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Betty Brown


Caravaggio, "The Doubting of Saint
Thomas," 1601/02, oil on panel.

Jon Swihart, "Untitled (Descending
Figure)," 1990, 36 x 26", o/c.

Cheri Gaulke, “This is My Body,”
1982, performance at espace DBD,
Los Angeles. Photo: Sheila Ruth.
Over a decade ago, the rock group R.E.M. commissioned Indian filmmaker Tarsem Singh to create a video for their immensely popular song Losing My Religion. The video visually quoted Carravaggio's early 17th-century masterpieces Deposition and The Doubting of Saint Thomas intercut with images of Hindu gods frolicking in pleasure gardens, and Russian Revolutionary soldiers forging historic new icons.

In December 2002, A & E's Inspector Morse began his weekly murder investigation by visiting an exhibition of photographs that quoted Cimabue and Giotto's 13th- and14th-century crucifixion paintings. This (fictitious) exhibition was comprised of black and white close-ups of hands apparently pierced by nails, torsos apparently wounded by swords, etc.

In and out of the 'realities' of television, the creators of contemporary images continue to address the master narrative of Christianity. This has long been the case in visual art. Among local artists, John Swihart's realistically rendered tableaux populated by people in modern attire, Jim Morphesis' stunningly sensual crucifixions and elegantly surreal sacred hearts, and Madden Harkness' expressively drafted compositions in graphite on vellum come to mind prominently.

Last year, the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was adorned with tapestries woven after John Nava paintings. The five images located around the baptismal font portray Jesus being baptized by Saint John in the River Jordan. Nava used a palette reminiscent of faded frescoes, thus evoking baptism images by Early Renaissance masters like Piero della Francesca. Performance artists have recreated Christian images generally in order to question their relevance: Cheri Gaulke's This is My Body, presented in both museums and churches, was one particularly compelling example.

But I want to focus on how photography and its errant step-child video are also deployed in re-visiting Christian narratives. Increasingly, this has been done through the construction of tableaux vivants, the positioning of living models to echo painted prototypes. Andres Serrano, who achieved notoriety for his Piss Christ (a photograph of a white plastic crucifix submerged in urine, though this fact is only made apparent by the title, not the image itself), created an entire series of images of people posed to reference historic religious compositions. His choices of models and unnerving combinations of sacred symbols challenge any passive or traditional interpretation. For example, his 1985 Pieta presents a young woman before a fiery sky. She holds the undulating orange body of a large, dead fish (a symbol of Jesus) in the way that traditional Madonnas hold the dead Christ. In a similar manner, Joel Peter Witkin has situated disturbing models in poses that echo sacred images even as they invert their standard significance. His 1981 Expulsion from Paradise depicts a contemporary Adam and Eve fleeing the threat of divine retribution in Witkin's New Mexico.

Andres Serrano, “Piss Light,”
1989, cibachrome photograph.

Wayne Schoenfeld, "Eden,"
2002, color photograph.

While Serrano and Witkin have used tableaux to shock, Wayne Schoenfeld's new photographs reconfigure religious images to seduce. His Crucifixion presents a buxom beauty, complete with golden halo, in a fiery landscape. In Eden, a similarly curvaceous Eve reaches up to touch a buff Adam. Both would do well in Calvin Klein ads, as would the handsome couple in his Equal Opportunity Creator cibachrome.

Of course, the link of Christianity to seduction is nothing new. Particularly during the Counter Reformation, the Catholic Church sought to maintain its hold on the faithful through images that attracted with physical and emotional (rather than cerebral) appeal. Caravaggio’s Deposition (the painting quoted in the aforementioned R.E.M. video) positioned the dead Christ in an inverted perspective intended to sweep viewers into immediate physical engagement, almost as if Jesus were about to tumble out of the painting and into the viewers’ arms. Gone is the High Renaissance proscenium-like distance of Leonardo’s Last Supper.

No longer elite and remote in unattainable idealization, the holy figures of the Catholic Counter Reformation were real people with real bodies and dramatically real passions. Gianlorenzo Bernini's 17th-century masterpiece Santa Teresa in Ecstasy--surely the greatest celebration of female orgasm in Western sculpture--effectively linked the sacred and the sexual in a compelling illustration of the Spanish nun’s erotic text. Viewers of Bernini’s Santa Teresa understood the sculpture portrayed a specific historical (and middle aged) woman, however young and beautiful the Baroque sculptor depicted her. But Schoenfeld tends to objectify his models; they evoke advertising images more than sacred specificity.

Bill Viola, "Silent Mountain," 2001,
video installation. Photo: Mike Bruce,
courtesy of Anthony d'Offay Gallery.

Marcia Alexander-Clarke,
"Ut Coelum," 2002, video.

Jan van Eyck, "Ghent Altarpiece,"
1432, oil on wood, 80 x 132” opened.
In a December 2002 New Yorker article Susan Sontag asserted: "Non-stop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) surrounds us, but, when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image." But it seems to me that some video artists use their medium with such skill that they effect the "deeper bite" of the photograph. Bill Viola is such an artist.

Viola uses models who resist the seductive, objectifying gaze. He spent the 1997-1998 Scholar Year at the Getty Research Institute examining the theme Representing the Passions. His new body of work, titled simply The Passions [currently on exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum--Ed.], is inspired by medieval and Renaissance devotional paintings and "explores how slowing-changing facial expressions and body language convey emotional states." Last year's Emergence is based on Masolino da Panicale's Pieta, a fifteenth century painting that represents Christ in the sarcophagus, supported by the Virgin and St. John. Viola's Emergence, which was shot on film, transferred to video and greatly slowed, depicts two women lifting a man out of a well and laying him on the ground. The image "has a dazzling clarity that reinforces the poignancy of the act."

A similar slow build to strong emotional impact is created by Marsia Alexander-Clarke in her Ut Coelum, a video installation derived from the performance of an all-woman choir [included in Alexander-Clarke new exhibit opening this month at CSU San Bernardino’s Fullerton Museum--Ed.]. The women here are presented realistically, not beautified to approximate the supermodel ideal, but perhaps beatified. Although not a direct quotation, Alexander-Clarke's video image recalls angelic choirs from Christian iconography.

In van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, for example, the choir of angels occupies two panels that flank the central images of God and the Virgin. The many-paneled format and the fact that the altarpiece could be opened to reveal various iconographic configurations is echoed in Alexander-Clarke's extraordinary edit of the choral performance: single images multiply and 'stream' across the monitor in poetically layered compositions. The images are 'painted' in veils of rich color, color as foreign in its intensity to video as van Eyck's oil-mixed pigments must have seemed to viewers used to tempera or fresco.

In discussing narration and photography, British critic Manuel Alvarado calls our attention to Roland Barthes' distinction between photographic captions that anchor the image to a certain meaning, and those that relay. In the latter case, "the linguistic is predominant (the image supports the text) and may carry narrative information." Because the Christian story "however contested" remains a fundamental narrative of Western culture, Western viewers come to Christian images already directed by the text, so that the images function as relays, pointing back to and visually reinforcing the always-already known. To interrupt this virtual elision, artists have either resorted to shocking inversions or manipulating the viewing pace, and have done so to both greater and lesser effect.

(There are other strategies in other media, of course. In 1997, Norman Mailer published The Gospel According to the Son. Re-writing the first four books of the New Testament as Jesus’s autobiography, Mailer presented a troubled, subjective view--a Jesus constantly beset by question and doubts. As we all are.)

Perhaps today is not so unlike the Counter Reformation. Perhaps these artistic attempts to re-embody Christian narratives are efforts to establish new significance for the sacred in our secularized, overwhelmingly conflicted world.