Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

August 9, 2012

MOCRA Voices podcast features Archie Granot and Max Thurm

Archie Granot, The Papercut Haggadah, page 20. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Archie Granot, The Papercut Haggadah, page 20. Collection of Sandra and Max Thurm. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

MOCRA’s showing of Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah in Spring 2012 proved to be a highly popular exhibition, one that elicited deep appreciation for Granot’s technical virtuosity and sense of design, as well as his skillful manner of reinterpreting a classic religious text for a contemporary audience.  One of our disappointments was that we could not arrange to bring Archie to MOCRA during the run of the exhibition.

Fortunately, in early May MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, SJ, and I had the opportunity to sit down with collector Max Thurm (who with his wife Sandra commissioned The Papercut Haggadah) in the studios of WFUV (90.7 FM) at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. Archie joined us on the phone from his home in Jerusalem. For the next hour or so we enjoyed a wide ranging conversation covering topics such as how Archie was drawn to the art of papercutting, how the commission came about, the special considerations engaged in creating an artwork based on a sacred text, and continuity and innovation in the Jewish tradition. The rapport between Archie and Max was evident from the get-go, and their exchanges open a window on the fascinating process of collaboration between artist and patron.

We are pleased to make an edited version of this conversation available as the latest installment in the MOCRA Voices podcast. You can stream the podcast from our website, or subscribe to the podcast in the iTunes Store. Also be sure to check out the extensive Listening Guide, which delves further into the topics discussed and includes images of many of the pages from The Papercut Haggadah.

— 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 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

February 19, 2011

If you could ask artist James Rosen a question, what would it be?

Did you visit MOCRA’s recent exhibition James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observer and come away with questions about Rosen’s techniques, subject matter, or intentions? Perhaps your interest has been piqued by posts here on the MOCRA blog or the recent interview on the “Iconia” blog.

Since circumstances prevented James Rosen from visiting St. Louis during the exhibition, we are going to record a conversation between Rosen and MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., this coming week of February 20, 2011. If all goes well, we plan to make the conversation available through our website. We already have a number of questions we want to ask Rosen, but we would like to include one or more questions from our audience.

If you have a question you would like to ask James Rosen about his work, please e-mail it to us, post it on our Facebook wall, or call us at 314-977-7170. Please make your question as specific as possible, and include your first name and last initial, as well as your location. Questions must be received by Thursday morning, February 24.

We cannot guarantee that all questions will be used in the interview, but will include as many as we can. We are excited to be adding a new dimension of artist interaction to our programming, and hope you will consider participating in this experiment.

Find more information and additional links here.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

January 5, 2011

The art of dying

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

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

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

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

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

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

October 6, 2010

Now, where to hang this one?

Curating an exhibition involves many decisions, major and minor, no matter what the work or the venue. MOCRA’s space presents particular challenges but also some intriguing possibilities. Allow me to share a few notes from the planning and installation of our current exhibition, James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observer.

In this case, we had a superabundance of materials from which to choose, as MOCRA has on long-term loan or in its collection a significant body of works by Rosen. The majority are works on paper, including numerous sketches and studies. With nary a false note in the mix, we sought to identify a modest number that would demonstrate succinctly the qualities of Rosen’s work we wanted to highlight: the confidence and fluidity of his line in drawings, the subtlety of his watercolors and gouaches, his analysis of old master works for composition and form, and the occasional wry, playful image amidst more “serious” work.

Beyond the works on paper, we selected from a number of paintings, some quite intimate in scale, one an 8-foot tall canvas. Early on we  made a decision to draw primarily on works in our collection or on long-term loan, to be supplemented by a few select works borrowed from collectors or other institutions. This decision helped frame the exhibition, not as a comprehensive retrospective, but as a generous survey of Rosen’s six-decade career.

A natural approach to this material would be a chronological presentation, but here we ran up against the challenges of MOCRA’s configuration, with its twelve intimate side chapel galleries and soaring nave gallery (see these earlier posts for some discussion of repurposing a 1950s chapel as a museum space). Smaller works are best served by the side chapels, and of necessity the large works have to be placed in the nave gallery. Furthermore, visitors may begin by heading down the south side aisle, or find themselves drawn into the nave gallery, so although we can try to encourage a particular pathway, we can’t ensure that visitors will travel the way we want them to.

 

Looking into MOCRA's James Rosen exhibition from the entrance to the gallery

A visitor looking into MOCRA's James Rosen exhibition from the entrance to the gallery can head either into the main gallery, or down the side aisle.

 

We did an initial layout of the smaller works along chronological lines, but soon saw that we wouldn’t be able to carry that approach through consistently. Instead, we began to think in terms of theme or subject matter, with chronology and medium as secondary criteria. With this approach, things quickly began to shape up in the side chapels along the categories of Figuration and Portraiture; Architecture; and, Landscape and Abstraction. The limitations of space helped us further refine the selection of works, and the introduction of wall cases for the unframed works helped to anchor the arrangement of framed works.

Meanwhile, we had the larger works to consider. From early on, MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J., knew that he wanted to present six “Saints” paintingsl from Rosen’s two-year sojourn in Ferrara, Italy, together in one half of the nave gallery, along with the monumental Homage to Guido da Siena: La Maestà. His hope was to create a meditative space that would invite visitors to slow down and experience the subtle luminosity of Rosen’s work, to allow the work time to reveal itself. A generous number of chairs reinforces this invitation.

 

The paintings of James Rosen in MOCRA's nave gallery.

The eastern half of MOCRA's nave gallery displays six of Rosen's "Saints" paintings flanking an homage to Guido da Siena's "La Maestà."

 

The other half of the gallery would display the Homage to the Isenheim Altarpiece and the Homage to the Pietà d’Avignon. Unfortunately, that left one large wall unaccounted for: how to balance out two major works? The solution was a combination of a wall case with three small portraits above it, and flanked by two medium-sized paintings, all on religious subjects.

 

The paintings of James Rosen in MOCRA's nave gallery.

Two major paintings by James Rosen, along with several smaller paintings and various works on paper, are installed in the western half of MOCRA's nave gallery.

 

One of the side chapel galleries on each side faces a gap in the long nave walls, so any work in that gallery can be seen from a relatively distant vantage point across the nave. Normally we place visually commanding works in those chapels, works that might seem confined in the other side chapels. In this case, we saw a way to link the side chapels with the nave. We placed works relating to Rosen’s time in Ferrara in the side chapel, including his images of an old monastery called the Certosa. Thus, with the help of the labels and wall texts, visitors can look out from the chapel at the Saints paintings produced during that time, while the wall case in the nave contains studies and drawings produced during the time in Ferrara.

 

Looking from MOCRA's nave gallery into a side chapel.

A view from MOCRA's nave gallery into the side chapel containing works related to James Rosen's stay in Ferrara, Italy.

 

 

Looking out into MOCRA's nave gallery from the south side aisle.

The complementary view from the side chapel into the nave gallery.

 

Speaking of texts, throughout the process of selecting and placing works, we were also considering what sort of labeling and didactic texts would be used. How much should be made explicit in terms of “categories”? How could we give visitors sufficient context and bearings, without overwhelming them or the artwork with text? Fortunately, Rosen is articulate in discussing his process and aims, and we looked for opportunities whenever possible to let him tell his own story.

 

James Rosen's work installed in MOCRA's south side aisle

Art, wall cases, text panels, and lighting combine to present James Rosen's work to MOCRA's visitors. Rosen's own words play a prominent role in setting context and conveying background information.

 

The final stage in the installation process is the lighting — never a simple matter with 28-foot ceilings, and a particular challenge with Rosen’s favored oil and wax/oil emulsion medium. Our initial lighting scheme was very subdued, especially in the nave gallery. One of our student workers remarked that it was so dim he was afraid he would doze off during his shift! The light also gave a color cast to paintings at those low levels, even though it tends to bring out subtleties of detail. There was also the safety of our visitors (avoiding trip hazards) to consider. So, the lights came up a few notches, and we hope we have struck a good balance that shows the work to its best advantage.

Each exhibition tells a story; sometimes it is one consciously framed by the curators, sometimes it is implicit. We hope that with The Artist and the Capable Observer we have been able to highlight several chapters from James Rosen’s long, varied, and productive career, allowing the artist himself to draw our attention to both the significant and the subtle.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

May 27, 2010

MOCRA moves into the summer

Here at MOCRA we have recently closed our encore presentation of the Good Friday exhibition. As with its first presentation in 2009, we have been impressed with the positive public and critical response. We’re particularly pleased that we seem to have established a museum environment in which visitors can comfortably consider the art across a whole gamut of approaches, from art appreciation to intimate theological reflection or prayer.

We are also gratified that two articles about the exhibition appeared in print in recent months. The first, penned by MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J., appeared in America magazine, and discussed the genesis and aims of the exhibition, particularly in the context of Ignatian spirituality. The second, a review of the exhibition by Jessica Murphy, appeared in the British publication The Tablet. Murphy shared her responses to the exhibition, including the insights inspired by certain key artworks. If you haven’t had a chance to read these articles yet, you can find them on the MOCRA website.

Props to the SLU grounds crew for a great makeover of the landscaping around MOCRA!

MOCRA will be closed to the public during the summer months as we attend to some much-needed in-house upkeep. While not all the details are in place yet, I can reveal that our fall exhibition, opening in mid-September, will explore the work of painter James Rosen. Stay tuned for more details.

In the meantime, we invite you to explore the MOCRA website. We’ve been continually updating and expanding the site. For instance, we recently completed a catalog of links for almost all of the artists who have been exhibited at MOCRA. We’ve also been updating and enhancing the pages for previous exhibitions. For instance, check out the pages for DoDo Jin Ming: Land and Sea, or Gorky: The Early Years – Paintings and Drawings, 1927 – 1937. Soon we also hope to be adding additional images and installation views from past exhibitions.

Finally, if you are not already subscribed to MOCRA’s e-mail newsletter, we encourage you to sign up. It’s our best way for providing you with timely updates about what is happening at MOCRA.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

March 26, 2010

MOCRA Director speaks on “The Wounded Body of Christ”

Filed under: Exhibitions, Good Friday (2010), Programs and Events — Tags: , — mocraslu @ 5:00 pm

This Sunday, March 28, 2010, MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J. will deliver a free public lecture titled, “The Wounded Body of Christ and the Modern Social Conscience.”

Fr. Dempsey’s 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 González Palma, Adrian Kellard, Dinh Q. Le, and James Rosen.

Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., is a Jesuit priest and the Founding Director of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA). He holds a Ph.D. in art history and religion from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley, while studying under the direction of Jane Daggett Dillenberger and the late John Dillenberger of the Graduate Theological Union and Peter Selz of the University of California. In 1995, Fr. Dempsey was named the first holder of the May O’Rourke Jay Endowed Teaching Chair in Art History and Religion at Saint Louis University, a position he still holds. He has curated over fifty-five exhibitions, including thirty-six exhibitions for MOCRA. These exhibitions have received significant critical acclaim and positive public response. Fr. Dempsey is also the author of numerous articles and a frequent lecturer.

The lecture begins at 2 p.m. Admission is free. A reception will follow the lecture, and include the opportunity to see the exhibition, Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art, on display through April 25, 2010.

Learn more about the lecture here.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

March 8, 2010

Revisiting ‘Cosmic Tears’

As reported previously, last fall MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, SJ, and artist Michael Byron talked with John Launius, host of the “Saint Louis Art Map: On the Air” podcast, about the exhibition Cosmic Tears.

Due to technical complications, the interview only recently became available for listening and downloading. This conversation gives insight into Byron’s creative process and the development of the Cosmic Tears works. You’ll also hear Fr. Dempsey talk about MOCRA’s origins in his doctoral research.

“Saint Louis Art Map: On the Air” is a biweekly podcast with interviews and discussions about current and upcoming visual arts events and issues in St. Louis. It is the podcast companion to the Saint Louis Art Map blog.

  • To play the podcast directly in your browser, click here.
  • To hear this and other “Saint Louis Art Map: On the Air” podcasts, or to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, click here.
  • Read the Saint Louis Art Map blog here.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

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