Cosmic Tears opens September 13

Michael Byron, Cosmic Tears No. 12, 2003.
Michael Byron, Cosmic Tears No. 12, 2003.

MOCRA’s next exhibition, Michael Byron: Cosmic Tears, opens on September 13, 2009. See the end of the post for opening reception particulars.

In the evocative paintings of the Cosmic Tears series, Mr. Byron explores the relationship of the individual to the universal. The works are based on a text by the artist that meditates on the inevitable mix of emotions that accompanies the act of creation; pain and joy together elicit a “cosmic tear” that is the “womb of our psyche.” Yet the paintings themselves attest to the potential of art to “shape that tear into Meaning.” (The full text on which the works are based will be on view along with the paintings.)

The abstract works simultaneously suggest both microcosmic and macrocosmic perspectives, with forms that suggest continents or constellations. In a number of works, the artist introduces trompe l’oeil images of water droplets; this effect recalled for MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., the opening lines of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

Michael Byron, Cosmic Tears "C", 2009.
Michael Byron, Cosmic Tears "C", 2009.

While several of the Cosmic Tears works have been exhibited previously, this is the first exhibition focusing just on this series, and it includes a number of recently completed works. You can read reviews of Mr. Byron’s work, including the Cosmic Tears series, here (scroll almost to the bottom of the page and look for the heading “The Outlaw Printmakers and Michael Byron”).

Mr. Byron is Professor of Painting at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. In his distinguished career he has exhibited throughout the United States, as well as in the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, and Mexico. He was selected for the 1989 Whitney Biennial. His work is included in many public collections including the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen (Rotterdam), and the Tamayo Museum (Mexico City). See his resume and a sampling of his work from the Philip Slein Gallery.

Michael Byron: Cosmic Tears
September 13 – December 13, 2009

opening reception Sunday, September 13, 2009, 1:30 – 3:30 p.m.*

If you’re in the St. Louis region on September 13, please stop by and see the exhibition.

* the artist is unable to be present at this event, but he will be giving a talk on November 15, 2009, followed by a reception.

— David ¬†Brinker, Assistant Director

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.

Body and Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Dunham reflects during her lecture at MOCRA, 1993.
Katherine Dunham reflects during her lecture at MOCRA, 1993.

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

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

Preconceived Notions

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Bob Sullivan, Museum Assistant

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

Hold that thought

This is the soon-to-be home of a blog for Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA).

MOCRA is the world’s first museum of interfaith contemporary art. Officially opened in 1993, MOCRA is dedicated to the ongoing dialogue between contemporary artists and the world’s faith traditions, and to serving as a forum for interfaith understanding. Located in a spacious chapel that was used for over 35 years by Jesuits studying philosophy at Saint Louis University, MOCRA offers a unique, meditative setting for the display of its permanent collection and changing exhibitions. MOCRA’s exhibitions demonstrate the range of contemporary religious and spiritual artistic expression, presenting the work of artists of regional, national and international stature. Exhibitions are complemented by lectures, symposia, performances, and other public presentations.

MOCRA’s current exhibition, Pursuit of the Spirit, is the first of two exhibitions celebrating MOCRA’s fifteenth anniversary. We hope that this blog will be a means to

  • review what we’ve been up to for the past decade-and-a-half
  • survey and discuss the present conversation between art and religion
  • spark inquiry that leads to future developments in the dialogue

Please check back with us in the near future. In the meantime, please visit MOCRA’s website, and consider signing up for our e-newsletter.