Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

October 5, 2012

Remembering Ed Boccia

St. Louis recently lost one of its artistic greats.

Edward Boccia, painter, poet, and teacher, died on September 3, 2012, at the age of 91. An exceptionally prolific artist, he noted, “For as long as I can remember, drawing and painting have been as natural to me as breathing. I can’t conceive of not producing artistic work.”

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1921, Boccia studied at the Art Students League of New York, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University. His time at Pratt was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Army from 1942 to 1945. But even war didn’t stem his creative output. He received art supplies from his mother back home, painted from foxholes and cafes, and sent the work to his mother. Upon his return Boccia married fellow Pratt student Madeleine Wysong. He joined the faculty of Washington University in 1951 and was named professor of art in 1966; he became professor emeritus twenty years later.

Boccia’s work is found in the collections of the St. Louis Art Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, the National Pinakothek in Athens, and more than 600 private collections.

Ed and Madeleine Boccia.

Ed and Madeleine Boccia in a candid moment at the opening reception for MOCRA’s “Good Friday” exhibition in February 2009. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Boccia developed a distinctive style that wedded abstract expressionism and figurative styles through a surrealist sensibility, resulting in visually arresting but enigmatic images. He described his work as dealing with “love, lust and life,” and brought together literary themes and archetypes both pagan and Christian in his work. He employed diptychs, triptychs and polyptychs (often on a monumental scale) to depict multiple dimensions of a single concept.

It was such canvases that were displayed at MOCRA in a 1996 exhibition titled Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter, mounted jointly with the McNamee Gallery at Samuel Cupples House (also on the Saint Louis University campus).

"Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter" at MOCRA in 1996.

“Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter” at MOCRA in 1996.

In the exhibition’s introductory texts we noted:

Edward Boccia’s career as a painter may be poetically referred to as a grand house with many rooms. Some rooms, although elegant, are lived in briefly. Other rooms, made more comfortable by the artist’s personal associations, are occupied for years. No room is permanently closed. The artist moves freely from room to room, constantly borrowing ideas from where he has stayed before. The paintings and drawings in this exhibition are grouped by thematic concerns beginning with character sketches done in France during World War II and ending with a nine-panel painting, Eugene’s Journey (1996), that draws upon all of the artist’s skills as a painter and poet.

"Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter" at MOCRA in 1996.

“Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter” at MOCRA in 1996.

"Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter" at MOCRA in 1996.

“Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter” at MOCRA in 1996.

While Boccia’s art reflects the influence of many artists, including Picasso, Cézanne, and Nolde, his great idol was the German expressionist painter, Max Beckmann. It happens that Beckmann taught at Washington University in St. Louis briefly in the late 1940s. Boccia arrived just a few years too late to be Beckmann’s colleague, but he did come into possession of the artist’s easel.

Boccia was introduced to Beckmann’s work by Morton D. “Buster” May, head of the May Department Stores Co. May became Boccia’s great patron and advocate. He bought hundreds of paintings and drawings, right up until his death in 1983. May made generous gifts of the works to friends, colleagues, universities and museums, including Saint Louis University. Generations of SLU students have encountered (and were likely puzzled by) Boccia’s paintings in the halls of DuBourg Hall, the reading rooms of Pius XII Memorial library, and other campus buildings.

Boccia’s work is also well known to people who worship at the Washington University Catholic Student Center Chapel, which is dominated by his grand mural Path of Redemption. A 1964 set of Stations of the Cross commissioned by the Catholic Student Center were part of MOCRA’s Good Friday exhibition (mounted in 2009 and reprised in 2010). Reminiscent of Matisse’s late works, they are made of collaged cut paper and use the motif of hands as an eloquent means of bringing out the deep pathos of the Stations.

Edward Boccia, "Stations of the Cross, No. 4: Jesus Meets His Mother," 1964. Paper collage. Courtesy of the Catholic Student Center, Washington University, St. Louis.

Edward Boccia, “Stations of the Cross, No. 4: Jesus Meets His Mother,” 1964. Paper collage. Courtesy of the Catholic Student Center, Washington University, St. Louis. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Edward Boccia, "Stations of the Cross, No. 13: The Deposition," 1964. Paper collage. Courtesy of the Catholic Student Center, Washington University, St. Louis.

Edward Boccia, “Stations of the Cross, No. 13: The Deposition,” 1964. Paper collage. Courtesy of the Catholic Student Center, Washington University, St. Louis. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Boccia was an inspirational example of an artist continuing to develop throughout his career. In his mid-60s, he began writing poetry. Several volumes have been published, including Moving the Still Life, and his poetry has won national and international awards.

Appropriately, then, an effort is underway to make Boccia’s artistic legacy an active one. Boccia’s daughter Alice is spearheading a Catalogue Raisonné of Ed Boccia’s works. Scholarly contributions and information regarding the location of Boccia artwork are requested for inclusion in the catalog. Entries may be submitted directly from the website. Also, Saint Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA) has an upcoming exhibition of Boccia’s work, titled Edward Boccia: Triptychs and Polyptychs, scheduled for February 22 – April 21, 2013.

The staff of MOCRA extend our condolences to Ed’s wife, Madeleine, his daughter, Alice Boccia, and his granddaughter, Jennifer Pateraki.

Ed and Madeleine Boccia pose with Ed’s “Stations of the Cross” at the opening reception for MOCRA’s “Good Friday” exhibition in February 2009.

Some of the information for this post was drawn from remembrances published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Beacon. Both articles merit further perusal, and include additional images of Boccia’s work.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

July 19, 2012

Frederick J. Brown memorial service now online

Frederick J. Brown addressing the attendees at the 1995 opening of his "The Life of Christ Altarpiece" at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MIssouri.

Frederick J. Brown addressing the attendees at the 1995 opening of his “The Life of Christ Altarpiece” at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MIssouri.

On July 10, 2012, a memorial service for the late painter Frederick J. Brown was held at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City. Fred’s wife Megan, daughter Sebastienne and son Bentley were in attendance, as well as numerous friends and colleagues. The service was led by Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones of Trinity Church, who also preached at the service. I was honored to serve as Assisting Priest.

The remembrances offered by Fred’s family, friends and colleagues (including Stanley Crouch, Lowery Stokes Sims,* Stephen Rosenberg, and Sherry Bronfman) made manifest a man who was deeply immersed in his heart, but not in a way that isolated him from others. Rather, his art expressed his full and passionate engagement with the people in his life and the movements and events of his time. His daughter Sebastienne shared a note she found in one of his sketchbooks, addressed to those he loved:

When you know I love you, my heart is full, and I love myself. Just to see a smile is enough to keep me afloat in the great sea of life, and I give it back as often as possible. You are my main source and reason to do great things, and to become as complete a human being as I am capable of being. Just remember that I love you.

The vitality of Fred’s life was celebrated in another way through the musical offerings of outstanding jazz musicians including Henry Threadgill and David Virelles, Oliver Lake, and Amina Claudine Myers. Jazz music and the artists who create it were a perennial subject in Fred’s art and an integral part of his life.

Trinity Church has made a video of the service available on its website for a limited time. I encourage you to set aside some time to watch this tribute to an outstanding artist and human being. Watch the video here.

— Terrence E. Dempsey, SJ, Director

* Lowery Stokes Sims was unable to attend the service. Her remembrance was read by Jean-Claude Samuel.

June 29, 2012

A Tribute to Frederick J. Brown (1945-2012)

Frederick J. Brown (1945-2012)

Frederick J. Brown (1945-2012)

We at MOCRA were saddened to receive word that painter Frederick J. Brown passed away on May 5, 2012. The MOCRA staff extend our condolences to Fred’s wife Megan and his children Sebastienne and Bentley.

Born in 1945, Brown was one of America’s finest and most prolific expressionist artists. His paintings draw on many sources, including his African-American and Choctaw ancestry, his religious upbringing, and the folklore of the South. He referenced religious, historical and urban themes in his work, but was especially noted for his numerous portraits of jazz and blues artists. In fact, the connection between music and painting was a constant in Brown’s life and art. He called music “the catalyst for much of what I do” and frequently worked on a portrait while listening to the subject’s music. In a 2005 interview (cited in this remembrance by Judd Tully), Brown spoke about the vibrant New York cultural scene in the 1970s:

. . . you had these people all around you who were at the top of their game and of the avant garde scene and of the aesthetic thing. . . . Plus, right in front of me, I saw the work ethic. You could go to their studio or they could come to yours, and you could partake in whatever you wanted to partake in and discuss aesthetics at the highest level. You had all this kind of wisdom, information, feedback and back-and-forth.

Brown’s paintings show the influence of the German Expressionists and the American Abstract Expressionists, especially that of his mentor and friend, Willem de Kooning. He exhibited widely throughout the United States and abroad, and his paintings are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the White House. Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art has extensive holdings of Brown’s work, including the ambitious The History of Art (1994–2000). The 110 interlocking paintings, surveying centuries of artistic styles filtered through Brown’s own unique vision, are permanently installed in the museum’s Café Sebastienne (named after Brown’s daughter). In 1988, Brown had the largest retrospective given a Western artist by the People’s Republic of China, and he was the first Western artist ever to have an exhibition at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution (now part of the National Museum of China) in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square.

I first encountered Brown’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the summer of 1985. There in the Met’s contemporary galleries was Brown’s large figurative expressionistic painting of the Ascension of Christ. Compositionally influenced by Raphael’s well-known Transfiguration of Christ, this 9-foot-tall painting commanded the entire gallery in the Metropolitan with its bold colors and confident brushwork.

Frederick J. Brown, The Ascension, 1982. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Frederick J. Brown, The Ascension, 1982. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Its vitality energized one of Christianity’s most frequently depicted subjects, with the top frame barely able to contain the rising Christ figure who bears the physical signs of his crucifixion. And I couldn’t ignore the bewildered man at the bottom of the canvas who stared out at me trying to understand what he is witnessing. With his eye contact he drew me as a viewer into this powerful event.

Since I was just beginning my doctoral dissertation research at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley on the topic of the renewed interest in the religious and spiritual dimensions in contemporary American art, I knew that I had to meet this artist. Nearly a year passed before I was able to get together with Fred in his New York studio in SoHo. Surrounded by canvases in various stages of completion with recordings of the jazz music he so loved playing in the background at full volume, Fred was totally at home in this element. He was surrounded by his depictions of great jazz musicians and visual artists, a large painting of John Henry and a compelling portrait of Sitting Bull, a small but powerful painting of a young Maori warrior, images of the overlooked members of our society, and portrayals of Jesus, David and Goliath, and Moses. (Several of Fred’s paintings can be viewed on his website.) All of them harnessed the energy that he found in bringing together the visual and aural arts, as well as the sacred and profane. Perhaps I should retract the word “profane” because all of his subjects were sacred to him, and every painting revealed the respect that Brown had for his subjects.

Fred and his work became an important part of my dissertation, and in 1989 I also had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of his works in the gallery areas of the Flora Lamson Hewlett Library of the Graduate Theological Union. Upon completing my Ph.D. work in 1990, I began teaching art history at Saint Louis University. The opportunity arose to realize my desire to create the world’s first museum of interfaith contemporary art—what was to become MOCRA—and I knew that I wanted Fred to be a part of that museum. Owing to our lean budget, I had in mind simply borrowing works, but Fred offered to paint a multi-paneled work that would become a permanent part of MOCRA’s collection.

Frederick J. Brown, The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994-95. Collection of MOCRA.

Frederick J. Brown, The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994-95. Collection of MOCRA.

Through the generosity of his patrons Crosby Kemper III and UMB Bank, Fred realized that promise in 1995 in the form of The Life of Christ Altarpiece, a work that synthesizes theological, painterly, and cultural concerns. The central triptych, depicting the Baptism of Christ, the Descent from the Cross, and the Resurrection, is flanked by two pendant canvases depicting the Madonna and Child and the Descent into Hell. This major work has been shown frequently at MOCRA ever since, both as an ensemble and as individual panels. We are honored to have this important work in the MOCRA collection. We are pleased to present it from now through August 26, 2012, in memory of a gifted artist and a thoughtful and compassionate human being.

— Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., Director

March 12, 2012

Establishing context for The Papercut Haggadah

I came into preparations for The Papercut Haggadah with a passing familiarity with Passover and the elements of the Seder, but no idea of the richness of the tradition of the Haggadah or its development both as a body of texts and rituals, and as a written or printed artifact.

One of the benefits of being a university museum is having access to varied and valuable resources on campus. Here at Saint Louis University, one of our great treasures is the SLU Libraries Department of Special Collections, and in particular the Vatican Film Library, a research collection for the study of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and the texts they contain. It is formed around a core collection of more than 37,000 microfilmed manuscripts from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ranging in date from the fourth century AD through the seventeenth century and covering a broad spectrum of subjects. In addition to the microfilm, the collection includes many actual manuscripts as well as reproductions and reference materials.

We turned to the friendly and helpful staff of the Special Collections division to see if they had any historical examples of Haggadot that we could look at for reference. The response was exceptional. Not only were we able to see samples of pages from illuminated and printed Haggadot, we were able to make arrangements to borrow a number of volumes to include in the exhibition, so that all of our visitors could see these historical antecedents as well. We selected items that relate to aspects of Archie Granot’s project, such as the textual passages illuminated, or similar design elements.

Reproductions of historical Haggadot on display at MOCRA.

Reproductions of historical Haggadot on display at MOCRA. Pages from Archie Granot's "Papercut Haggdah" are visible in the background.

For instance, we had noticed in Granot’s papercuts that certain Hebrew letters were frequently elongated or otherwise distorted. It soon became evident that this was not an arbitrary artistic choice, but a practice rooted in centuries of handwritten Torah scrolls, allowing scribes to create perfectly justified columns of text.

The most notable object we have on loan is a magnificent facsimile of a 15th-century illuminated manuscript called the Rothschild Miscellany.

Rothschild Miscellany facsimile

A facsimile of the Rothschild Miscellany on display at MOCRA. Courtesy of Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections.

The original volume was commissioned by Moses ben Yekuthiel Hakohen during a period when Italian Jews experienced exceptional scholarly and artistic activity as well as social mobility. The most elegantly and lavishly executed Hebrew manuscript of that era, it is comprised of more than 37 religious and secular works. Among the religious books are Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, and a yearly prayer book including the Passover Haggadah, while the secular books include philosophical, moralistic, and scientific treatises. The text throughout the manuscript is accompanied by marginal notes and commentaries. Of 948 pages, 816 are decorated in vibrant colors, gold and silver.

This painstakingly produced facsimile is open to the beginning section of the Haggadah. It is common in historical Haggadot to find depictions of the actions or rituals prescribed in the text. The illustrations on the righthand page depict preparations preceding Passover, including brushing up crumbs of leaven with a feather, burning the leftover leaven, and baking matzah. Granot references this practice in one of the pages of The Papercut Haggadah.

We are grateful to the staff of Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections for their kind assistance and enriching the experience of our visitors.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

February 23, 2012

A preview of The Papercut Haggadah

Today’s edition (2/23/2012) of the St. Louis Jewish Light includes an article previewing MOCRA’s new exhibition, Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah. The article includes comments from artist Archie Granot, and collector Max Thurm (who with his wife Sandra commissioned the work), along with a few framing remarks from yours truly. Read the article here.

Archie Granot

Archie Granot

Granot (pictured) was commissioned to present the story and rituals of the Passover Seder in the traditional medium of papercutting. The resulting 55 pages employ intricate geometric and abstract shapes and calligraphic text to create an exquisite and unique version of the Haggadah.

Granot expresses his hope that viewers will be inspired by a labor of love that reflects much thought and introspection. “The creation of a Haggadah for Passover is the ultimate dream for any artist creating Jewish art,” he said. “I have been lucky in that I have achieved this dream.”

We’re putting the finishing touches on the installation, and look forward to welcoming visitors to immerse themselves in Granot’s realization of the Haggadah. Learn more about The Papercut Haggadah on MOCRA’s website.

— David Brinker

February 18, 2012

Why Are You Showing . . . ?

I was asked recently why MOCRA is showing Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah for our next exhibition.  That’s not an uncommon question for us to field, and it can sometimes be tricky identifying just what constitutes art that engages the religious and spiritual dimensions. However, that’s not the case this time around.

The Papercut Haggadah is a fine example of work by a contemporary visual artist who is in dialogue with the great faith traditions but who also brings contemporary concerns and modes of expression to bear on those traditions. In this case, Granot is exploring the sacred text and ritual of the Haggadah through a traditional medium often associated with folk art — papercutting. But he expands the conventional book format of the Haggadah into individual pages highlighting particular passages from the text, and in contrast to the illustrational art often found in Haggadot, he employs his own vocabulary of geometric forms and subtle references to Israel and Judaica. In so doing, he shows the vitality both of the Jewish tradition and of contemporary artistic expressions of faith.

This exhibition also helps further our aim of being a center for interfaith understanding and dialogue. The Jewish community plays an important role in the social fabric of St. Louis, and we hope that The Papercut Haggadah will provide an opportunity for members of the local Jewish community to explore their own tradition, and at the same time open a window into the celebration of Passover for people of other faith traditions.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

November 14, 2011

Adrian Lee Kellard, 1/28/59 – 11/14/91

Adrian Kellard with The Promise

Kellard in his apartment, ca. 1990, with "The Promise."

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of artist Adrian Kellard’s death. In a recent post, I quoted some of the entries in the exhibition guest book to give an anecdotal sense of the effect his art and life have on our visitors. On this anniversary day, we share a brief reflection from Kellard’s close friend, artist photographer Regina DeLuise:

“To be human is to know loss. On some level I’ve never really felt without Adrian, although I long to hear his voice.

Today is the day he died. To have spent the fall season involved with The Learned Art of Compassion has made this Nov 14th most remarkable for me. Adrian’s life was one filled with passion, dedication and love. Even though he died young, his life felt complete to me. Knowing his work needed to be in the world has been running parallel to my own personal aspirations, rather like living two lives. This exhibition represents a birth to me, a true future for the life’s work of my dear friend.
— Regina DeLuise”

N.B. A recently posted episode of the MOCRA Voices podcast features Regina DeLuise and others reminiscing about Kellard. Click here for more information and to listen to the podcast.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

November 11, 2011

The other 11/11/11

In addition to being Veterans Day in the U.S., and Armistice or Remembrance Day elsewhere, November 11 is St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas, which takes its name from St. Martin of Tours.

Martin was born in 316 in modern-day Hungary. He served as a cavalry soldier in the Roman army and was stationed in modern-day Amiens, France, when he had a life-changing encounter with a scantily-clad beggar. On impulse, Martin cut his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night, he had a dream in which Jesus was wearing the half-cloak. Martin was baptized soon after, but remained in the army for two more years. In 336, before a battle with the Gauls, he came to the conclusion that his faith prohibited him from fighting, leading to his being jailed as a coward. Nonetheless, he was eventually released from imprisonment and from military service. (Martin’s conversion experiences have resulted in him being claimed as a patron saint by both soldiers and conscientious objectors, among others.) Martin went on to become the bishop of Tours in France. He was among the first non-martyrs to be venerated as a saint, and after his death on November 8, 397, his shrines became major pilgrimage destinations. The earliest account of his life is recorded by Sulpicius Severus, who knew Martin personally.

This date caught my eye this year in particular because one of the works in MOCRA’s exhibition Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion has as its subject Martin’s act of generosity toward that mysterious beggar.

Adrian Kellard, St. Martin of Tours coat rack, 1985

Adrian Kellard, St. Martin of Tours coat rack, 1985

The work quotes from the well-known painting by El Greco (now found in the National Gallery of Art).

El Greco, St. Martin and the Beggar, c. 1597

El Greco, St. Martin and the Beggar, c. 1597

A few details about Kellard’s piece suggest that he had some keen insight into the deeper meaning of this episode. For instance, El Greco portrayed Martin in the armor of a contemporary 16th-century Spanish soldier. The armor is decorated with gold filigree, and (as best as I can make out from reproductions) seems to incorporate the Cross of St. James, associated with the Spanish Order of Santiago: a red cross that terminates in a sword. It is a symbol born out of warfare and was used extensively during the Crusades.

But in Kellard’s work, these decorations are transformed into hearts surmounted by crosses, a variant on the Sacred Heart, which represents the unconditional love and compassion of Christ toward humankind. It suggests here the impulsive compassion and sense of identification Martin experienced toward the shivering man before him. The heart motif is repeated on the panel the runs along the bottom of the work. What’s not apparent from the frontal view above is much clearer from the side.

Adrian Kellard, St. Martin of Tours coat rack (detail), 1985.

Adrian Kellard, St. Martin of Tours coat rack (detail), 1985.

Yes, those are coat hooks. This is a functional work of art that served as the coat rack in Kellard’s apartment. Beyond its utilitarian purpose, this is a coat rack that speaks of hospitality and open-heartedness.

An underlying theme of the exhibition is the movement toward greater compassion. It’s something that Kellard seems to have experienced in his own life, particularly following his AIDS diagnosis. His later artworks suggest that, rather than collapsing into despair, self-pity, or anger at God, his spirit instead seems to have blossomed outward. Like Martin, Kellard recognizes Christ in suffering humanity, but unlike Martin he could see the beggar every time he looked in the mirror. Kellard experienced alienation, dismissal, discrimination, and fearful responses to his disease firsthand. His art certainly expresses that pain, and the justifiable anger he felt at times. But the works aren’t mired in the pain or the anger; rather, they call viewers to recognize their own frailties in the suffering of others, no matter how foreign or unsettling those others might be.


There is a risk in including the word “compassion” in an exhibition title. It’s easy enough to deploy the word, difficult to articulate what it means, and more challenging yet to embody in one’s life. I have been hearing for a while about the Charter for Compassion movement initiated by author Karen Armstrong, and have begun exploring its website. Among the resources are six brief talks on compassion from the perspectives of several faith traditions.

Of the talks I’ve listened to so far, a common observation is that compassion begins when we can recognize ourselves in others; compassion grows as our capacity for empathy deepens. For Christians, the touchstone might be the parable of the final judgment in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, with its admonition that “whatever you did for one of these least ones, you did for me.” Among the talks on the Charter for Compassion website, Robert Wright employs both evolutionary biology and game theory to give some rational basis for compassion, an interesting counterpoint to the religious and moral points of departure in the other talks. I’m particularly taken by Tenzin Robert Thurman’s meditation exercise for “expanding our circle of compassion.”

As we remember Martin of Tours, the many veterans who have served their country, and the fragile but perennial hope for peace in our times, may we all find our circles of compassion growing in diameter, our hearts opening a bit more each day.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

April 20, 2011

Shattered civility

On April 18, 2011, artist Andre Serrano’s 1987 photograph Immersion (Piss Christ) was vandalized at the Collection Lambert in Avignon, France. The photo was the subject of intense controversy when it was first displayed and has continued to serve as a lightning rod for the tensions surrounding art and religion (as well as wider cultural and political issues).

Damage done to Andres Serranos "Immersion (Piss Christ)" on April 18, 2011.

I’ve skimmed through the comments on a number of blogs and news sites, and they are depressingly predictable, as authors assume well demarcated positions on the ramparts of the culture wars. Is Serrano critiquing or attacking Christianity? Has he done so in an acceptable or productive manner? If Serrano is critiquing “Christianity,” is the critique directed at an institution, or individual believers–or, turning the question around, who has warrant to take umbrage at the image? Does authorial intent matter when dealing with sacred imagery? Then again, how do we determine what images are deemed sacred? And then when all of this gets transposed into the realm of public funding, or legal action . . . well, it only gets murkier.

Several of the commenters reference the 2005-2006 controversy over Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad  in satirical and provocative ways. There are parallels, although it’s an imperfect comparison (editorial license and freedom of speech are not precisely the same issues as artistic expression and public funding of art). At the very least, both controversies highlight general tendencies to rush to judgment, to make broad and inaccurate generalizations, and to allow vociferous minority voices to overwhelm more moderate points of view.

Coincidentally, just a couple of weeks ago I found myself catching up on a 2006 episode of “Speaking of Faith” (now called “On Being”), the excellent public radio series hosted by Krista Tippett. Titled “The Face of the Prophet: Cartoons and Chasm,” this episode features a conversation with Vincent Cornell, Professor of History and Director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas. Cornell puts the cartoon controversy in the wider context of the diverse manifestations of Islam. As happens so often when I listen to “On Being,” I found my unquestioned presuppositions challenged.

Cornell points out that historically Islam has had a more varied practice concerning images than popularly assumed. For instance, he notes that the proscription on depictions of the Prophet does not come directly from the Qur’an, but rather finds its source in the collection of deeds and words of the Prophet known as ahadith.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Christianity historically has had an ambivalent relationship with sacred imagery. In its early centuries Christianity repurposed prevailing Roman/Hellenistic motifs in establishing its own visual language. Yet in 8th-century Byzantium and in 16th-century Europe, major iconoclastic controversies arose.  (Considering the bloody and lethal violence surrounding the Byzantine Iconoclast controversy, we might at least consider it some progress that the hammer was taken to a photograph and not to Serrano’s skull.)

In the course of the conversation, Cornell references — you guessed it — Piss Christ, along with Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ. (We might add other examples, such as the movies Dogma and Hail Mary, Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, and most recently David Wojnarowicz’s video piece A Fire in My Belly.) Each of these artistic endeavors touched nerves in various quarters of Christianity, often without the critics having seen or read the work in question.

Cornell tackles the sensitive question of how the varying degrees of response in those cases compare to the responses to the Danish cartoons. He addresses nuances such as what happens when individuals confirm the worst stereotypes of a group, or how a tendency toward “radical superficiality” in culture, religion, or politics can be highly destructive.

Cornell cannot, of course, give any simple solutions. He calls for the exercise of “moral responsibility” in exercise of “freedom of speech.” Such responsibility arises from fundamental respect for others. But Cornell acknowledges how difficult it is to discern what such respect looks like in our pluralistic civic and religious spheres. (His ideas do not go unchallenged in listener comments on the program’s blog.) One notable example is the empathetic response of feeling a sense of shared offense when the religious sensibilities of people of another faith are disrespected.

I wonder if it might not be useful to distinguish the various levels on which a controversial artwork might be considered. Some discussions take place within a faith community, while others involve the broader society. On a civic level, Piss Christ raised issues about the use of government funds in relation to an artwork with overtly religious imagery. Inside the Christian community, response to Piss Christ has not been uniform, as seen in this poem by Andrew Hudgins which uses Serrano’s photo as springboard for an intensely incarnational bit of Christian theological reflection.

I’ve also become aware of a fascinating snippet of conversation between Sister Wendy Beckett and Bill Moyers in which she discusses Piss Christ. Sister Wendy supplies a helpful bit of terminology. Piss Christ, she says, is “comforting art.” Not because the image itself is comforting to all viewers, but because it is tremendously easy to have a clear reaction to the work, to come to a quick judgment about it, whether positive or negative. We are comforted when an artwork gives us an easy sense of knowing that we are right about it.


I’m attempting to stitch together these various strands of reflection together precisely because such issues lie close to the core of what we do at Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA). Our mission is to present contemporary visual art that engages the religious and spiritual dimensions, hopefully in a way that fosters both a deepening of personal spirituality and an encounter with diverse faith traditions and understandings. We have not sought out or engendered controversy, but neither have we shied away from difficult subjects.

Our groundbreaking exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS expressed difficult realities and at times some raw emotions. We presented The Greater Good: An Artist’s View of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, knowing that its reflections on a painful episode in American racial history could be a tripwire in St. Louis, a city still  largely segregated culturally and geographically. Fortunately, it ended up occasioning some powerful and healing conversations.

From time to time an individual artwork we display will cause a visitor consternation. Whenever possible, when we become aware of such a situation we attempt to engage the visitor in conversation about the piece, providing whatever context we can to help them understand what the artist was about and why we are exhibiting it. Visitors may not change their thinking about the piece (and such is not our goal) but they at least know that they are being treated with respect.

Currently on display at MOCRA is another work of art with shattered glass. In the case of Donald Grant’s Vessel, however, the artist himself struck the blow, not for the sake of destruction, but for the liberating moment of epiphany and release of creative energy. (See this post for more discussion of this piece.)

Donald Grant, "Vessel," 1992. Acrylic on panel under tempered glass. Courtesy of the artist.

May our civic, religious, and artistic discourses be likewise illuminated and energized by mutual respect and concern for the dignity of all.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

April 13, 2011

Now that we’ve mentioned Rouault

MOCRA’s current featured exhibition is Georges Rouault’s complete Miserere et Guerre. It’s a handsome installation that leads viewers in a snaking path through the museum, from the south side aisle through the nave and across to the north side aisle. (See an installation view in yesterday’s post.)

Along the way, however, visitors also have the opportunity to view a number of works in MOCRA’s side chapels, drawn from the MOCRA collection or in a few cases, on extended loan. They include two perennial favorites of MOCRA visitors:

Jeff Miller, "The Holy Spirit," 1993. Mixed media. MOCRA collection.

Jeff Miller‘s Holy Spirit (1993) allows its simple, found objects to assume strongly evocative meanings. This Spirit is not a gentle dove but as a strong, forceful eagle. The chair recalls the seat of wisdom, a gift of the Spirit. Chalk lines suggest a true path from which one should not stray. Overall, the interaction between the work’s vertical and horizontal reflects the descent of the Spirit into human activity. But despite these rather grand associations, the work exudes the playful, wry charm characteristic of Miller’s work.

Donald Grant, "Vessel," 1992. Acrylic on panel under tempered glass. Courtesy of the artist.

Bay Area artist Donald Grant‘s Vessel (1992) never fails to grab viewers’ attention. The work consists of a painting to which is adhered a large pane of shattered safety glass.  Grant has worked the painting beneath the glass as well as the glass itself. Many of the arching lines have been ground into the glass, and the glass explodes at the point where the vessel receives whatever is being poured into it. (The picture does not do justice to the refractive splintering of light scattered from the thousands of cracks in the surface.) Epiphany, destruction, vulnerability, receptivity, transformation—all of these are associations mentioned by visitors.

Other artists whose work is on display include: Seyed Alavi, Peter Ambrose, Romare Bearden, Michael Byron, Steven Heilmer, Bernard Maisner, Chris McCaw, DoDo Jin Ming, James Rosen, Susan Schwalb, and Shahzia Sikander. And of course, the large works by Thomas Skomski and Michael Tracy remain on view in the sanctuary and choir galleries, respectively.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

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