into a 12-minute video piece that simulated the progression of light through the window over the course of a day.

Bruce Jenkins, curator of film/video at the Walker Art Center where the piece was first shown, described it as an “authentic experience between the ancestral form and the modern medium.” Chartres Bleu is now in the collection of the di Rosa Preserve: Art & Nature in Napa County, California. Two video works by Paul Kos are included the MOCRA fifteenth-anniversary exhibition Pursuit of the Spirit, on display through December 14, 2008.

Paul Kos, Chartres Bleu, 1983-86. Installation at MOCRA, 1993.
Paul Kos, "Chartres Bleu," 1983-86. Installation at MOCRA, 1993.

I remember being mesmerized by this piece. I was still an undergraduate at SLU at the time and was excited to discover such technologically advanced art on campus. It takes a lot to convince a college student to slow down, much less sit transfixed for twelve minutes. Sitting in the darkened nave gallery, staring at the monitors as they progressed from dim glow to blinding white, and subliminally aware of the charged electrical hum of all those monitors and VCRs, I willingly gave myself over to the experience. –David Brinker, Assistant Director

And so MOCRA was off to a start. Even at the beginning, critics were noting the quality of the work displayed as well as the unique space that housed it. For example, Alexandra Bellos wrote in The Riverfront Times, “The beautifully integrated spaces of MOCRA and the power and high quality of the installation of works by Kos, Skomski and Tracy provide an experience you should not miss.” And Fr. Dempsey and MOCRA’s staff had encouragement that this novel project did have something to contribute to both the religious and artistic realms-and hopefully, would increasingly serve as a bridge between the two. Reflecting on MOCRA’s launch, Fr. Dempsey noted,

The religious dimension is inexhaustible. New understandings always develop as we continue to dialogue with the mystery and reality that give our lives meaning. And these help us better understand the millions of people who populate this earth.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

2 thoughts on “Sanctuaries”

  1. I liked reading about other artists who make religious art that doesn’t sell, and the ostracisim they receive for making it. For awhile someone used to send me emails about “landfill art”: art that ends up in landfills. It made me feel bad. This makes me feel happy.

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