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Through February 26, 2006 at Laguna Art Museum, Orange County

by Jeanne Willette

For many years, contemporary art has been the perfect dinner companion, eschewing topics like sex, politics, and--God forbid--religion.  Twenty years ago, “body” art and “multicultural” art emerged, joining “feminist” art in the off-world of marginalization, where all adjectives are consigned.  One of the last breeches of Greenberg’s blockade of content is “religious” art, and “A Broken Beauty:  Figuration, Narrative, and Trascendence in North American Art”, curated by Gordon Fuglie, is a brave attempt at bringing a difficult discourse to the art table.  While Beauty has long been banished, Religion, in today’s politicized and polarized environment, is not just a difficult issue but also a dangerous one.  “A Broken Beauty” locates itself in the existential territory of philosophy in the Platonic sense, rather than directly in religion.  That being said, the art continues the visual tradition of Christian imagery and Catholic iconography, indicating continuity and return to the spiritual in art.  This is a theme-generated show and, as is common to exhibitions of this kind, not all of the work selected is as interesting as the idea; but discussing beauty and religion in a world that is filled with ugly cynicism is a challenge to contemporary artists.

Patti Wickman, "Overshadowed,"
2001, oil on canvas, 78 x 104".

Joel Sheesley, "Nakedness
on the Journey," 1997, 50 x 70".

John Nava, "Study for the Baptism of
Christ Tapestry, oil on canvas. 48 x 24".

Mary McCleary, "Children of the
Apple Tree," 2000, mixed media
collage on paper," 44 1/2 x 74".

Jerome Witkin, "Entering Darkness,"
2001, oil on canvas, 187 x 130".
Updating Christian art, characterized by figuration, illustration, narration, and arcane iconography requires audacity.  Patti Wickman, a painter with a hard, unsparing technique, asks the question: what if the Virgin Mary was one of us?  Echoing Ensor’s inquiry into the fate of Jesus in Brussels, “Overshadowed” (2001), shows Mary as “a middle-class teenage girl encountering God in her cluttered bedroom.  His impregnating light emanates from an unshaded lamp, allowing her to make a shadow puppet of Gabriel on her underwear.  Mary is called to her fate via the telephone, an appellation or a vocation, implying that the Virgin has chosen her path.  In its condensed iconography, this is one of Wickman’s best paintings and, in its symbolism, the image starts a chain of speculation on a 21st Century Marian narrative: it would be criminal for Joseph to marry an underage girl, so Mary, banished by her incredulous family, becomes an unwed mother on welfare, and Jesus grows up in the projects.

This artist is following the Renaissance tradition of placing religious events in a contemporary setting, but John Nava charts a different course by reverting to the solemn style of Mantegna in his study of “The Baptism of Christ” (2001) for one of his L.A. Cathedral tapestries. He distances himself from the visualization of Christ in the here and now with Giotto-like clarity that is truly transformative and powerful. The artist shows the humble preacher, at the moment of his encounter with his Lord.  With his eloquent back turned to us, Christ’s transfixion through Baptism is timeless and elevating, an intensely private moment to which we are the privileged witnesses, removed from time.  Nava experienced something of an epiphany during his work for the Cathedral, and offers the viewer a sense of the artist’s awe and reverence.

These are two very different and viable approaches.  By re-placing the Christian story in the contemporary era, one artist forces the audience to confront the reality of the brokenness of the lives of very brave humans who achieved beauty through struggle.  By dis-placing the narrative from the real, another artist allows the viewer to enter the spiritual, though an act of witnessing.  What does witnessing, being there, mean today?

The theme of the exhibition was inspired by Simone Weil who starved herself to death in 1943, becoming a martyr by sharing the suffering of the victims of the Second World War.  But Weil is, like all of us, problematic.  She was either a philosopher-saint,  whose empathy demanded death, or a misanthrope who denied her Jewishness during the Holocaust, depending upon whom you read.  Surely the Holocaust is the great spiritual crisis of our time, with the deaths of millions witnessed and denied by millions.

Bruce Herman has evoked the theme of Christian victims during the Holocaust in Bonhoeffer.  From Herman’s series “Elegy for Witness” (2001), anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is depicted hanging upside down (as Peter was crucified), descending, not ascending, into a realm of gold.  Executed in April of 1945, on the eve of the war’s end, Bonhoeffer, like Weil, is problematic: did he die for Christianity or is he a martyr of the Holocaust?  The exhibition only raises questions in an agonized world shattered by new martyrs who kill as they die.  In selecting works that frequently succeed as art even as they provoke thoughts on the human condition, and despite the fact that not all are equal to the occasion, for its willingness and courage to undertake sensitive subjects, this show deserves our thoughtful attention.