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November 15, 2003 - January 10, 2004 at Judson Gallery, Highland Park

by John O'Brien

While the Great Bronze Doors on the southeast side of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels by Robert Graham are certainly a technical marvel, this exhibition looks intimately at how the doors came to be. As such it is a fascinating odyssey unto itself.

Few sites are as charged with as much historical significance and symbolic ordering as religious architecture. Add to this premise that this is the first major Cathedral built in the United States in over forty years, and the importance, no matter the critical perspective, of this creation and its location is evident.

On display are some of the preparatory models, the prototype maquettes and quite a few casting molds at various states of completion and size. All of this is united in the publication documenting the creation of the doors to the Cathedral. A critic’s normal expectation is to look and to write about art exhibitions in terms of that which is visible in the display, but the objects on exhibit here, with all of their attendant beauty, are essentially indices pointing to the Doors in situ elsewhere. The publication, The Great Bronze Doors for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is the necessary guide to that elsewhere, tracing as it does the evolution of the religious symbolism in Jack Miles' essay; describing the historical and artistic antecedents in Peggy Fogelman's writing; and documenting the physical labor of the creation in a photo essay by Noriko Fujinami.

The anecdotal facts behind the creation of the Great Doors creation are gigantic in scope and proportion. It is recorded that they took nearly five years to make, with the aid of many specialized industries and over 150 assistants. The combined weight of the outer doors is over 25 tons and the entire tympanum section housing the statue of Our Lady of the Angels was fabricated in one piece elsewhere and then craned into position during the early morning hours. The process involved was lengthy and impressive, especially the use of new digital mapping and prototyping techniques which allowed Graham to scan and reproduce his original works as bronze castings. All the same, the real wonder of the Doors begins after the technical matters are noted, appreciated and absorbed.

"The Great Bronze Doors, the
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels”,
2002, bronze and gold leaf, 30 x 30’

"The Great Bronze Doors,
the Cathedral of Our Lady
of the Angels” (detail)

"The Great Bronze Doors,
the Cathedral of Our Lady
of the Angels” (detail)

“Our Lady of the Angels,”
2002, bronze.

The questions which the Doors address are many; but, in the end, the most salient are: How can Mary, Our Lady of the Angels, be represented today, in Los Angeles? Within what matrix of symbols could/should she appear? The numerous changes the statue of Mary underwent--in her attire, in her surrounding features and in her position--are recorded in the publication. They elliptically describe the difficulty of negotiating a final decision. The Catholic church has strong traditions and powerful inherited images, but at the same time it was constructing a cathedral in a place that might be best described as a confluence of many traditions. The formulation of this statue was a crucial part of establishing a new and significant historical precedent. So, Graham's particular usage over the years of a figurative woman's digitally morphed body type found an apt formulation as a statue of Mary that needed to be both a specific individual semblance and an image that would work within the realm of an overarching symbol. The end result, in several miniature versions here, may be studied up close and pondered in relation to the final result.

While the resulting female form is not especially different from other Graham figures in terms of facial features, the expression is noticably different. Graham as a rule willfully excludes sentiment and sentience, which acts as a blanketing force over the sexually charged, nubile bodies. With the statue of Our Lady of the Angels there is a serene and participatory gaze directed toward the viewer. Here Graham channels his art into an emotion quite distinct from his past work.

The multitude of symbols that make up the inner doors are also drawn from a variety of sources, and they comprise a felicitous set. The great doors of many cathedrals display images from the Old and New Testament, and Graham proposed that these adhere to the tradition of functioning as "history and storytelling books." It is the inclusive tenor that Graham’s narrative strikes that is fresh. At the bottom of these doors there is a relief of a grapevine, symbolizing the Church. Embedded in the grapevine are 40 symbols from antiquity that represent pre-Christian images from Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. They include the eagle, griffin, goose, Southwest Indian Flying Serpent, bee, hand, ostrich, dove, Chinese turtle, Samoan kava bowl, the Native American Chumash man, the dolphin, the Tree of Jesse and Tai Chi. Above that there are different visions of the Virgin from images that are European in origin, but have been filtered through the indigenous cultures that Europeans forcibly Christianized in the New World. They include the images of the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Piéta, the Mater Dolorosa, the Virgin of Pomata, Virgin of the Rosary of Chichinquira, Divine Shepherdess, Virgin of the Cave, Virgin of the Candlestick, Virgin of Mercy, and others. This interweaving of traditions and image sources activates the imagination of visitors from many parts of the world, at the same time linking them to a shared religious experience.

For this project Graham's work is a shared experience, created by him through the conception of many and the labor of many more. It is both an art object and a religious site. This exhibition provides some measure of the magnitude of the project and the difference between this endeavor and others that rest purely on questions of art.