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.

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Lent … A Battle Scene

February 23, 2015

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle between Carnival and Lent, c. 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle between Carnival and Lent, c. 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

This week we marked the passage into the holy season of Lent. I used to make much of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, but I haven’t had ashes on my forehead for years now. It’s complicated. Which is why this painting came to mind.

This is a typical Brueghel painting in that it is crammed full of stuff. Your eye wonders around a bit until you finally hone in on the action at the bottom center. Two characters are riding make-shift contraptions toward each other, both carrying “lances” as if they are about to joust. The one on the left (riding a beer barrel) symbolizes Carnival—the season that runs up to the beginning of Lent and is characterized by indulgence, especially in the areas of food and drink. The character on the right (being pulled on a cart) symbolizes Lent—the period leading up to Easter during which Christians practice abstinence as a way to remember Christ’s sacrifice and prepare for the holiest of Holy-Days.

Brueghel

The two figures personify the two seasons in many ways. One is well-fed; the other is lean. One fights with skewer full of meat, the other with board of fish. For helmets, one has a meat pie, the other a bee hive. One is followed by a table of bread and waffles (the starch of Carnival), while the other brings pretzels and biscuits (the starch of Lent). The contrast extends beyond the two figures. The people on the left crowd into taverns, parade around in masks, and imbibe; the people on the right, many having crosses imposed on their foreheads, prepare themselves for Lent, including giving alms to the poor and disabled.

Scholars have offered varying interpretations of this painting. For some it’s a straightforward picture of the perennial triumph of Lent. Others point to the historical context and suggest that the painting is an allegory for the religious tensions between Catholics (for whom Lent was a deeply held tradition) and Protestants (who had abolished Lent, but still observed Carnival). Still other scholars point to the ridiculousness of both sides of the battle and argue that Brueghel is commenting about just how superficial all these religious practices have become—it’s all a show.

Looking at it today, and from a personal perspective, I wonder if this reflects a conflict that many of us feel. We know we should be engaged in the practices long associated with Lent—abstinence, generosity, penitence, contemplation. Those are all very good and worthy things. But it’s complicated.

It’s convenient to suggest that Brueghel may be commenting about the superficiality of all religious practices. It lets us off the hook—just like when we (okay, I) dismiss another’s practice just because he announces that he can’t have the chocolate cake because he gave sweets up for Lent. Such displays of piety have a tendency to make me want to steer clear of acts of piety altogether. Thus, to arrive at this kind of interpretation of the painting makes me suspicious. Interpretations can reveal a lot about the interpreter, after all.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to run out to find a pastor who will put ashes on my forehead ex post facto, but I am going to commit to thinking differently about these Lenten traditions that (frankly) have seemed at times to be more show than soul-shaping. My motives will never be pure and a little alms-giving, and a little abstinence will likely do my spirit good.

(And now I’m wondering if this whole blog entry is a show of piety. Ha. Of course it is.)

David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994
(Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

When in San Francisco in November, I saw this painting at the De Young Museum. It caught my attention—perhaps because it offered a curious contemporary spin on the tried-and-true 19th century trompe l’oeil paintings that surrounded it in the gallery.

If you are not familiar with the term, “trompe l’oeil” is a kind of painting in which the artist tries to “trick the eye” of the viewer into thinking that what you’re looking at is real, not painted. Everything in this type of painting is “life”-size and hyper-realistic so it looks like the objects are just on the other side of the wall, or hanging on the wall of gallery itself. The viewer is confronted with the objects in a much more immediate way than with run-of-the-mill naturalism.

This painting is a little different because we know there is not a hole in the gallery wall that looks out over an expanse of water. And yet, the plastic pitcher and stack of white bread sandwiches is so real you can practically smell the grape juice and bologna. Even as a small image on my computer screen, the painting is conjuring those olfactory memories from my childhood.

But it wasn’t the extreme naturalism that drew my closer look then, or now; it was the allusion to the Eucharist. Not only are the constitutional elements grape and grain, but the white cloth evokes the “corporal cloth” that is used to catch any elements that drop from the paten during the Eucharist.

Because this seems so obvious to me, I was surprised that the label next to the painting mentions nothing of this. But what it does say opens up for me a new way of understanding the Eucharist.

The label explains that Ligare is referencing the juice and sandwiches that are given to people at the homeless shelter where he volunteered. Furthermore, he connects this practice to the Greek notion of hospitality called xenia, a word found inscribed on the stone in the painting. In this way, Ligare expands modern conceptions of hospitality—it’s not just welcoming friends into your own home, it is offering food and shelter to complete strangers as well.

I can’t help but push it one step further. At the Last Supper, when Christ broke bread and poured the wine, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). He was looking at the twelve disciples—the inner circle, his closest friends—yet he told them his death would be for many—the multitude, the unknown, complete strangers.

So, one way of understanding Christ’s sacrificial death may be as a profound act of hospitality. All of humanity—all strangers to God because of being estranged from God—has been given life-giving sustenance.

We’re heading into the long and often lonely journey through Lent. This time, I’ll keep this painting close at hand to remind me of what’s coming. I may have a physical roof over my head, but spiritually I am homeless—empty and desperate. I will be so grateful for Christ’s hospitality in the end of the journey, whenever that may be.

Then, as now, I will drink and eat in remembrance.

 

(Oh… and no, the irony of bologna is not lost on me.)

 

 

Tanzio

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.

Luca Giordano, The Visitaion, c. 1696 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Luca Giordano, The Visitaion, c. 1696
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

 

I tend to gloss over paintings of the Visitation, but this one by Luca Giordano caught my eye.

As the story goes, after the angel appears to Mary to inform her that she has been chosen to give birth to the Son of God, Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth, who had been surprised some months earlier with the news that she herself would become miraculously pregnant. By the time that Mary got to her house, the baby inside her was big enough for Elizabeth to feel him leap at the approach of the unborn Messiah.

In Giordano’s painting, Mary is the immediate focal point. She is in the center of the painting. She wears the brightest color in the picture. Every figure but one looks in her direction. She is a magnet for everyone’s attention, including ours.

But Giordano does a peculiar thing. We might look at Mary, but Mary is looking at Elizabeth, and we naturally follow her gaze. Basically, Giordano uses Mary to get our attention and then channel it to Elizabeth.

Situated more frontally, with her arms outstretched and wearing contrasting colors that make her stand out, Elizabeth is arguably the most important character in the painting, which makes sense because she is at the center of the biblical story. In the context of the gospel of Luke, both she and the baby inside her are the first to understand the significance of what’s happening. Four times she uses the term(s) “blessed” or “favored”–she understands that everyone involved here has been given a special gift.

Giodano, following lots of theologians and other artists, takes some liberties with the text to give us more to chew on.

First, Elizabeth’s arms are open. With her right hand, she greets Mary and with the left she gestures inside. She welcomes the mother of God. Her home will now hold the woman who holds the Son of God. The parallelism here makes me want to hold something too.

And then, there are several curious onlookers, namely the two husbands. Blind Zachariah pokes his head out the door and what appears to be a kneeling Joseph looks back over his shoulder. Elizabeth serves as a witness to both and both seem to be eager observers–they want the good news, perhaps more than most.

But that’s not all! Giordano throws in a few standard symbols for good measure. The dark hole under the steps foreshadows the dark stable where Mary’s baby–the Messiah–will be born. That event will mark the end of the pagan era, symbolized by the toppled Greek column. The birth of this baby will be both humble and historic.

My favorite bit of iconography is the hen and her chicks, which are seen frequently in paintings of the Visitation in the Baroque period. This little group connotes motherhood. Despite the very special nature of these babies yet to be born, both women have been called first to be mamas. I love that.

Sandro Botticelli, Cestello Annunciation, 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Sandro Botticelli, Cestello Annunciation, 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

One of my students wrote a paper on this painting this semester. It has lingered with me into the Advent season. My thoughts so far …

It’s a standard Annunciation in many ways—the angel kneels to tell Mary that she is going to give birth to the Son of God. There are lilies and a walled off garden to symbolize Mary’s purity and a book on a stand to indicate that she is pious and thus worthy of this honor.

But what captures my attention is the way Botticelli has painted Mary. Her gaze may be downcast in a sign of acquiescence, but her body is curved dramatically away from the angel with both arms signaling to him to back off. Furthermore, Botticelli puts her right up against the frame, which gives us the impression that she has been backed into a corner.

And that is one way of looking at it—God is a little heavy-handed here. An angel comes and tells Mary that she has been chosen to become miraculously pregnant with the savior of the world. What’s she going to say? “Umm, no, thank you.” Does she really have a choice in the matter? You know how it feels when someone springs a question on you and, lacking any time to really think it through, you just agree. Mary looks how I feel in those situations.

At the same time, I think Botticelli suggests how Mary might have actually responded to the news. Many other Annunciations show Mary with a completely calm demeanor, as if she’s been expecting this message all along, which does match the biblical account that reports she responded immediately with, “I am the servant of the Lord. Be it with me as you have said.” Sounds great, but Botticelli’s painting has me wondering if this is a nice gloss that Mary put on the story when she told people about it later on. What really happened was a little more shock and fear and disbelief.

Or, of course, maybe my reading of the painting says more about me than about Mary or Botticelli.

If it had been me, I would have given that angel the straight-arm, just like Botticelli’s Mary does. Then, I would have asked a few more questions. I would definitely have kept my distance. But, then, there was a reason Mary was the chosen one. Here’s to you, Mary.

One last thing. Through the opening in the wall, we can see a river weaving its way back into the distance, where it cuts between a somewhat fanciful castle on the left and a heavy walled structure on the right. The bridge over the water does not stretch the whole way. It is not clear why, but it serves as a nice metaphor for what’s happening in the scene in the foreground. With the Annunciation, God has begun to span the impossible gap between earth and heaven, between humanity and himself.

I’m so glad Mary was up for it.

Stitching It

October 18, 2014

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1960 (Art Institute of Chicago)

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1960
(Art Institute of Chicago)

David Wojnarowicz, image from video "A Fire in My Belly," 1986-87 (Fales Library, NYU)

David Wojnarowicz, image from video “A Fire in My Belly,” 1986-87
(Fales Library, NYU)

 

 

 

Whenever I come across any one of these artworks, the other two spring to mind. I have no idea if the artists knew of each others’ work (possible, for two of them) or were referencing each others’ work (doubt it), but nonetheless they are tied together, so to speak.

 

All three artists stitch–into canvas, into dead skin, into living flesh–and the act of stitching seems to be integral to the meaning of the work. Wojnarowicz’s is perhaps the most gruesome–it is his own mouth he closes with yarn–but Salcedo’s is almost as visceral, perhaps because she’s using skin. Comparatively, Bontecou’s seems merely suggestive, but I can’t help seeing flesh and sinew.

But this isn’t like sewing or embroidery or cross-stitch. These stitches evoke sutures, as if a wound is being closed.

 

Doris Salcedo, Atribiliarios, 1992

Doris Salcedo, Atribiliarios, 1992

Salcedo3

Detail of Salcedo’s work

Salcedo is dealing with wounds–the cultural wounds inflicted by La Violencia in her native Columbia. People were disappeared–here one day, gone the next, with only traces left behind of their existence. These shoes carry, hold, transport the memories of the people that once wore them, and are here buried in the walls, stitched behind pigskin. In a very self-conscious way, she is opening the very wound she closes.

In this way, Salcedo echoes Wojnarowicz, whose stitches do not close a wound at all, but call attention to a culture of silencing that leads to deep psychological pain. He uses his own flesh to locate the hermeutical injustice felt by victims of AIDS in the 1980s. It is not ironic that he had to stitch his mouth closed to finally be heard.

Detail of Bontecou's work

Detail of Bontecou’s work

Operating between and around the other two, Bontecou uses wire to attach recycled canvas to a welded steel frame. The works evoke both machine and flesh, growth and deterioration, cutting and mending. The opening, which is sewn shut in Wojnarowicz’s video, gapes and yawns here. Like with Salcedo’s work, I find myself stepping closer, peering in, wondering what’s in there. Nothing. Black nothingness.

It strikes me that Wojnarowicz is using a slightly different visual idiom–the other two directly reference stitches or sutures, but he sews. Plus, the work is a video, so we see him making the stitches, sewing his mouth shut with blood running down his face. He doesn’t flinch.

Bontecou doesn’t flinch either, in the more metaphorical sense of the word. She does not seem to be referencing either pain or silencing as much as the monstrous. Perhaps it’s because I just finished reading Mary Shelleys’ Frankenstein, but these human-made creatures seem to reach off the wall to swallow me whole.

It is the visual, visceral connection between these artworks that amplifies the power of each. I leave feeling heavy, saddened, burdened. There are so many wounds in this world.

Advent is right around the corner. Come, Jesus, come. And quick.

Yellow Christ

September 22, 2014

 

Paul Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889

Paul Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889 (Albright-Knox Gallery)

Back to some religious subject matter. I tend to treat Gauguin with a little skepticism, but I like this painting—perhaps because it’s just a good painting (visually speaking), perhaps because it strikes a chord.

First, the visual. Gauguin puts the cross off-center, so that it’s anchored to the top and left edges, giving the painting a strong structure. Yet, because we don’t see where it connects to the ground, the cross seems to hang rather than stand. Three women kneel on the ground in a semicircle that connects (through line and color) to the rock wall that snakes across the middleground and leads back to the village (also bluish). 

Because the body of Christ is the brightest yellow in the painting, it not only draws our attention, but it is linked to the landscape—and the rolling fields more so than the trees—and sets him apart from the women.

The subject is ahistorical, of course. The setting is Brittany, in France, in the late 19th century. In that context, these pious women would be kneeling in prayer before a crucifix, but this crucifix holds a figure of Christ that seems more real than sculpted or painted.

One explanation suggests that Gauguin painted a spiritual experience–these women are so devout that they are being given a vision of Jesus as he hung on the cross. They look down in the painting because Gauguin wanted to convey that this is a powerful interior experience. The vivid contrasting color and the rather thick outline of Christ’s body not only emphasizes that he is distinct from them (and their muted blues), but also gives the viewer a potentially powerful visual experience of the crucified Christ.

The experience of these women–as Gauguin paints it–is enviable. I hear about people who have visions or other types of intense spiritual experiences and I think, Must be nice. They receive assurances, they have personal encounters with Jesus, they get regular reminders of God’s grace! But then I remember that a life characterized by mystical experiences is probably the result of a deep and abiding faith. Right. 

In an earlier phase of life, I think you would have found me in the middle of that group of women, trying (though not very successfully) to cultivate a practice of contemplative prayer.

Now, I more often feel like the man climbing over the wall. I have no idea why Gauguin put him there, but when I see him, I see someone making a break for it. But why? Is he freaked out by their religiosity? Does he have something seemingly more important to do? Is he afraid of engaging in that kind of spiritual practice? Has he just had enough? 

I can’t answer the question for me either, but it could be any of those reasons. I’m glad that Gauguin put him in there because it’s probably good for me to reflect on such things. I’ll do that. And maybe I’ll wander back to the circle.

 

 

 

Faith Ringgold, The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967 (Collection of the Artist)

Faith Ringgold,
The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967
(Collection of the Artist)

The events in Ferguson, Missouri, have disturbed me deeply. I am saddened by yet another death under circumstances that have become too familiar and chilled by how authorities handled the first minutes, hours, and days. And then … I have been so dismayed by people saying that this isn’t about race. How is this NOT about race?

I’m pretty sure that anyone who thinks that we don’t have a race problem in the U.S. does not have an African American friend, because if you do, you have heard stories about how he or she has been profiled, dismissed, insulted, and discriminated against (if you haven’t, I suspect that your friend is shielding you). It happens all the time, at every income level, in every city in America. It’s systemic.

Anyway … a number of artworks have been coming to mind, like this painting by Faith Ringgold.

It shows a black man, a white woman, and a white man linking arms, as if standing in solidarity. They stand behind the U.S. flag–even intertwined with it–so that it feels like their group identity is tied to a national identity. Or, conversely, this is what America looks like–male and female, black and white, all together.

But, of course, the painting is not that optimistic. What seems, at first, like a patriotic gesture on the part of the black man is more than that. He’s covering a wound that is bleeding profusely. If we follow the big drips of blood down, we notice that he’s holding a knife.

Honestly, this painting has confounded me. Has he wounded himself? Or is it actually a wound on the flag? Either way, why does he seem to be the one who first caused the wound and now tries to staunch the flow of blood? Why do the other two figures seem so nonchalant?

I don’t have any good answers.

But what I do see is a bleeding flag. The symbol of the United States is wounded and is losing the very thing that sustains it. Something is very wrong. That much is clear, even if you can’t quite determine what that wrong is exactly.

That’s the way I feel about race relations in the United States. Something is clearly wrong. Even as people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds walk together in solidarity, as they did in Ferguson, there is still division, still loss of life, still deep wounds in the fabric of our society.

The flag is bleeding.
God help us.

(Pause)

God help ME.

Brice Marden
Second Letter (Zen Spring), 2006-2009
(Art Institute of Chicago)

Back in Chicago, back at the Art Institute. This Brice Marden painting caught my eye yet again–perhaps because it seems a little persnickety and simply honest at the same time.

Like many of Marden’s recent paintings, this one explores the rhythm and grace of the line in Asian calligraphy. It flows smoothly and expressively, but it is also tightly controlled. Of course, there are no actual letter forms–not even a hint of one–just lines, just gesture.

That said, to my eye, this painting evokes a map–like the one I would tuck under the headrests from the backseat on big car trips when I was a kid.

But this one is huge. I want to stand back to take it all in. My eyes trace the lines. There’s no single pathway, so my eye meanders, backtracks, loops, and sometimes jumps the track of one line to pick up another.

I move quickly at first–my eye racing through the painting. If I step closer though, I slow down, in part because at close range you can see some underpainting–lines that were once visible but have been erased or lines that have been traced by a different color. Hints of what was once there. Paths have been rerouted, bypassed, reinforced.

This seems like it could be a map of my thoughts these days. Restless, darting, full of energy and persistence, but not really amounting to much. I backtrack, get stuck in endless loops, take crazy turns. And for what?

I appreciate how Marden includes the two bands of color on either side that firmly establish the boundaries. The scramble of lines may push, even lean, against them, but those wide edges don’t budge. There’s some security there. (I wonder if that’s one difference between sanity and insanity.)

But the painting is good for me precisely because it does slow me down. When I force myself to pick a line and trace it steadily, noting the turns and intersections, my eyes slow down, my mind slows down, my breathing slows down. There’s a rhythm I start feeling in my body–first my head, then arms (the gesture of the artist?), then my torso and legs. All moving with the slow pull of the line.

If I was alone in the gallery, I wonder if I would start dancing.

My mind no longer races over the surface, but settles, sways, lifts, dives, and even finds direction … in a line.