Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

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

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

October 20, 2009

MOCRA Director to deliver 2009 Dillenberger Lecture at GTU

Filed under: Programs and Events — Tags: , , , — mocraslu @ 5:49 pm

MOCRA’s Director, Rev. Terrence Dempsey, S.J., is honored to deliver the 2009 Dillenberger Lecture at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California, this Thursday, October 22, 2009.

Titled “The Wounded Body of Christ and the Modern Social Conscience,” the lecture will offer an overview of how images associated with the suffering and death of Jesus still have vitality, even in a pluralistic world. Images referring to the events of Good Friday have been employed by the artists of our time not only to manifest an expression of faith but more frequently to address life and death realities such as war, bigotry, poverty, oppression, genocide, sickness and pandemics in order to stimulate empathetic responses within the viewers.

Among the modern artists to be discussed are Georges Rouault, Kathe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, and Graham Sutherland, as well as contemporary artists such as Michael Tracy, Juan Gonzalez, Eleanor Dickinson, Stephen de Staebler, Daniel Goldstein, Luis Gonzalez Palma, Adrian Kellard, Dinh Q. Le, and James Rosen.

The lecture takes place on Thursday, October 22, 2009. A reception precedes the lecture at 5:00 p.m., followed by the lecture at 6:00 p.m.

It will be held at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU)
Dinner Board Room, Flora Lamson Hewlett Library
2400 Ridge Road, Berkeley, CA

For more information, click 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 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

December 18, 2008

Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre

Georges Rouault, "Obedient Unto Death ...," 1926.

Georges Rouault, "Obedient Unto Death ...," 1926.

Georges Rouault ( 1871-1958 ) is an isolated figure in twentieth-century art, a man who remained outside of the group movements and manifestoes that dominated the century, and was possessed of a fixed and persistent artistic vision. A devout Catholic, Rouault’s faith informed his work, which at times seems to serve as a vehicle for moral judgment and retains vitality and relevance today. Rouault himself said, “All of my work is religious for those who know how to look at it.”

One of the highlights of MOCRA’s collection is a complete set of Rouault’s series of etchings titled Miserere et Guerre. The entire set was first shown at MOCRA in 1994, then in 2000 and again in 2003. Individual prints have been included in other exhibitions, including MOCRA’s two fifteenth-anniversary exhibitions, Pursuit of the Spirit and Good Friday.

Rouault’s project was originally conceived as 100 huge etchings to illustrate two books, Miserere (“Have mercy”) and Guerre (“War”), to be written by poet André Suarès. The books never appeared, but under the strenuous demands of the artist’s publisher and dealer, Ambroise Vollard, Rouault composed the majority of the images between 1914 and 1918 and continued to rework the plates in succeeding years. The 58 images (which can be seen here and here) were finally published in 1927 in an edition of 450 copies, and the copper etching plates were canceled. However, because of Vollard’s untimely death in 1939 and legal struggles with his heirs, the etchings were not exhibited until 1948.

The etchings are landmarks in expanding the technical and expressive range of the print. Rouault’s initial ink sketches were photoengraved onto copper plates. He then engraved, used sandpaper, files, edged rollers, scrapers, and painted with acid to achieve amazing effects. He would often work his plates through as many as twelve and even fifteen states to achieve as much depth, variety and richness as he did in full color paint on canvas. Yet always, technique is subordinated to expression in Rouault’s art.

Georges Rouault, "This Will Be the Last Time, Father!" 1927.

Georges Rouault, "This Will Be the Last Time, Father!" 1927.

Miserere presents a gallery of scenes and characters. Many of them—clowns, kings, and prostitutes—are familiar inhabitants of Rouault’s paintings, joined in the Guerre section by soldiers, generals and war profiteers. Rouault admits some tenderness into Guerre, as with his image of a gothic Madonna and child echoed in a war widow cradling her son.

But the central recurring figure is that of Christ, from the first title plate that resembles some ancient death monument with the bowed head of Christ in the bottom half, to the image of the Man of Sorrows on Veronica’s Veil in the last plate. Rouault’s caption for this plate, “It is by his stripes that we are healed.” (Is. 53:5), suggests that all the suffering, all the blindness and loneliness, all the wish for love and the fact of war, all that has gone before is compassed in the broken body of Christ. For Rouault the divine face reflects suffering, compassion, and finally hope.

Born out of the unprecedented violence of the First World War and Rouault’s intense compassion for the marginalized and underprivileged, the Miserere stand as a singular achievement in the realms of printmaking and religious art. They speak as forcefully and as poignantly today as when they were first printed nearly 80 years ago.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

December 11, 2008

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.]

December 9, 2008

“Pursuit of the Spirit” reviewed; questions raised

MOCRA’s fifteenth-anniversary exhibition Pursuit of the Spirit was featured in the Sunday, December 7, 2008 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reviewer David Bonetti praises MOCRA’s “vigorous program” and highlights a number of works in the exhibition. At the same time, he voices some common questions and objections about what MOCRA aims at in presenting contemporary art that engages the religious and spiritual dimensions. For instance, how does one identify the “spiritual” in art if a traditional iconography is lacking?

We invite you to read Mr. Bonetti’s review and then share your own thoughts about the questions he poses. Have you visited MOCRA to see Pursuit of the Spirit? How does your experience compare with his?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Read David Bonetti’s review of Pursuit of the Spirit.

December 5, 2008

Sanctuaries

Filed under: Exhibitions, MOCRA mission, Sanctuaries — Tags: , , , , , , — mocraslu @ 1:33 pm
Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.

Installation view, "Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art," at MOCRA, 1993.

MOCRA’s inaugural exhibition opened Sunday, February 14, 1993. Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art featured more than 100 works from an wide-ranging roster of artists, including

Seyed Alavi Steven Heilmer Jim Morphesis
Lita Albuquerque Tobi Kahn Daniel Ramirez
Craig Antrim Paul Kos James Rosen
Nick Boskovich Frank LaPeña Susan Schwalb
Frederick Brown Charlotte Lichtblau Thomas Skomski
Michael David Stephen Luecking Kazuaki Tanahashi
Stephen De Staebler Bernard Maisner Michael Tracy
Eleanor Dickinson Ann McCoy Brian Tripp
Donald Grant

MOCRA’s Founding Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J., noted at the time that

Sanctuaries offers an overview of a movement that gained momentum in the 1980s and has grown in strength in the early 1990s. A generation of artists have begun to renew their interest in the religious and spiritual dimensions of art, and within the last dozen years or so they have achieved recognition in the mainstream art world for the spiritual concerns which form the substance of their work.

Fr. Dempsey had assembled an extensive list of such artists in the course of writing his doctoral dissertation. These artists were generally in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They tended to be disillusioned with the celebrity mentality of the 1980s and in response were seeking the “spiritual.” Their faith or religious practices were not always particularly orthodox, and in fact many would draw from various beliefs and philosophies.

Fr. Dempsey had concluded from his research that this artistic concern with the religious and spiritual dimensions was pervasive and yet not an organized movement, having no group manifesto. For the artists, this pursuit was risky. One artist, warned that his work would not sell, replied that the ideas were too important to ignore, whether or not the art was salable. Fr. Dempsey reflected,

For some of them, having faith is tough. They have to struggle. These are not commissioned works-they are the work of an artist pursuing personal vision or questions. … These artists have often been met with indifference and sometimes suspicion by religious and cultural institutions. Yet they have pursed this exploration even when it was financially unwise. They have done so because they perceived something was in danger of being lost: a sense of mystery, ritual, tradition-a sense that a major dimension of being human was being ignored.

The title Recovering the Holy in part alludes to the rediscovery by many contemporary artists of the power of art with a spiritual dimension to engage the viewer affectively. Indeed, said Fr. Dempsey, their art is compelling precisely because of the struggle.

Recovering the Holy In Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.

Installation view, "Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy In Contemporary Art," at MOCRA, 1993. From left: Steven Heilmer, "Nativity Stone: Mother's Milk"; Don Grant, "Rope and Candle"; Craig Antrim, "Icon Wall."

And so, for this inaugural exhibition of what was believed to be the first museum of its kind in the world, Fr. Dempsey assembled 100 works by 25 contemporary American artists reflecting the country’s religious and ethnic diversity. Artists came from Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Native American backgrounds, and their styles ranged from traditional Western figuration to minimalist and geometric abstraction.

(more…)

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