Among the first lessons any student of art history learns is that art and religion have been strongly aligned throughout world history. Indeed, for much of the history of Western civilization, art was in the direct or indirect service of the church. This shifted, of course, with the rise of capitalism, and eventually, in the modern era, artists broke away from the patronage system altogether, further changing the relationship between art and religion. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly among the avant-garde of expressionist artists, any religious content in art was explicitly challenged (as in the work of Paul Gauguin), celebrated and modernized (as with Marc Chagall) or supplanted altogether by concerns for superreligious "spirituality" (as in the work of Wassily Kandinsky and other abstract artists).
This rehearsal of the historical relationship between religion and art seems appropriate for a thorough examination of Contemporary American Jesuit Artists, a new exhibition at the St. Louis University Museum of Art. (This exhibition has opened in concert with the Collection of the Western Jesuit Missions, on permanent display at the museum, and a series of paintings by Ann Torrini of Doctors of the Church, though each exhibition is housed in a separate gallery and each is featured independent of the others.)
Contemporary American Jesuit Artists offers itself as an opportunity to consider recent art produced by members of this particular order of the Catholic Church. The ten artists in this exhibition hardly represent the sum total of approaches to religious art in this country, but their works do indicate something about the current state of art coming from one of the world's significant organized religions. But before we turn to the exhibition itself, a few more historical observations appear to be in order.
In this country, contemporary art with religious content is more often than not the stuff of hot controversy -- one need only remember the brouhaha surrounding Chris Ofili's "Virgin Mary" when it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, or Andres Serrano's still-notorious cibachrome "Piss Christ," or even the much less extreme suggestions of Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Although endless arguments can be made about the relative artistic merits of these works, one thing they shared was the ability to spark dialogue and reveal the reactionary stance of many of those in this country who identify themselves as Catholic. (Even non-Catholics in droves protested these works as blasphemous, offensive to human decency and morality.)
Many, though not all, of the artworks in Contemporary American Jesuit Artists contain overt religious content. Not one of these works will ever be denounced as blasphemous. None could be called an affront to decency or the morals of any religion. In fact, it would be startling if any of these works elicited any response whatsoever. They appear entirely ambivalent on the subject of religion itself, and offer no point from which meaningful dialogue might begin.
Case in point: the oil paintings by Mark George. His four canvases in this collection, "Resurrection," "Crucifixion/Resurrection," "Agony in the Garden" and "Pieta" (all from the 1990s), are extraordinarily tepid depictions of some of the most sensational events described in the life of Christ. George is a modern painter, to be sure, working with a spare artistic vocabulary. But his brand of expression operates at the expense of any emotion or drama. Working in a comparable expressionist manner, Gauguin managed incredibly dense religious symbolism in the late nineteenth century, and the German painter George Baselitz was able to electrify scenes of the life of Christ in the 1980s.
Perhaps what is missing in work such as this might be called critical transformation, pure and simple. Baselitz, by depicting his figures upside down, performed a profound gesture that asked viewers to question their relation to the subject. George, on the other hand, performs no such transformation, asks no particular questions and therefore leaves viewers essentially unchanged and guessing as to the artist's position. (It's a lot to ask an artist to change a viewer's mind about something. But when the subject is no less than death and resurrection, it seems the artist should at least try to rise to the task.)
At first glance, Dennis McNally's paintings seemed to offer some kind of transformation of a familiar religious aesthetic. In works such as "The Trinity" and "Saint Anne," McNally clearly draws on the style of Byzantine icons and thirteenth-century painters such as Cimabue and Duccio. His figures have the flattened features and enormous, staring eyes of that stark aesthetic. McNally, however, has charged the imagery by using unexpectedly modern colors, exaggerating the already striking quality of the tripartite arrangements. But to what end? It's not altogether clear.
Also unclear is the message behind McNally's "Cimabue Crucifix," by far the strangest work in the entire exhibition. Christ's all-too-muscular, too-pink body hangs from the crucifix; a group of birds suspends a sky-blue swag across his genitalia. The painting makes obvious reference to traditional Crucifixion scenes, but the passages of pastel are altogether out of place. If this work attempts a critical engagement with thirteenth-century aesthetics and iconography, the terms of the engagement are beyond this critic's grasp.
Mildly more interesting are the abstractions by Josef Venker and Dennis Leder. Leder's "Adam and Eve XY-XX" and "Synthesis: Male-Female-Life-Death-Infinity" combine graphic symbols and codes into small, complexly ordered hybrids that represent multiple elements simultaneously. "Tsadi (Hebrew Symbol of Righteousness and Humility)" and "Prologue (Stations of the Cross)," Venker's mixed-media works on paper, are larger in scale but perform a similar gesture. A drawback to these works is their literalness -- they remain tied to conventional symbols even in the attempt to transcend them. By comparison, efforts at a truly metaphysical, spiritual language by Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich are far more successful.
Several works in this exhibition contain no obvious religious content, and, were they stronger, they might be at home in any other gallery context. Michael Flecky's cyanotype constructions are nice; Don Doll's black-and-white photographs of Native Americans, taken from 1974 to the present, would be more interesting were they printed better.
An entire gallery is devoted to Don Doll's Vision Quest: Men, Women, and Sacred Sites of the Sioux Nation, an enormous group of photographs and text panels that is in fact a separate exhibition within this exhibition. No doubt Vision Quest is a laudable undertaking, a quasi-comprehensive archive of the Sioux nation, in true National Geographic style. But its sheer size and overwhelming presence strain its relationship to the other works in Contemporary American Jesuit Artists.
This brings us back to the exhibition itself. It is fraught with problems, the most disturbing of which may be the complete lack of criticality from which these artists are working. No, this does not mean that art has to criticize religion to be good. Rather, criticality suggests that the artist (or author, or otherwise) recognizes his or her historical position vis-à-vis the subject and offers up a knowing, perhaps productive, new way of understanding it. Marc Chagall often represented his religion in his art with a joy and brilliance rarely seen; Chagall possessed criticality. It's a cause for concern that these works contain none. They uphold nothing more than the status quo, and that's the worst thing any artist can do.