Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 1

Last month I attended the biennial conference of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Celebrating forty years, CIVA is a membership organization made up primarily of studio artists but also other arts professionals—curators, gallerists, administrators, educators, critics, art historians—as well as collectors, theologians, and church leaders. As a writer about the arts working independently out of my home in Maryland, sometimes I feel disconnected from artists themselves, so five years ago I joined CIVA to plug into and invest in this community of believer artists. The large conference that CIVA organizes every other year, each time in a different US city, is an opportunity to meet and talk with artists, to see what they’re working on, and to worship and pray with them. It’s also a weekend chock-full of amazing talks, panel discussions, breakout sessions, exhibitions, and other activities.

In a series of blog posts, I’d like to share some of the art I encountered at the CIVA conference. All photos in this post are by me, Victoria Emily Jones.

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I arrived a day early to participate in a CIVA-sponsored Sacred Spaces tour of the Twin Cities with Kenneth Steinbach, a sculptor and a professor of art at Bethel. The first stop was Bigelow Chapel, designed by Hammel Green & Abrahamson at the commission of United Theological Seminary in 2004. As Ken warned us in advance, the chapel was recently sold by the seminary to a charter school, who will not be using it as a worship space and will be removing its one overt Christian symbol (the inset cross) as well as renaming it. Because of the changeover, the chapel was in a bit of disarray when we visited, being used for the time being as an ad hoc storage space, but I was grateful for the chance to see this acclaimed work of contemporary religious architecture before it fully succumbs to its fate as a secular meeting room.

I first learned about Bigelow Chapel through the book Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community through the Arts (reviewed here, with annotated chapter list). Ken read us the vision statement of this ecumenical Protestant institution—“a generous and welcome seminary where all—trailblazers and traditionalists, questioners and yearning spirits—explore the boundless possibilities of a loving and beloved community”—and we discussed how the design reflects that vision. Symmetry and linearity, for example, can be associated with authority, rigidity, so this chapel is notable for its asymmetry, an uncommon feature in church design, as well as an open floor plan that accommodates different traditions and styles of worship. It’s also curvy, feminine, womblike; a series of translucent maple wood panels sweeps up the wall and over the ceiling, casting the sun’s warm glow inside the space. Some people on the tour expressed a sense of being enveloped in God’s love.

Bigelow Chapel
Bigelow Chapel, New Brighton, Minnesota

Bigelow Chapel

Another mentioned how the cross is far too subtle, almost unnoticeable, and seems to recede; it’s certainly not a focal point as it typically is in other Christian worship spaces. Ken pointed out that the cross was intentionally positioned next to a clear window that looks out into a central garden, suggesting the idea of deep incarnation; nature is itself part of the space, and Christ’s redemption is for all of creation. One person noted how the large green shrub outside, when illuminated by the sun, is reminiscent of the burning bush of Exodus and therefore calls us into an awareness of how God might be speaking to us.

Bigelow Chapel cross

Ken also told us that student worshippers used to stick written prayers between the chapel’s wall-stones, much like at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Several such pieces of paper were still there, wedged in the cavities of the masonry.

Bigelow Chapel (prayers)

Bigelow Chapel (prayers)

It was sad to me to see this building losing its original function as a Christian worship space. The impetus for the sale was the seminary’s relocation from New Brighton, a suburb, into the city of St. Paul, where it believes it can be of better service to the surrounding community. View more photos of Bigelow Chapel at https://www.kirkegaard.com/827.

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Next our tour group visited the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where we spent time inside a James Turrell Skyspace titled Sky Pesher, 2005, a subterranean concrete chamber with a square aperture in the ceiling that frames the sky. (The word pesher is Hebrew for “interpretation.”) Turrell calls himself a sculptor of light; light, he says, is his medium. His work is influenced by his Quaker faith, especially the doctrine of the Inner Light. Quaker worship gatherings consist primarily of silence, a time of corporately waiting on the Light, which is God, who dwells within us as wisdom and guide. I did find the environment Turrell built especially conducive to stillness and listening. Quakers say that silence is not a void, it’s full, and I found that to be true as I opened myself to encountering God in that space.

Turrell, James_Sky Pesher, 2005
James Turrell (American, 1943–), Sky Pesher, 2005 (detail), 2005. Pigmented cast concrete, concrete, paint, cold-cathode lighting, computerized dimming device. Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Turrell, James_Sky Pesher, 2005

I actually really cherished sitting there in silence with the group, ridding myself of distractions as together we simply turned our gaze to the wonderful gradients of blue stretched out above us. Out of interest in and respect for the artist’s Quaker spirituality, I took the opportunity to commune with God in “wordless thought”; instead of me talking to God or about God, I let God talk to me.

I expressed my particular enjoyment of the experience afterward to a colleague, who was surprised that, because of my fascination with biblical imagery and its possibilities in worship and devotion, I should be so moved by a sacred space that lacks any imagery at all, other than open, undefined sky. It surprised me somewhat too! Continue reading “Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 1”

Book Review: Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago by Kymberly N. Pinder

Members of the majority white culture may not realize it, but white Jesus is a fraught symbol. According to black theologian Major J. Jones, when European colonialists came to Africa and began treating its people as less than human because of their color, it became “psychologically impossible” for Africans not to have problems with God’s color. How could they ever conceive of a God who looked just like their oppressor? This legacy of black oppression, of course, traveled to the Americas, where white Jesus is omnipresent in visual culture.

Painting the Gospel book coverIn her book Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago (University of Illinois Press, 2016), art historian Kymberly N. Pinder unpacks some of the ways that twentieth- and twenty-first-century Christians have countered the dominance of white Jesus with alternative sacred imagery that is black-affirming. Lavishly illustrated with sixty color photographs and eight black-and-whites, the book explores African American religious images—murals, mosaics, stained glass, sculptures, even T-shirt designs—from Chicago churches and their neighborhoods between 1904 and the present, focusing on their intersection with the social, political, and theological climates of the times. The image of a black Christ, Pinder argues, participated in some of the most significant movements in black history, including gospel music, sermon broadcasts/televangelism, the Chicago Black Renaissance, the civil rights movement, Black Liberation Theology, and the Mural Movement. The stream of influence flowed both ways, as each church’s preaching and outreach, musical, and visual cultures fed into one another.

A collection of case studies rather than a comprehensive guide, Painting the Gospel features churches whose pastors consciously nurtured a strong visual culture. “These sites,” Pinder writes, “enable me to chart how the arts interact with each other in the performance of black belief in each space, explain how empathetic realism structures these interactions for a variety of publics, and observe how this public art sits within a larger history of mural histories” (2). “Empathetic realism” is a term Pinder develops throughout the book as she considers how religious images have the power to assert political agendas of equality and humanity and thereby empower viewers, providing social and spiritual uplift. “Christ’s own difference, for which he was persecuted, becomes a source of empathy and identity for the African American,” she writes (8).

Christ as a dreadlocked black man on the cross, hip-hop youth kneeling at his feet, and Mary as an African woman in traditional Nigerian dress activate personal narratives for a black audience where private and public, the personal and the holy, the real and the represented, all meld, allowing for a spiritually transformative experience. (22–23)

The book covers works of art that have been largely excluded from art historical, theological, and sociological scholarship because of their racial or religious particularity. Working at the confluence of these disciplines, Pinder is concerned not with the artistic merit of the images but rather how they make meaning, how they “work” for an individual or a community—and especially how they interacted with and impacted certain milestones in black history. Her approach, her angle of inquiry, is much in the vein of David Morgan and Sally Promey.

Holy Angels mural by Engelbert Mveng
Mural by Engelbert Mveng, 1990, Holy Angels Catholic Church. The scenes depict moments when angels have intervened in the lives of Christ and the saints: (counterclockwise, from top center) The Star of Bethlehem; St. Michael Slaying the Dragon; The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace; The Liberation of St. Peter; The Annunciation; The Resurrection; The Agony in the Garden; Judgment Day; The Hospitality of Abraham; The Healing of Tobit; The Nativity. Photo courtesy of Holy Angels Catholic Church.

In many ways, Painting the Gospel is an extension of an article Pinder wrote in 1997, titled “‘Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are we bastard kin?’: Images of Christ in African American Painting.” This article addresses black-Jesus images in the world of twentieth-century fine art, which were produced by such artists as Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Aaron Douglas, Archibald Motley Jr., Frederick C. Flemister, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, David Hammons, and more. Pinder wondered whether black Christians consumed this imagery in the public sphere.   Continue reading “Book Review: Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago by Kymberly N. Pinder”

Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley

“Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.”—Kehinde Wiley

Last weekend I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is showing through September 5, a fifteen-year survey of Wiley’s art organized by the Brooklyn Museum. An academically trained artist, Wiley paints black and brown bodies in proud poses against ornate decorative backgrounds on monumental canvases, riffing on art-historical masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. He “street casts” his models: walks the streets of inner-city neighborhoods, inviting black males, ages eighteen to thirty-five, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts, in his streetwear, the pose of the painting’s figure.

In the exhibition catalog, Connie H. Choi, a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum, writes,

In inserting the urban black male figure into the art-historical canon, the artist brings the canon up to date and at the same time questions its centuries-long exclusion of such figures. His manner of portraying African American men is Wiley’s way of affirming their presence in a society that has long discounted or undervalued them. (24)

Cultural critic Touré describes Wiley’s oeuvre as an “attempt to rehabilitate black images”—in the media (especially before the presidency of Barack Obama), often simplistically skewed toward hip-hop music videos and newsreels of urban gang violence—“by putting them in the context of nobility, of import, of beauty” (52).

Kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants are among the subjects depicted in Wiley’s source material. But biblical and extrabiblical saints, and Christ himself, are also present. For centuries religious imagery had a commanding presence in churches, palaces, homes, and government buildings, exercising sway over the imagination and steering popular devotion. By translating European devotional paintings—fashioned in the image of the white ruling class—into a contemporary idiom that places black bodies up front and center, Wiley rectifies the lack of representation of racial minorities in and as the body of Christ.

His Down series, which seeks to capture the majesty and severity of fallen warriors and entombed saints, features three paintings of the dead Christ. Hans Holbein’s life-size predella panel on the subject was the starting point; showing Jesus’s putrefying corpse, it is regarded as one of the all-time most grotesque paintings of Jesus. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin says that viewed in isolation from the Resurrection, the painting has the power to make one lose one’s Christian faith.

Dead Christ by Kehinde Wiley

In Wiley’s reconceptualization, Jesus’s body is fit, his skin radiant. Gone are the blue face, puncture wounds, and emaciation of the prototype. Art critics have recognized in this and many more of Wiley’s paintings a homoeroticism, reading them in light of Wiley’s sexuality. That’s their prerogative, but in the direct gaze and parted lips of Wiley’s dead Christ I hear not “Come hither” but “Look, white America, at what you have done, at what you are doing.”

The Down series predates the Black Lives Matter movement but speaks powerfully into that context. It challenges the public—especially the white public—to see the rampant shooting deaths of unarmed black men by police and to name it what it is: an injustice, a tragedy.

Veiled Christ by Kehinde Wiley

Lamentation (Kehinde Wiley)-01

For all their visual engagement with and meditation on the Passion, Christians at large have proven deficient in their willingness to mourn the suffering and death of black brothers and sisters. Maybe, just maybe, gazing on a dead black Christ could produce more empathy in us when we see news photos of black people whose lives have been taken from them. Maybe these paintings can lead us into lament. In Wiley’s Lamentation, for example, we’re invited to poke our heads into the void left by the excision of Mary and John and to wail and moan. (For more on racial tensions in America from a Christian perspective, I commend to you the lecture “The Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter” by Jemar Tisby, cofounder of the Reformed African American Network.)

In these three paintings Wiley continues the legacy of those Harlem Renaissance artists—poets, illustrators, musicians—who linked the nation’s destruction of black bodies through lynching to the Crucifixion of Christ.   Continue reading “Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley”

Haitian “hungertuch” by Jacques-Richard Chery

I wrote this week’s visual meditation for ArtWay, on a painting on cloth that Haitian artist Jacques-Richard Chery realized as part of Misereor’s hunger veil project: http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2108&lang=en&action=show.

Tree of Life by Jacques-Richard Chery
Jacques-Richard Chery (Haitian, 1928–), The Tree of Life, 1982. Acrylic on cloth. Misereor Lenten veil © MVG Medienproduktion.

Click through to find out what a hunger veil is (sometimes also called a “fasting sheet” or “languishing rag”) and to be guided through the nine scenes.

Misereor has been carrying out this tradition for the last forty years, commissioning artists from all over the world. You can view nineteen of the twenty veils in their collection at https://www.misereor.de/fileadmin/publikationen/publikation-die-misereor-hungertuecher-begleitheft-ausstellung.pdf, along with German commentary, and last year’s veil can be found at https://www.misereor.de/mitmachen/fastenaktion/hungertuch/. Some of these are available for sale as large-scale prints on cloth at the organization’s online shop.

Here are a few examples of hunger veils that were in use during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The liturgical purpose for all but the last one has been recovered.

Millstatt hunger veil
Lenten veil by Oswald Kreuselius, 1593, Millstatt Abbey, Carinthia, Austria.
Freiburg hunger veil
Lenten veil, 15th century, Freiburg Cathedral, Baden-Württemburg, Germany.
Gurk hunger veil
Lenten veil by Konrad von Friesach, 1458, Gurk Cathedral, Carinthia, Austria. Photo © Pressestelle/Eggenberger.
Zittau hunger veil
Lenten veil, 1472, Church of the Holy Cross (museum), Zittau, Saxony, Germany.