Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

September 14, 2011

The Learned Art of Presence

MOCRA’s upcoming exhibition features the work of artist Adrian Kellard, who died in 1991 from AIDS-related causes. His name joined the too-long litany of creative lives cut short by the shears of the pandemic. This exhibition falls during the 30th year of the plague and the 20th anniversary of Kellard’s death, and the impact of AIDS on Kellard’s life is one sub-theme of the exhibition. The references are direct and explicit in some works, such as The Promise, Prayer of the Faithful in Ordinary Time, and Healing . . . The Learned Art of Compassion. But overall a sense of compassion and spiritual strength suffuses all of the works, qualities that sustained Kellard through the struggles associated with the disease.

Adrian Kellard, Healing . . . The Learned Art of Compassion (detail), 1985-86.

Adrian Kellard, "Healing . . . The Learned Art of Compassion" (detail), 1985-86. Latex on wood. MOCRA Collection.

Yesterday I came across a recent New York Times review of We Were Here, a recently released documentary about the response of San Francisco’s gay and lesbian community to the onslaught of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. The article caught my eye not only for its resonances with the Adrian Kellard exhibition, but also because the documentary includes an interview with artist Daniel Goldstein. Works from Goldstein’s Icarian series were included in MOCRA’s seminal 1994 exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS, and one of the works is now in the museum’s collection. That work appeared in MOCRA’s Good Friday exhibition, and prompted a thoughtful reflection from one of our visitors, recorded in this blog post. For the Icarian series, Goldstein took  leather covers from workout benches salvaged from a gym in the Castro District and enclosed them in simple but noble framing cases–creating, in a real sense, reliquaries for these mementoes of the many men who used the gym.

Daniel Goldstein, Icarian II / Incline, 1993.

Daniel Goldstein, "Icarian II / Incline," 1993. Leather, sweat, wood, copper, felt, plexiglas. Private collection.

Like Kellard, Goldstein employs his art to mediate and express a response to the reality of AIDS. Goldstein, it should be noted, also founded two non-profit organizations to generate funds for AIDS-related education and services. The trailer for We Were Here (on the film website, or on YouTube) includes snippets of the interview with Daniel Goldstein (he is the third person to speak).

As I re-read an essay by Robert Atkins on the Icarian series, I’m struck by one line: “The gay/AIDS subtext of Goldstein’s work is also open to a generational reading.” Atkins is referring to the different ways in which the works might be apprehended by gay men who remember a pre-AIDS world and those who grew up under the specter of AIDS. Since MOCRA is a university museum, I’m reminded of the “Mindset Lists” that circulate at the beginning of every academic year, updating educators on their students’ cultural frame of references. AIDS and HIV don’t rate a mention on this year’s list — the disease was entrenched well before these students were born, and reasonably effective treatments have been on the market for most of their lifetimes — so I’m curious to see how much background we’ll have to provide, how much translation will be entailed, in helping our younger visitors make a connection to Adrian Kellard’s work.

But, as with Goldstein’s reliquaries, the deeper currents of compassion, love, service, hope, and cherished memory expressed in Kellard’s woodcuts, flow well beyond the specificity any one disease, any one group of people, any one city, any one generation.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

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January 5, 2011

The art of dying

Artist Tobi Kahn, who has a long association with MOCRA (including the exhibitions Metamorphoses and Avoda: Objects of the Spirit) , was featured in a recent New York Times article on the role art can play in the dying process. (Read the article here.) As he relates in the article, Kahn found that through his artwork he was able to provide a measure of solace to his mother as she lay in the hospital during her final days. From that experience, Kahn was inspired to consult with clergy members, hospice workers and funeral directors about what qualities in art would be comforting to people who are dying.

Expressing through his work both the pain of suffering and the hope for healing is not new ground for Kahn, who has completed a number of commissions for hospices, hospitals and memorial chapels, along with several Holocaust memorials. And, as MOCRA has demonstrated amply in exhibitions such as Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS, The Greater Good: An Artist’s Contemporary View of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Robert Farber: A Retrospective, 1985-1995, Junko Chodos: The Breath of Consciousness, Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art, Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre, and Lewis deSoto: Paranirvana, numerous contemporary artists confront the reality of suffering and death in their work.

MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., was interviewed for the New York Times article. He remarks, “One of the common bonds across traditions is the human concern with suffering, love, mortality, immortality. The role of religious art at the end of life is that it helps us focus on what’s really important–an interior healing, even if there is no physical healing, and finally a sense of gratitude.”

I am struck, though, that Kahn is creating art for this privileged point in people’s lives with a measure of intentionality. While many (if not most) health care facilities select art that will be soothing to its patients, and even commission specific works of art and even sculpture gardens or meditation rooms, I wonder how often that art is considered from the perspective of those who know that death is near, that there is no further physical healing to be expected. How can art contribute to palliative care? How can it complement the services of chaplains and hospice workers in accompanying people as they approach the end of life?

Samuel Freedman, the author of the article, suggests that Kahn’s works “subscribe at least loosely to the Judaic concept of ‘hiddur mitzvah,’ sanctifying something (a commandment, if one is literal) by beautifying it.” Amidst all the trappings of current American healthcare–cutting edge technology, powerful pharmaceuticals, agonizing contention over how to pay for treatments–can all parties in their own ways help to beautify, and thereby sanctify, the process of dying?

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

October 29, 2009

Reflecting on “Good Friday”

It is gratifying to report that an article I wrote appeared in the Fall/Winter 2009 issue of Aquinas Institute of Theology‘s Signatures magazine. (In the interest of full disclosure I must note that I am presently in graduate studies at AI.) You can find the article online here (it begins on page 9 of the PDF file).

I was invited to write on the intersection of art and religion, drawing on my experiences working at MOCRA. Had I been asked a year prior, I would probably have written generally about the museum’s mission and the ground we’ve covered in our exhibitions. But coming on the heels of MOCRA’s Good Friday exhibition, I knew just where I wanted to go with the article.

“The Presence of God in Art” describes the power that Good Friday held for several groups who engaged with the art as a form of theological reflection and prayer. Over the course of almost 15 years I have given presentations to dozens of groups of all ages and from all walks of life. Often the observations made, and the discussion they spark, can be quite revelatory, both about the work of art at hand and about the people making the remarks. However, there was a marked difference with the group discussions that took place with Good Friday.

An explicit invitation to approach the art in an attitude of meditation or prayer seemed to unlock a door for a number of our visitors who, even in a group setting, were willing to make themselves quite vulnerable in sharing their reflections about the art. These discussions also left me feeling more exposed than usual in my role as docent/moderator, both in receiving the visitors’ observations, and in leaving my accustomed “neutral” stance regarding the work to express more openly some of my personal responses.

I invite you to read the article and share your responses. For instance,

  • If you saw the Good Friday exhibition, did you experience responses similar to those I describe in the article?
  • Does the idea of approaching art this way leave you feeling ambivalent or even opposed?
  • Could (or should) something like this take place in a “public” art museum?
  • Or do MOCRA’s particular mission and setting on a university campus give us latitude to do things other institutions can’t safely attempt?
  • Given that Good Friday has a clearly Christian point of departure, and that the groups I described were coming from a standpoint of Christian faith, is this sort of exhibition and approach to art transferable to art from other faith traditions?

You might reply to this post, or you can e-mail me through MOCRA’s website. If I receive enough interesting responses, I’ll incorporate them into a future post.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

May 13, 2009

Bob the Blogger

Filed under: Exhibitions, Good Friday, Staff member commentary — Tags: , , — mocraslu @ 2:33 pm

MOCRA is one of a number of arts organizations located in St. Louis’ Grand Center district. Over the past few years, we’ve been working together with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and the Sheldon Art Galleries (all in Grand Center), along with the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Kemper Art Museum, Laumeier Sculpture Park, White Flag Projects, and Boots Contemporary Art Space, to promote awareness of and participation in the visual arts community in St. Louis.

One recent result of this collaboration is the Saint Louis Art Map blog. Here’s the current mission statement:

This collaborative blog aims to fill a void in the online art world by becoming a place for information and critical discussion about the non-profit visual fine arts in St. Louis.  Topics are focused on art and institutions with a national and international emphasis, and places them within the local context of St. Louis’ thriving and diverse visual arts community.  Through partnerships with guest bloggers, as well as behind-the-scenes posts from institution curators, directors, staff members, visiting artists, etc., the combination of first-party and third-party sources provides information from a wide range of viewpoints.

In a world where cultural coverage continues to shrink, this collaborative blog hopes to inform visitors – both in and out of town – of our activities and to foster discussion in and about our city.

It’s a work in progress, to be sure–take a look and give us your feedback.

Meanwhile, you can also read a blog post by our Museum Assistant, Bob Sullivan, reflecting on the resonances between the current exhibitions at MOCRA and the Pulitzer. It’s on the Pulitzer’s blog (2Buildings1Blog), which also features posts from the Contemporary.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

April 24, 2009

Good Friday exhibition extended

Filed under: Exhibitions, Good Friday — Tags: , , — mocraslu @ 4:54 pm

In response to numerous requests from visitors, MOCRA has extended the exhibition Good Friday through May 17, 2009.

MOCRA’s hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Don’t miss this additional opportunity to experience one of MOCRA’s most popular shows ever!

More info about the exhibition is available here.

April 9, 2009

Good Friday on Good Friday

It seems that every time I post I’m explaining the infrequency of our updates. But I’m pleased to say it’s just because we have been so busy.

The “Art and the Religious Imagination” conference was well received. Pamela Ambrose and Gerald Bolas gave distinct but complementary reflections on the way art museums can present the religious art in their collections in innovative ways. Charles Bouchard used the works in Good Friday to examine theological thought on the question of human suffering. (Sadly, Kevin Burke had to cancel due to a family emergency, but we anticipate inviting him back next spring.) A dynamic question-and-answer session followed, with some excellent insights from audience members.

A few pictures are included below, and we’ll try to have summaries of the talks available soon.

In the meantime, we are preparing for Good Friday on Good Friday. MOCRA’s Easter weekend hours are:

Friday, April 10, 2009 (Good Friday) 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, April 11, 2009 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m
Sunday, April 12, 2009 (Easter) closed

To our readers observing Pesach or Holy Week, we wish you a season of peace and holiness.

March 19, 2009

Wrestling with Veronica’s Veil

Filed under: Exhibitions, Good Friday, Guest blogger — Tags: , , , — mocraslu @ 5:12 pm

Today we have our first guest blog. Thanks to Courtney Henson, MFA, Visitor Services Manager at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts for this commentary on a work by Daniel Goldstein. (Be sure to check out the PFA’s great blog, along with the blog of the PFA’s next-door-neighbor, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, at 2 Buildings – 1 Blog.

*****

The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky cross-referenced with Icarian XI/Leg Extension by Daniel Goldstein:

After visiting Good Friday at MOCRA, I found attachments to several works — mostly those involving textile media or found objects and at this particular show, mostly dealing with the topic of HIV/AIDS.

A few days later, I found myself confronted with the story of Randy “the Ram” in The Wrestler and thinking back to Icarian XI/ Leg Extension. Between the workout scenes in The Wrestler, Randy’s overly tanned skin and the allusions of him toward Jesus, I kept thinking back to the leather seat because of its original life as an overworked piece of equipment. The seat now transcends that life and has this residue that shows its hard work — the stains of those who used it have become its stigmata.

When contemporary art finds an even more contemporary reference, I feel it proves the power of the work of art. When Randy shows off his scars to his friend, Cassidy (played by Marisa Tomei), Cassidy quotes a line from The Passion and draws parallels to Randy as a type of Christ figure. Certainly Randy, with his long blond hair and Jesus tattoo on his lower back, emulates a figure who aims to redeem himself.

from left: Luis González Palma, "El Santo Sudario" (1989); Daniel Goldstein, "Icarian XI/Leg Extension" (1993); Georges Rouault, "By His Stripes We Are Healed," from the series "Miserere et Guerre" (1922)

from left: Luis González Palma, "El Santo Sudario" (1989); Daniel Goldstein, "Icarian XI/Leg Extension" (1993); Georges Rouault, "By His Stripes We Are Healed," from the series "Miserere et Guerre" (1922)

The artwork by Goldstein similarly shows the struggles played out by the human body for the sake of becoming more godlike, at least by contemporary society’s standards. The work is composed of a leather covering for a workout bench, the brand name Icarian. The covering was salvaged from a gym in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood at a pivotal time during the AIDS epidemic. The piece is housed in a shadow box and displayed like a shrine. In this memorial, the leather is deeply scarred from use; years of sweat are seeped into its surface. There are creases and crinkles from where it was wrapped around the bench. The object is powerful in its stains of sweat, alluding to the story of Veronica’s clothIcarian XI/Leg Extension seems to have the faint image of a portrait; as I write this, I find my reflection placed in its outline — reminding me of the importance of placing myself in the shoes of others.

I would entreat you to view two things this week: The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky, and Icarian XI/Leg Extension by Daniel Goldstein at MOCRA.

March 17, 2009

We’ve been busy: Part 2

In addition to preparing our “Reflecting on Good Friday” booklet, we’ve been assembling a conference, to be held on March 29, 2009. Titled “Art and the Religious Imagination,” it will feature a panel of distinguished museum directors and theologians discussing the roles that secular and religious art museums can play in the presentation of art with spiritual and religious content. Panelists will also explore how spiritual and religious art has the potential to invite viewers into a deeper interior journey.

You can find a list of the panelists and the titles of their talks on the MOCRA website.

I’m hopeful that some of the concerns I mentioned in my previous post about the booklet will be considered during the discussion. For instance,  how does an institution produce reflection materials that have a chance of speaking to a broad range of visitors? Can such materials cross the borders between different faiths, or even different spiritualities within one tradition? How are specificity and universality balanced in such materials?

If you will be in St. Louis on March 29, please join us from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. and add your voice to the proceedings.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

We’ve been busy: Part 1

It’s been another busy stretch at MOCRA. The response to Good Friday has been tremendously positive, with a higher-than-usual number of groups scheduling visits. We’ve also been busy with two projects:

MOCRA's "Good Friday" booklet

MOCRA's "Good Friday" booklet

The first, supported by a grant from the VOICES project at Saint Louis University (funded by the Lilly Endowment), is a booklet of reflections on the artwork in Good Friday for use by visitors who wish to approach the exhibition in an attitude of meditation or prayer. The booklet takes a different approach from our wall texts/didactics. While those provide relatively “neutral” information about the iconography of the work or the artist’s expressed intent, the booklet explicitly puts the works in a (Christian) faith context. You can see a sample page on the MOCRA website.

This is something we’ve been interested in trying for a while now — bridging art appreciation with theological reflection and catechesis (religious education) — and this exhibition presented an excellent opportunity to experiment. So far feedback has been encouraging.

The challenge ahead will be to develop similar resources for future exhibitions (which may not have such clearly religious themes) and for visitors of other faith traditions. Also, we will be exploring what sorts of activities are “appropriate” in a museum setting–either sponsored by the institution, or simply permitted?

We’d welcome feedback from our blog readers. If you would like a copy of the booklet, send us a message with your snail mail address and we’ll send one your way.

[contact-form]

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

March 16, 2009

The wall, installed

Filed under: Exhibitions, Good Friday — Tags: , , — mocraslu @ 5:58 pm
Installation view, "Good Friday." MOCRA's nave gallery, looking west

Installation view, "Good Friday." MOCRA's nave gallery, looking west

Foreground: Peter Ambrose, “First Death” (1990)

On wall: Michael David, “Crowning with Thorns” (1985)

Background (partially obscured): Juan González, “Don’t Mourn, Consecrate” (1987); Michael Tracy, “Triptych: 11th, 12th and 13th Stations of the Cross for Latin America — La Pasión”; Ian Friend, “The Protestant Affliction III” (1991/92)

Installation view, "Good Friday." MOCRA's nave gallery, looking east

Installation view, "Good Friday." MOCRA's nave gallery, looking east

On wall: James Rosen, “Homage to the ‘Pietà d’Avignon'” (1989-91); Study for “Homage to the ‘Pietà d’Avignon'”

Background: Peter Ambrose, “First Death” (1990)

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