Wednesday, March 17, 2010

So abideth these three: faith, hope, and… charity?

In 2009 my series of saints watercolors was broadened to become a series entitled Saints, Sinners, Martyrs & Misfits. Originally, these small paintings on book pages were a simple extension of my altarpiece constructions. Many of the paintings were of figures already found in those altarpieces. When I extended the watercolor series into a broader concept it was, in part, because of the work I was also doing on a series of etchings, in which I have been exploring some ideas that came from my readings of the Desert Fathers.

The broader concept of the Saints, Sinners, Martyrs, & Misfits has allowed me to conceive of some subplots, as it were, within the series. The images included here compose one of those subplots. Having grown up within a fairly strict evangelical setting, my move to the Anglo-Catholic/Episcopal fold seemed quite a leap to many. The Episcopal Church has been in the news for much of the time since I have made this switch. The controversy that has split the denomination has surrounded the ordination of Gene Robinson as a bishop—the first openly homosexual bishop in a relationship with someone of the same gender.

The controversy over the legitimacy of Robinson’s seat is not really my concern here. I have friends on all sides of the controversy. Some of them are in churches that have led the way in realigning Episcopal congregations under alternate Anglican leadership, sometimes under bishops not even in the United States. Others have been involved in church splits where some wish to weather the storm within the Episcopal tradition and others desire to stay in the Anglican communion, though not in the Episcopal Church proper. There are also my more fundamentalist friends in other denominations who simply throw up their hands and say the Episcopal Church is just an apostate organization and Bishop Robinson’s ordination is proof of its heretical theology. Every one of these stances has strong points within its arguments, but certain people on all sides seem to be missing something in their behavior concerning the tempest—charity.

Along with Gene Robinson, I have produced a watercolor of James Dobson of Focus on the Family. Dr. Dobson—from the Wesleyan Holiness tradition—seems to be the polar opposite of Robinson. And while Dobson’s son Ryan was in my circle of friends during my freshman year of college, I’m not championing one figure over the other. Dobson and Robinson, instead, represent the extremes of this controversy and the ensuing debate.

Somewhere in between is Ted Haggard, former megachurch pastor and former president of the National Association of Evangelicals whose fall from grace, because of an extramarital, gay relationship, left him as a pariah within evangelical circles. He also became the laughingstock of the liberal gay subculture who saw him as the prime example of a hypocritical Christian. All three of these men represent the complexity of this issue but also the extended problem.

Some Episcopalians see Robinson as the figure who will move the denomination forward into an enlightened age. He is a saint in their eyes, even though he is still living. The persecution he has received from some individuals in the press and from some associated with organization’s such as Dobson’s Focus on the Family, has landed him in the role of martyr. Yet some of Robinson’s supporters would be equally willing to vehemently denounce the work of Dobson and his organization, as well as any other conservative evangelical group that upholds traditional biblical interpretations on homosexuality.

On the other side are the evangelical masses who see Dobson as a holy warrior, leading the charge against the demise of the Christian church within America. This powerful political and religious segment of the population has, at times, been represented by individuals who have picketed and shouted threats at prominent gay figures such as Robinson. They are often called to action by people like Dobson, and formerly by Haggard, though their sometimes questionable actions remain their own.

Both Robinson and Dobson are simultaneously elevated as saints and the worst of sinners by those who both support them and oppose them, respectively. They are saints and sinners at the same time. Oddly, this is the position that most any Christian would claim he or she exhibits at any given point in time—saved by grace, but also prone to fall into old, sinful habits. It is one of the many dichotomies of the Christian faith. Haggard personified this dichotomy publicly. He was at the pinnacle of evangelical power and progress while secretly living a double life that eventually destroyed his respect and career. Since that fall, he has restored the relationship with his wife, but has found that conservative Christians (including many from his old congregation) have been far from forgiving and compassionate concerning his plight.

These three works and these three men represent the state of affairs in American Christianity, not just the Episcopal branch of the faith. The gay debate is perhaps just the greatest attention getter, though it is far from the only dividing element. The question is, for those of all theological stances, “How are your actions showing the love of Jesus to those you consider to be your enemies in this debate?”

Just over a year before I made my switch to the Episcopal Church I witnessed something that illustrates this problem well. I was fairly new to Massachusetts and had been asked to present an evening series on art and faith at a church in Boston, over a five week period. This was at the height of the debate on gay marriage in Massachusetts, just before it was legalized by the state legislature. I took the train into the city and rode the subway to the Boston Common (Park Street) station. From there I walked a path past the State House to the church. Every time I passed the State House I witnessed two opposing masses of picketers spewing vitriol at each other (and for the television cameras). I know that there were people on both sides who would have claimed that what they were doing was because of their Christian convictions. I just had a problem finding the countenance of Jesus on any of their faces. It reeked of hatred and not love. No matter what I think of someone’s theological stance, I expect to find compassion and love at the heart of his or her actions if that person claims to be an agent of God’s grace.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Agent of Controversy

Somehow I allow myself to forget that the audience of my artwork is often going to be offended by its content. This is the problem of residing within multiple subcultures at the same time. The subculture of the contemporary art world will certainly not be concerned with the nudity I often employ, but the subculture of American Evangelical Christianity overwhelmingly is. Since I keep abreast of the new work and newly acclaimed artists of the contemporary art world, I forget that my, comparatively, rather mild work can seem controversial to some.

When I consider how explicit or intentionally controversial some modern and contemporary works might be to a general audience, the nudity in my work seems quite timid. But the subculture of Evangelical Christianity tends not to pay much attention to what takes place in the contemporary art world, though some of those Evangelicals may have exposure to my artwork. So, while my work would be little more than a blip on the controversy screen of the contemporary art world (for different reasons), it could register as taboo within some Christian circles.

I knew this quite well when I was immersed in the Evangelical environment of my undergraduate days, but I seem to suffer from a cultural amnesia from time to time. It takes some murmuring from inside that camp to call me back to the reality of things. I think the first time this happened was when I was about to graduate from college. I was working on a painted portrait of the college president during my senior year. It wasn’t part of my thesis exhibition, but I had spent several hours in my studio with the president while painting it and he was quite familiar with my other paintings that were scattered around. About a month after my exhibition came down the president revealed to me in a conversation that, while my show was up in the gallery, he had received several calls from concerned or irate parents about the nude paintings. There were only five or six out of about thirty works and they were far from what most anyone would refer to as pornographic. But it did create a little disturbance that the president handled with perfect poise. I should have realized this would be the case as my own family was uneasy with the display of these works.

Once I was in graduate school the nude figures were not even a topic of discussion. I essentially forgot that this could be a problem for some viewers. But it did become an issue again once I took a teaching position at a small Evangelical college in the rural Northwest. Two years into that job I became the director of the campus art galleries. There, I was asked to lead a campus committee in drafting a policy on nudity for the galleries (i.e. why we would never exhibit any work with nudity). My attempt was to offer something a little more progressive in nature, but the process finally stalled and the initiative fell apart. However, that meant that the new altarpiece constructions I was beginning at that time would never be showcased inside the walls of the gallery I programmed.

Though the altarpieces have been exhibited in many venues, including the gallery at a more liberal Evangelical college, the controversy has not subsided. In fact, I was asked to speak about these works for an All Saints Day chapel at that college in 2004. I didn’t think much about this until I sat down to write up the talk, then I realized that the nudity in all the works was going to be problematic for some. I was assured that I could proceed as planned. However, for the next several years I continued to be recognized on campus and in public by students as the guy with the “naked grandmother painting.” That is what you see here.

Admittedly, this work took a little processing for me before I finally decided that the figure of my maternal grandmother needed to be nude so that the work would make sense in the context of the entire series. No one in my family has ever seen this work; it would be upsetting for some of them. I finally decided to place it online because most in my family don’t follow this blog all that closely. My grandmother had already passed away by the time I began work on this image and, obviously, I did not use her body as the model for the work—each figure is pieced together from multiple sources. However, like all the figures from this series, she is being revered through the altarpiece format. My grandmother was supportive of my early artistic endeavors and used to tell me that she wanted to find her old chalk pastels in the attic for me to use—thus the reliquary items.

Back to the college where I gave the All Saints talk. A couple years later I exhibited the altarpieces on campus. Soon after that some friends in the alumni and public relations office asked if they could use an image of one of the pieces for the alumni magazine. It looked very nice within the pages, but several months later, when the followup issue came out, I realized that the display of nudity had not gone by unnoticed. There was a letter to the editor complaining about the use of the image, along with a well reasoned response. I believe this was the only time that my work has been referred to as “art”—and it was art in quotations, so the objecting party did not believe it actually was.

The same thing happened with another Christian-based publication this past year. The editors at Ruminate magazine invited me to have some altarpiece images published within their pages. Several months later I came across the online response to a similar letter questioning the use of the nude figure in these works. I have actually explained my use of the nude in various postings on this blog (The Affliction of Job: Hope for the Battered and Bruised, And why are those people naked…?). I realize that my reasonings will certainly not be adequate for some who will see the work as inappropriate, but I’m used to being seen as controversial by now. There are actually topics tackled within my work that are far more controversial in this world than a nude body.

Ultimately, I never create work to satisfy anyone but myself. I know there will be people who do not like specific works for various reasons. Usually this is a surface reaction made by someone who is not willing to take the time and energy to wrestle with the work and discover a connection or observation he or she never before considered. The best art is never tame and the quirks in my work are an attempt to make the best art that I can.