Keith Haring, Merry Christmas, 1985

Keith Haring, Merry Christmas, 1985

It’s the day before Christmas. And while I clean and wrap and wipe runny noses (including my own), I’m trying to keep my mind on what I’m really preparing for. Advent. The Coming.

I’m thankful for Keith Haring’s subway drawing, which bypasses the usual schmaltzy iconography to get to the essence of what we’re celebrating. Here is the Son of God come down–miraculously–in the form of baby. It even looks like God is having contractions!

Enough said.

Merry Christmas out there….


The Shifting Image of God

December 7, 2015

Lee Yongbaek, In Between Buddha and Jesus, 2002 (Asian Art Museum, Seattle)

Lee Yongbaek,
In Between Buddha and Jesus, 2002
(Asian Art Museum, Seattle)

In a whirlwind visit to Seattle several weeks ago now, I was able to visit the Contemporary Korean Art exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. This particular work by Lee Yongbaek not only sucked me in at first look, but it drew me back into the exhibit for a second. My son too, as you can see.Lee4

As you stand and look at the mirror, you see images of sculpted heads flicker and morph in the middle of a dark, seemingly three-dimensional space. The heads are easily recognizable as Buddha and Jesus, sculpted by other artists in other times, although they sometimes shift from one to the next so quickly that you can’t see them distinctly.

The work is not hard to understand, at least on a basic level. Here, east meets west. Lee points to the tension between two gods that sometimes exist at the extremes of cultural difference, but by conflating the two, he puts them into a symbiotic relationship, like conjoined twins or some sci-fi double being. In this way, he explores the cultural divide by bringing them intimately close.Lee2

But that’s not what grabbed me. Even as the heads change rapidly from one to the next, there are moments when a head lingers for a few seconds—as if suspended or caught—and then it twitches before finally morphing into the next. It feels like it is trying to hold on, but it just can’t.

In those moments, it seems as if there is some sort of glitch in the system—something is not working—like the smooth flow between the two divine beings has been interrupted, disrupted, obstructed. It reminds me of the holodeck on Star Trek when something in the hologram “twitches” and Captain Picard knows that something is not right. Lee5

Lee seems to be giving away the ruse. Sure, he’s merging these two gods together in order to suggest that perhaps they are not so different after all. But he seems to admit that this vision is just that—a vision. It’s not real. It can never be real. It will only ever be an illusion … like a hologram.

To push this a little further, it’s not just the vision of a harmonious religion that is tenuous here. The images of each god are fundamentally unstable. Even when the image lingers for a few moments, it eventually gets pulled into the next.

Lee3In other words, the images repeatedly lose their integrity—as images of the divine ought to do. An image of a god is not the god they represent. An image is always limited, always contrived. And yet we hang on to those images. Sometimes desperately or even zealously.

This time of year—Advent—I am so aware of the use of images to encapsulate the birth narrative of Jesus. Some images can be powerful, others painfully trite. Either way, it’s all too tempting to let the images be the story. It’s hard enough already to keep from reducing Christmas down to a few lovely sentiments, pictures of Mary, Joseph, and a cute little baby don’t help.

Perhaps this season, I will try to look at images in order to see through them. I don’t mean this in a cynical sense (although my propensity for such things could lead me there…bah, nostalgia, consumerism, and sublimation!). Instead I could look for ways that images point toward the depth and richness of the narrative and the theology of the incarnation, maybe even in spite of themselves.

I’ll keep you posted.








A Testimony of Grace

April 27, 2015

Keith Haring, Altar Piece, 1990  (this edition: Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)

Keith Haring, Altar Piece, 1990
(this edition is in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)

While in Denver for a short trip a couple weeks ago, I spent a few hours at the Denver Art Museum. They have this artwork displayed in a rather odd place—a wide corridor that connects their two main buildings. You could easily miss it, except it’s a Keith Haring, and Keith Haring tends to draw attention.

Haring made nine editions of this cast-bronze sculpture shortly before his death in 1990. A firsthand account of its making, written by Sam Havadtoy, has become the primary way that this artwork is popularly understood. If you’re curious, you can find it here.

Obviously, there is lots of Christian iconography here.

The viewer is immediately drawn to the baby in the middle of the center panel, presumably an infant Jesus in the arms of Mary. But the figure that extends up is also vaguely trinitarian–the many arms suggesting the omnipotence of God. The topmost pair echo the arms of the cross, and the head seems to look down. The short lines surrounding this figure convey a sense of energy.

On the left and right panels, Haring drew four winged creatures. Havadtoy described them as an image of a fallen angel (the Fall) and the resurrection (Christ’s victory). The people crowded below seem to dance, swoon, and reach up to heaven.

So, as far as I can tell, this is usually interpreted as a reflection on—if not an affirmation of—the sacred. I get that. Haring does express Christian theology about salvation in a rather tidy and compelling image.

But, there’s another way to read this—as a personal reflection on his own impending death.

When he drew so-called “radiant babies” before, he was connoting a range of things—sometimes Jesus, but also all of humanity and even himself. The main figure–an all-powerful, loving, tender God– cradles this little baby. Could Haring have imagined himself being held by God as he prepared for his own death? Could he have been contemplating how, despite his own sin, eternal life might be possible because of God’s love for him?

I don’t know. After a protestant upbringing and an affiliation with the Jesus Movement, he spent much of his short adult life being skeptical about religion and the church. He did come back around to Christianity, apparently, so it’s conceivable that he would do such an overtly theological artwork—especially when drawing on a triptych shaped like an altarpiece—but it is less clear if he would have endeavored a personal reflection on his own salvation.

But does it really matter? Haring understood how language and symbolism work. An author/artist uses a series of words/symbols to send a message, but the receiver might hear/read a different message because they understand the words and symbols differently. Ambiguity is part of the game of communication.

So, he carves these symbols into clay and they are cast into bronze. The message is sent.

I am satisfied.

Lent … Look Up!

March 23, 2015

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55 (The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55
(The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

I feel the need for a big dose of theology today. Lucas Cranach the Elder will do it. In fact, where do we start?

This painting could be a visual treatise on the doctrine of salvation—with a Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace for all who believe. Very simply, John the Baptist (the third man from the right) points up to the crucified Christ to indicate that one only needs to look up to Christ to be saved. That’s grace. This simple message is repeated and expanded throughout the rest of the image.

Cranach-Weimar-det1In the background, for example, the scene with all the tents shows the story from the Old Testament (Numbers 21) when God’s people spoke against God and he rebuked them by sending poisonous snakes. Moses called out to God on their behalf and God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole so anyone who was bitten could look up to it and live. He did and they were. In other words, they could be saved by merely looking up to the symbol of God’s power and grace. It’s an Old Testament prefiguration of the crucifixion—when Christ is put up on a pole and people are saved by looking to him. Here, that connection is made obvious because both John the Baptist and Moses point up—LOOK UP and LIVE!

Others look up in the background. Right beside all the tents is the scene from the gospel of Luke when an angel appeared to the shepherds after Jesus was born and told them, “Today … a Savior has been born to you!” Instead of announcing the Messiah’s birth to religious folk who would seem to be the most deserving, God chose to tell those who would appear to be the least deserving of all. Grace again.

Back to the foreground, John the Baptist not only gestures up, but also points downward to the sheep. This references the gospel story when John saw Jesus coming and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” It’s an astonishing thing to claim. When sin became a prominent aspect of human nature (it didn’t take long), God instituted a religious practice that included sacrificing animals to acknowledge one’s wrong-doing and “cover it,” at least temporarily. Because sin is perpetual, the sacrifices were too. But John seemed to know immediately that Jesus would become an ultimate sacrifice—just like the animals, he would die, but this sacrifice would be complete, permanent, and inclusive. In Christian theology, one only has to accept his sacrifice in order for it to be the ultimate sacrifice. Thus, LOOK UP and be forgiven … be saved.

Cranach-Weimar-det2Cranach seems to want to emphasis that we are saved by grace and not by simply being good, for he tucks a counter example behind the cross. There we see a nearly naked man, who symbolizes humanity, being chased into hell (the flames) by Satan (the monstrous figure) and Death (the skeleton). He’s destined to burn not because he’s been bad, exactly, but because he has tried so hard to live by the law (here upheld by members of the clergy and Moses himself). The point: If you seek salvation by being a good person, it just ain’t gonna work because no matter how hard you try, you’re going to screw up, which, according to the law, means death. Try to live by the law, you’re going to die by the law.

The alternative? Look up to Christ. If you do, you will not only be saved from eternal damnation, but you will witness victory over sin and death. That’s the resurrected Christ on the left trampling Death and Sin. Needless to say, you want to be on his side.

Up to this point, the bits of iconography are pretty standard. But then we get to the two men on the right.

Cranach-Weimar-det3The one on the outside is none other than Martin Luther. He points to an open book which has three biblical passages from his own German translation of the Bible—I John 1:7b, Hebrews 4:16, and John 3:14-15)—which point to the various themes of the painting and underscore the main point. Believe that Christ’s sacrifice saves you and it will.

The man with the white beard is Lucas Cranach the Elder himself. Apparently, the painting was finished by Lucas Cranach the Younger, so I’m not sure if this should be considered a self-portrait or a commemorative portrait. Either way, the important thing is the stream of blood that gushes from Jesus’ side and splashes on top of Cranach’s head. While somewhat gruesome, Cranach testifies here that he has allowed the blood of Christ to “cleanse him from all sin” (I John 1:7). His faith has saved him.

Interesting … he doesn’t actually look up to Christ, even though that seems to be such an important message in this painting. Instead, he looks out at us directly. Making eye contact, it is almost as if he is pleading with the viewer to take all of this seriously, maybe even follow his example. Look up, believe, and be saved.

I’m Protestant by habit, so the churches I’ve gone to don’t have crucifixes, they have empty crosses. I was told that this (a) prevents us from idolatry (no praying to a craved god, even if it is Jesus) and (b) allows us to celebrate the empty cross, the risen Christ. Okay, fine. But I am a little jealous of my Catholic friends who can practice looking up to the crucified Christ every time they go to church. That seems important.

Maybe I’ll head over to Saint Al’s this week.


Andy Warhol, Repent and Sin No More!, 1985-86 (National Galleries Scotland)

Andy Warhol, Repent and Sin No More!, 1985-86
(National Galleries Scotland)

This one from Andy Warhol.

In the 1980s, Warhol did a series of images in which he hand-copied ads and illustrations found in newspapers. Several of the resulting prints had religious connotations, such as this one.

I just can’t get past the incongruity here. The lettering seems so upbeat for such a heavy message. It seems like it should say something like, “Buy now and save more!” It’s no surprise that Warhol—with his interest in consumerism and promotion—zeroed in on this one. Here, even a profound spiritual idea gets a commercial treatment, as if religion can’t figure out another way to get its message out. Repent now and get a set of steak knives for free!

When multiples of the print appear together—side by side, like here—it points to the ubiquity of messages. It’s like the posters pasted up side by side on a wall. The repetition may draw your attention, but it’s harder to focus on what any one of those posters say. Warhol uses repetition for all sorts of reasons in his body of work, but here I wonder if he’s emphasizing the emptiness of modern messaging, which is particularly ironic in this case because the message itself is far from empty.

And then, it’s just so cliché! I know Jesus said it first (sort of), but it’s become so enmeshed in Christian culture and then so frequently used in parodies of tent revivals and fire-and-brimstone speeches, that it’s hard for me to read those words and take them seriously. By all accounts, Warhol was a devout Catholic; I wonder what he thought.

Maybe the added irony here is that this message is getting me to think about where these words came from and what they really mean. But my reaction has more to do with my current context than the work itself. It’s Lent, after all, the season of repentance, and I’m intentionally looking for artworks that might make me think about it. So this one makes me think about it….

Paraphrased, from the Gospel of John: Jesus squatted down and wrote on the ground and one at a time everyone left, until only the woman was left. Jesus stood up and asked her, “Woman, where is everyone? Is no one left to condemn you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” “Then I won’t condemn you either. Now go, and sin no more.”

This was a very private exchange—a far cry from a poster on a wall or an advertisement in a newspaper. Jesus spoke into this woman’s troubled life and freed her from a burden that could have literally killed her.

Huh. Perhaps it should be written with upbeat lettering and be plastered all over modern media channels. Maybe repentance should come with a free set of steak knives.


Tanzio da Varallo, Rest on the Flight to Egypt, c. 1625-30 (Museum of Fine Art, Houston)

I was just in Houston and saw this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts. It strikes me as one of the most realist depictions of this subject that I’ve ever seen.

First, the subject. It’s the Rest on the Flight to Egypt, a story found in the gospels. Matthew explains that, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to Nazareth because the baby was in danger. Instead, the little family fled to Egypt and stayed there until the coast was clear. In art, this episode is often depicted with the threesome resting on the road.

What is so compelling about this rendition is the facial expressions. Joseph leans back and looks over his shoulder at Mary and Jesus as if he can’t quite believe what he’s gotten himself into. I think there is even a touch of disdain in his face. And Mary looks back at him with an expression of pleading as if she detects his surly attitude.

This rings true on so many levels.

First, Tanzio captures some real relational dynamics here. Who among us cannot relate to either Joseph or Mary here? On the one side, feeling trapped in a circumstance that is less than ideal and resenting it a little (or a lot). On the other side, knowing that one’s partner is checking out and desperate for reassurance. It’s helpful to imagine that even Joseph and Mary, as pious as they were, may have reacted like real people.

Second, it kind of cracks me up that this relational strain is happening on a roadtrip. Let’s face it, being stuck together while traveling can bring out the worst in us. We need to stop again!?!

And then, in the midst of all this, the baby just squirms around on his mother’s lap, seemingly oblivious to this marital tension. How true.

Tanzio does include a more mystical element. Mary’s gesture across her chest leads our eye back to the corner where we can see what looks to be two men and a cross. This could be a reference to the apocryphal story in which the holy family encounters two thieves who turned out to be the very thieves crucified with Christ many years later. Or, it could be a more direct reference to Christ carrying his own cross to Golgotha—a journey to his death, rather than a journey to escape death as pictured here.

Either way, it foreshadows Christ’s death. I may be reading into it here, but perhaps Mary is pointing out to Joseph that the reason they are fleeing now is so Jesus can fulfill his ultimate purpose much later. If that’s the case, this is not your run-of-the-mill sentimental depictions of Mary.

In fact, this changes the way I read her expression. Maybe she is not pleading, but actually asking him to snap out of it. Tanzio does paint her with colors that are both brighter and cooler than those found in the rest of the painting, giving her more substance and independence visually. Whereas Joseph seems to lack a backbone, her form suggests strength and fortitude even with some indications of road-weariness.

I appreciate that Tanzio doesn’t sugarcoat things here. It’s a realistic and uncomfortable painting. It makes us look and think. It puts an edge on the gospel that should make us all the more aware of the craziness of his plan to save us.

Ah, sleep

October 7, 2013

Alphonse Eugène Félix Lecadre, Sleep (Le Sommeil), 1872  (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes)

Alphonse Eugène Félix Lecadre, Sleep (Le Sommeil), 1872
(Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes)

I thought I was going to write about something Medieval-y, but this is all I got today.

This painting is so simple. Your attention is first drawn to the mother and child because their skin (and the child’s shirt) are so light in contrast to the dark areas that surround them. And, their skin is smooth and soft, while the rest of the room is more variegated and textured. Your eye then glides along the slight decline of their bodies, and then follows the white line formed by her stocking and underskirt down and back until it rests with the pool of fabric on the floor. The weight of that velvet pulls the whole painting down, conveying and even evoking that feeling of heaviness we sometimes have when falling to sleep. It seems like the painter wanted this effect because the underpainting that is visible through the mound of fabric on the left suggests that he added that extra cloth rather late in the process, perhaps to add more weight to the dress and thus to the painting.

Now, I normally don’t go in for 19th century academic painting. It’s a little too aestheticized and vacuous for me. But today I’m really tired and feeling empty myself, so this one touches a chord. I need sleep. But sleep is a luxury.

I’ve been feeling so guilty lately. I’ve been investing so little into my spiritual life. Shouldn’t I be getting up early to read a psalm or something? Shouldn’t I be praying more? Shouldn’t I at least be going to church every week? But the reality is that I’m so exhausted, so stretched thin, so spent, that it seems like there’s nothing left for nurturing a spiritual life. Nothing.

So I look at this painting, and I feel my whole body get heavy. My soul too. I am pulled downward. But it’s not a free-fall, not even a slow one, for I feel the firmness of the pillow and cushions pushing up on me. The slow drop is inside. Like something folding in on itself. My soul falling back into the bottom of a deep exhale.

I get it. God is calling me into sleep. I’ve long since believed that God ministers to us while we’re sleeping. I just forgot that … until tonight.

Thanks, Lecadre, for painting a picture that pulls me in, and down.

Now, I’m going to bed.

Abstractions … Morris Louis

September 16, 2013

Morris Louis, Saraband, 1959 (Guggenheim Museum, NY)

Morris Louis, Saraband, 1959
(Guggenheim Museum, NY)

One of the most immediate responses I’ve ever had to a work of art was a Morris Louis painting.

These canvases are not really painted as much as they are stained. He was inspired by another painter—Helen Frankenthaler—who was applying very thin paint to unprimed canvas so that the paint actually seeped into the fabric. Louis also used thin paint, but he would let the paint run down the canvases, sometimes controlling the direction of the flow, sometimes not. The paint blended as he poured layer after layer creating these “veils” of liquid color.

The paintings are big. Unless you’re in a very large gallery and are able to stand way back, the paintings are imposing. Your frame of vision is filled with the streaming color.

So, one day I was walking through a museum and I came across a Louis painting that stopped me in my tracks. I turned to face it and was immediately overcome. It felt like the painting came off the wall and hovered there in front of me. The streams of color seemed to be pouring over me and seeping into my pores.

I don’t think I’ve ever had such a visceral experience with a painting, but it was a mystical experience too.

I believe in the sacramental principle which holds that everything has the potential to be a vehicle of God’s grace. The catch is: you have to be on the lookout for it. Most of the time, I do not have my eyes open, but every once in a while—like standing in front of that Louis painting—God reveals his grace in dramatic fashion.

That day in the museum, the grace was the reality of his presence flowing over me, seeping into my soul, soaking me through and through.

As I turned to walk away, I wanted to wrap that canvas around my whole body and so carry that experience with me right out of the building. I didn’t need to, though. I feel it even now when I see the painting.

I guess I’m stained too, but in a good way.

Abstractions … Rothko

September 2, 2013

Mark Rothko, Seagram Murals, 1958-59 (Tate Modern, London)

Mark Rothko, Seagram Murals, 1958-59 (Tate Modern, London)

Some of the most powerful artworks, in my mind, are abstract paintings from the 20th century. I’ve had some profound experiences standing in front of these. The problem is you can’t really have the same kinds of experiences viewing them in a book or (especially) on a computer screen. It just doesn’t work.

Still, I’m eager to return to these artworks in an effort to breathe some energy back into my spiritual life. It won’t be the same for you, but maybe you can get the idea.

A few years ago, I visited the Tate Modern during a long layover in London. When I walked into the room with the set of paintings that Rothko did for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York, I was immediately captivated. I spent time standing in front of each one, peering into each one. Because when face-to-face with a Rothko, that’s what you do. Or, at least that’s the intent.

Red on Maroon 1959 by Mark Rothko 1903-1970This set is intense and vibrant. He used a deep burgundy, a very dark purple, and a shimmery grey (among other colors, I’m sure), applied in many, many layers of thin paint. So thin, actually, that the colors bleed through creating an iridescence. The effect is mesmerizing because you feel like you’re looking through the painting, or through the surface, into some void. In fact, if you stand close to the painting so that it fills your frame of vision (as you’re supposed to do), you can get the sensation of floating inside it (in that way, it’s like a two-dimensional version of a Turrell work).

I got so sucked into these paintings that I lost all track of time, and ended up spending an hour and a half in that one room. Those paintings took a hold on me and wouldn’t let me go. They swallowed me.

I’ve read that Rothko believed that paintings could facilitate a transcendental experience. By painting basic human emotions using only color and shape, he hoped to give viewers an experience of those emotions, so that they would actually feel it when looking at the painting.

I’m not sure what he intended for Seagram paintings, but I can tell you that looking into those paintings gave me a deep awareness—not an understanding, but an attentiveness, an experience—of the infiniteness of God.

I guess you could say this was a mystical experience because I gained insight into a mystery of God that our rational minds cannot really grasp and words cannot express. I cannot explain in words what I grasped in that experience. I cannot tell  you about the infiniteness of God, I can only say I get it. Or, at least I get it a little more than I did before.

I did feel swallowed. Like Jonah, I didn’t know what was about to happen when I turned the corner into that room, but there I was sitting in the belly of a great fish. And it didn’t take long for me to start praying—maybe not for escape, but certainly in acknowledgement of the greatness of God. And when I was finally let go, I walked out a different person than when I walked in. Awake. Aware.

Hokusai, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1829-32 (Hokusai Museum, Obuse, Japan)

Hokusai, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1829-32 (Hokusai Museum, Obuse, Japan)

It’s been awhile… But it’s Sunday, so it seems like a good day to do some reflecting again.

I recently had the good fortune to visit the Hokusai Museum in Obuse, Japan. It’s a wonderful little museum, principally because it has on display all Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (actually 46 color prints) as well as the 100 Views of Mount Fuji he published in book form (actually 102, but who’s counting). It’s amazing to see them all together.

What struck me was the concept behind this project. Mount Fuji is clearly the focus, and we see it from scores of different angles and distances–from prefectures Hokusai36and villages to the north, south, east and west, from a few kilometers away to hundreds, and a few “views” as if we are standing on the mountain itself. Consequently, sometimes the mountain is huge and imposing, practically filling the frame, and other times it is tiny, tucked between other closer mountains, under the crest of a wave, or behind a cloud.

But … it’s always there. And that’s the point. Mount Fuji is always there.

Hokusai100To underscore this point, Hokusai included all sorts of activities in the prints. People fish, repair a roof, cultivate a field, make a barrel, walk against the wind, carry loads, celebrate, shop. Sometimes there are no people and we see more timeless glimpses of nature—a spider’s web, a group of cranes, a dramatic wave, mist rolling in.


As I moved from image to image, my first impulse (of course) was to find Fuji in each one. Even if it’s diminutive in the composition, viewers who are aware of the theme tend to focus on the mountain first and then peruse the rest of the scene. But what I noticed was my own response. With each print, I seemed to breathe a little deeper—even now, actually. There was something about the mountain’s presence on the landscape that centers me.

I suppose it makes sense that people have associated gods with mountains. If you live close to them, they dominate one’s view and even one’s life. They seem strong, untamed, lordly. God-like. This could (and has!) lead to fearing the mountain, but my own response is different. I take comfort in that omnipresent mass that serves as a backdrop for daily tasks and big events and even natural rhythms of life.

hokusai_katakura_tea_2500sI imagine the people in Hokusai’s prints glancing over to Fuji and giving a little bow as they go about their business, completely aware of its presence, its importance, its power. My own life is so full of duties and chores and tasks, but perhaps I can manage a little bow of my own to my Maker, Sustainer, and Lord.