Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

May 9, 2012

A conversation with Archie Granot

Archie Granot, The Papercut Haggadah, Page 46.

Visitors to The Papercut Haggadah have tended to ask at some point during their visit some variation on a simple question: “How does he do that?!?”

As viewers let themselves be drawn deeper into artist Archie Granot’s compositions, they begin to marvel at the great intricacy with which the various layers of paper are assembled. Paper cut with painstaking precision is layered in ways that resemble latticework. Here layers are cut away to expose a color from several layers down, there Hebrew calligraphy is nestled in a geometric archipelago.

Recently we compiled the questions most frequently asked by visitors, along with others solicited from our Facebook and Twitter followers, and posed them to Archie Granot. Here is what he had to say:


MOCRA:
Please tell us about your preparation for the pages of the Papercut Haggadah. How much advance planning do you do and how much does a piece evolve during its creation? Do you do any sketching as part of the process, or do you create templates of any sort?

AG:
I sketch the work before I begin. This sketch is only used in the initial stages as most of the cutting is done intuitively and freehand.

I plan my papercuts in advance and, when I complete my preliminary sketch, I can, in my mind’s eye, visualize the finished papercut. In reality, however, as I cut a work that may take me more than a month to complete, my mind is never at rest and intuitive changes may, and will, occur.

I often think that the finished paper cut is perhaps a cousin of the original sketch–work that is similar, yet different, to the original concept.

MOCRA:
We’ve had numerous inquiries about how the works are cut and assembled. For instance:

  • Do you build the layers from the top down or the bottom up?
  • Do you stack several sheets of paper on top of each other and then cut through them, or is each layer cut individually?
  • How are the layers attached? What sort of adhesive do you use?

AG:
I build the layers top downwards or bottom upwards depending on the effect that I wish to achieve. The papers are not stacked before cutting. Rather, each layer is cut individually using a surgical scalpel and a cutting board. The layers are attached using a unique adhesive. [Granot declined to give details about his proprietary formula.]

MOCRA:
What happened if you made a mistake?

AG:
This is not something that I really like to think about! Luckily this has happened only a few times in the more than 3 decades in which I have been cutting paper. However, if a mistake is made, I’m sometimes able to correct the mistake or even turn it into a design element. It is equally possible that nothing can be done and I need to start all over again.

Archie Granot

Archie Granot

MOCRA:
How many different “fonts” of Hebrew do you use? What are the challenges and creative opportunities inherent in having to keep the letters attached to the paper, and creating negative space?

AG:
The Hebrew letters that I use are the results of years of experimentation. The use of negative space adds an additional dimension to the letters. The main challenge for me in cutting the Hebrew letters is the effort required to keep a calligraphic balance when my “scribal quill” is really a surgical scalpel.

MOCRA:
Most of the pages in the Papercut Haggadah employ abstract, geometric designs, but a few pages incorporate recognizable objects or symbols. What led you to use references to actual objects (matzoh, feather, cup, pyramid) in some pages?

AG:
The design of every work is a coalition of different thoughts coalescing in different ways. In the Haggadah, the feather is shown abstractly; the cup shown in the page with the blessing over the wine was a given while the pyramid was really an abstract triangle that lends itself to the subject matter.

MOCRA:
Did you create one piece from start to finish or do you have a number going at once?

AG:
Both when working on the Haggadah, or when creating work to be shown in my gallery in the center of Jerusalem, I tend to work on one papercut at the time.

MOCRA:
Did you ever conceive of these as being bound in a book? Is there, or will there be a catalogue or individual reproductions available?

AG:
I do not think that the Papercut Haggadah will ever be bound as a book. Certainly, that was not my intention in preparing for this project.

It is my hope that that a facsimile will be published sometime in the future, when the techniques to capture the three-dimensional modality of my work are available.

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April 10, 2012

Other contemporary takes on haggadot and Jewish papercut art

I often find that, as I become deeply immersed in an exhibition at MOCRA, I become highly attuned to news and cultural items that relate to the exhibition. (More prosaically, it’s like the experience of buying a new car and suddenly seeing that model everywhere, on the road, in parking lots. The cars have been there all along, of course; it’s a matter of opening one’s eyes to see them.)  Here on the fourth day of this year’s Passover, I thought I would share a few of the Papercut Haggadah-related  items I’ve come across.

We recently added a new link to the “Art, Religion, & Spirituality” page on the MOCRA website. “Jewish Art Now” states that its mission is “to build an appreciation for contemporary art in Jewish communities and build respect for Jewish art in the contemporary art world. ” The organization’s website showcases Jewish artists from around the world, along with news, reviews, upcoming events and resources for artists and art appreciators. The organization also has a presence in social media and print.

As I was browsing the site recently, my eye was caught by an exhibition titled The Paper Tefillah. The work is by artist Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik and is being shown at a reform synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee. The catalogue is available online here, and here is the artist talking about his work.

Paper Tefillah from Temple Israel on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, at Jewish Art Salon I came across an interview with artist and author Mark Podwal on PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly website. He discusses his recently published haggadah Sharing the Journey. In the interview he connects his approach to expressing the text in his paintings, as well as how his work relates to historic haggadot such as the Prague Haggadah (1526) and the Venice Haggadah (1609). The website also has several pertinent related links about the haggadah, the Passover seder, and more.

http://www-tc.pbs.org/s3/pbs.videoportal-prod.cdn/media/swf/PBSPlayer.swf

Watch Passover Haggadah on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Sitting here in front of me on my desk is a copy of the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. I heard about this via an interview with these two authors on NPR’s Weekend edition and was intrigued by their project. I’m looking forward to delving into this new haggadah, but just paging through it, it’s clear that the text has been translated not just by Englander, but by book designer Oded Ezer, an Israeli graphic designer and typographer. Myriad variations and transformations of Hebrew letters flow across the pages, congregating in one spot here or tracing graceful arabesques across a spread there. In other instances they splinter like fractals or disintegrate and dissolve. These letters are purposeful, alive. Ezer talks about his approach to this volume in an interview with Ellen Shapiro of Print magazine. He  says,

Here is what I really want people to know: If I touch the letters I think and I hope that people will be touched by them. I’m a secular Jew and I know this story almost by heart because I’ve heard it every year since I was born, 39 years ago. If we designers are involved with what we do, it’s likely that our audiences will get involved with it too. For years I have been claiming that the real question about typography is not ‘how does it look?’ but ‘how does it behave?’

The interview includes Ezer’s commentary on specific pages in the New American Haggadah.


All of these works are quite distinct from Archie Granot’s approach to the visual interpretation of traditional prayers and texts as embodied in The Papercut Haggadah, but they are all examples of the vitality and variety of contemporary Jewish art and belief.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

December 1, 2011

Observing a Day With(out) Art

AIDS awareness ribbonEach year December 1 is observed throughout the world as a day of solidarity with those living with HIV/AIDS, and of remembrance of those who have died. December 1 is also Day With(out) Art, on which museums and galleries worldwide celebrate a day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis, with such events as shutting down museums, sending staff to volunteer at AIDS services, or sponsoring special exhibitions of work about AIDS.

Across the nation, many venues will be screening a new film, Untitled, from filmmakers Jim Hodges, Encke King, and Carlos Marques da Cruz. Learn more about the film, and find links to participating venues, here.

A visit to MOCRA’s current exhibition, Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion, is another way to mark this special day. Kellard’s life was cut short by AIDS in 1991, and he grappled with his experience of illness through his art. His colorful woodcuts poignantly express both pain and enduring faith.

Adrian Kellard, The Promise, 1989

Adrian Kellard, "The Promise," 1989. Latex on wood. Courtesy of the Estate of Adrian Kellard.

Today we also release a special episode of the MOCRA Voices podcast series, featuring an interview with curator and art historian Thomas Sokolowski. Sokolowski was instrumental in the founding of Day With(out) Art and the creation in 1991 — 20 years ago — of the red ribbon for AIDS awareness. In this interview, Sokolowski talks about the close relationship between art and AIDS activism, and reflects on the past, present and future role of art where AIDS is concerned.

We’ve prepared an extensive Listening Guide to accompany the podcast, with information about the 20th anniversary of the red ribbon, activist art, and more.

The podcast can be streamed from MOCRA’s website or downloaded from the iTunes Store. Visit the MOCRA Voices website to get the podcast and explore the Listening Guide.

As we pause to reflect, remember, and renew on this day, let us recommit ourselves to generous and untiring support and care for those living with HIV/AIDS,  and redouble our efforts to find a cure. Let us cultivate, as Adrian Kellard urged, healing — the learned art of compassion.

— 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

November 7, 2011

Adrian Kellard exhibition reviewed: “A show of rare impact”

MOCRA’s exhibition Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion was reviewed recently in the St. Louis weekly Riverfront Times. Art critic Jessica Baran writes that “Kellard forged an indelible style; this survey conveys a sense of a mature, self-assured artist with a life’s worth of range.” The result, she says, is “both profound and generous.”

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

New on MOCRA Voices: Adrian Kellard podcast

MOCRA Voices logoEarly this year we launched MOCRA Voices, a podcast series of conversations with thinkers and practitioners at the intersection of contemporary art, religion, and spirituality. Our aim is to take listeners in-depth with artists, scholars, theologians, religious leaders, and others who are engaged in the ongoing dialogue between visual art and the religious and spiritual dimensions.

We’ve just posted a new episode that focuses on the art and life of Adrian Kellard, the subject of MOCRA’s current exhibition, Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion. Host John Launius and MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., are joined by Regina DeLuise, a close friend of Kellard and an artist photographer in her own right, and Susan Schreiber, Kellard’s New York gallery dealer. Dempsey, DeLuise, and Schreiber share stories of Kellard that serve to illuminate his artistic aims and influences, his distinctive visual style and treatment of his woodcut medium, and the ways in which Kellard’s upbringing, sexual orientation, and faith found expression in his work.

In addition to the podcast itself, we’ve prepared an extensive listening guide that provides context about the East Village art scene, the early years of the AIDS pandemic, the art of woodcuts, and more.

MOCRA Voices is made possible with financial support from the Regional Arts Commission.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

September 10, 2011

Shock and serenity

The tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, poses challenges to those who are somehow involved in the civic and cultural life of a community. There is little doubt that it is a significant occasion, but much harder to articulate the nature and interpretation of its significance, and harder still to shape and produce rituals, objects, or writings that meet the demands of the day. Nonetheless, we must try, and so here we offer a few reflections from MOCRA.

That September morning I woke up as usual with NPR’s “Morning Edition” on my bedside radio. So it was that I heard the first reports of a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. By the time I arrived at the museum the terrible events of the day were continuing to unfold, and I joined colleagues and students in a nearby classroom building, sickeningly spellbound by the ceaseless repetition of the footage of the buildings collapsing.

Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" at MOCRA

Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" at MOCRA.

I don’t recall that the work we had on display at the time (selections from the MOCRA collection) particularly spoke to the tragedy. But later that fall, we put up a show that did seem to offer a peculiar sort of consolation. MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, SJ, gives this recollection:

“In the fall of 2001, MOCRA opened Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds. Our large chapel space was filled with over 60 of Warhol’s pillow-shaped, silver coated mylar balloons with just the right balance of helium and air and stirred about the space by over 25 fans. Some people likened it to being inside an aquarium with schools of fish gently swimming by; others likened it to being inside a lava lamp. At times we would play The Gymnopedies of Erik Satie to serve as a musical score for the Clouds’ improvised choreography.

One woman came into the museum and sat down in the center of the space for about a half hour, with the Clouds gently floating by her and brushing against her. After the half hour, she got up, walked over to me and with tears in her eyes, said, ‘You have no idea how important this exhibition has been to me at this time—thank you,’ and then she left. I don’t know what was going on in her life—whether it had anything to do with 9/11 or if it was some personal matter—but somehow that experience was a healing one for her.”

Something about the Clouds allows them to connect with all sorts of people. Perhaps it’s their immediacy and presence, or their ability to project a sense of personality. They seem liberated and resilient, yet at the same time vulnerable.

A year later, on the first anniversary of 9/11, the Silver Clouds were back for an encore presentation. That day we showed an HBO-produced documentary titled “In Memoriam” throughout the day. The Clouds were corralled into one corner of the nave gallery, restrained from floating for that first anniversary observance. It seemed to be an appropriate occasion for rehearsing and interpreting the events of the tragedy. Words and on-site footage were the order of the day. Still, the Clouds were flying again the next day, mute but speaking truths nonetheless.


A September 9 article in the New York Times describes contention over the role of clergy in September 11 memorial observations. Religion is bound up with September 11 and its aftermath, from controversies over the interpretation of the Koran to questions about whether the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a morally justified response. The clamor over a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero and an expanded mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, shows that religion and its manifestations remain a divisive issue. Has the concept of “civic religion” run its course? How do we find common ground without sacrificing our specificity of belief and practice?

There are some moderate, nuanced voices in the wilderness. Public radio’s “On Being” has a new program out, “9/11: Who Do We Want To Become / Remembering Forward Ten Years After,” featuring The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, journalist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones.

In the St. Louis region at least, and I suspect in all quarters, the arts, especially music, are playing a prominent role in the memorial observances. For instance, a number of arts, religious, and civic organizations have come together to present “An Interfaith Memorial in Music commemorating the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.” The organizers describe it this way:

This event, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, will be religious and interfaith in character. It will be a program to inspire and allow reflection, express sorrow and regret, and unify the community in hope for peace. One statement of the message of the event: although we cannot directly bring about world peace, we can do what we can, in our community, together and in public. The program will include:

  • First Responders from the County Police and City and County Fire Departments, Presentation of the colors
  • Senator John Danforth, Invocation
  • Christine Brewer, Soloist, Opera Theatre of St. Louis
  • String Quartet, St. Louis Symphony
  • Religious musical expressions of various faith communities

It seems that this service is in part an outgrowth of interfaith dialogue that took place surrounding a production of the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in Summer 2011.

For those wishing to attend the Interfaith Memorial, it takes place on September 11, 2011, 5:30-6:30 p.m., at the Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis 63108. Click here for more information.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

June 29, 2011

MOCRA for the holiday

MOCRA will be open on Saturday and Sunday of this holiday weekend (July 2 and 3; MOCRA will be closed on Monday, July 4). Amidst all the fireworks, family gatherings, civic observances, and general celebration, a visit to MOCRA might not be the most obvious pick for a holiday activity. But perhaps there’s a value in setting aside some time and space for reflection on America’s past, present, and future. MOCRA presentation of Georges Rouault’s landmark series of etchings titled Miserere et Guerre, continuing through July 31, 2011, could be a prime vehicle for such reflection.

One of the marks of Rouault’s greatness as an artist is how timely his work remains for contemporary audiences. In Miserere et Guerre Rouault reflects in part on the themes of liberty and justice for all in society, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable. The works also ponder whether war can be justified, and if so, what are the true costs and gains of conflict. For Rouault, these questions must be addressed not just in the social sphere, but in the realm of religion and spirituality as well.

Somber (and often divisive) topics, to be sure, but the concerns of Rouault’s day are not so different from many of the challenges we face individually and collectively today. We invite you to let these compelling works speak to you across the decades.

Click here for more information about Miserere et Guerre at MOCRA.

— 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

March 15, 2011

MOCRA Director to lecture in NYC on March 16, 2011

MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., will give a lecture tomorrow evening, March 16, at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in New York City. The lecture, titled “The Crucifixion in Art History,” begins at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Drawing on the work of over 25 artists from the fifth century to the present day, Fr. Dempsey will give a slide-illustrated lecture on the origins of Crucifixion images and how those images have evolved in various cultures over the centuries.

St. Ignatius Loyola Church is located at 980 Park Avenue (at 84th St.), New York, NY 10028. For more information, call 212-288-3588 or click here.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

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