Sacred Art: A Thirst for Social Justice

In what is sure to be a surprise to many, I’m currently working on a series of oil paintings that focus on the subject of spiritualism. While my artwork is well known for its materialist approach to reality, and I’m personally not religious, the role of religion in people’s lives has always been of great interest to me. I’m not speaking here of rigid religious hierarchies or fundamentalism, but of the heartfelt feelings people have concerning the unanswerable questions of life, the hereafter, and divinity. Kathy Gallegos, the curator of Avenue 50 Studios in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, has asked me to help put together an exhibition of sacred art – with a twist. Scheduled for December 2005, the challenge for the exhibit is in presenting works that are non-judgmental towards the faithful, while retaining a sense of criticism. Blasphemy and disrespect are not on my mind, but I don’t have to inform the reader that the world at present is gripped by right-wing religious fundamentalists who exploit people’s genuine piety for political reasons. That sentiment will certainly play a part in the Avenue 50 exhibit, but I think it would be more accurate to say the objective of the show will be an exploration of the link between spiritualism and the thirst for social justice. Needless to say, I have a lot on my mind as I create works for this fast approaching exhibit.

Oil Painting by Gwyneth Leech
How ironic that I would receive a press release from Gwyneth Leech, a painter and video artist who lives and works in Philadelphia, informing me of her latest project, Stations of the Cross: A Memorial to the Innocent Victims of War. Ms. Leech was commissioned in 2004 by Saint Paul’s Church in Norwalk Connecticut, to create 14 paintings depicting Christ’s suffering on his way to being crucified. Leech brilliantly reworked the age old story, placing it in an updated context. Her narrative paintings portray Christ’s anguish against a backdrop of visual references to the mass slaughter in Dafur, Sudan; terrorism in Beslan, Russia; the occupation of the West Bank, as well as the conflagration currently underway in Iraq. In a bold stroke of genius, the artist utilized contemporary news photos as the basis for characters and scenes in her paintings, so that when Christ is brought before Pontius Pilate he appears like a humiliated detainee from the U.S Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The Roman soldiers usually shown tormenting Christ in more traditional works have been replaced with US guards from Abu Ghraib prison – replete with their snarling German Shepherd dogs. In the painting of Christ’s death on the cross, three grieving Iraqi women appear at the foot of the cross, wailing over the loss of a family member in a suicide car bomb attack. Here’s what Leech said about her controversial paintings.

“The commission to paint Stations of the Cross for Saint Paul’s gave me an extraordinary opportunity to explore crucifixion iconography in light of current events. The year that I worked on the commission, starting in March 2004 was dominated by conflict in the Middle East, especially the war in Iraq. The many photographs of the torture and humiliation of captives, whether by soldiers or by insurgents turned the Way of the Cross into a contemporary narrative. The paintings are also my response to the seeming deluge of images of grief in the press – the grief of families around the world, as well as in the United States, who have lost loved ones to war and to violence. I decided to reference these contemporary expressions of suffering and grief that come in the form of newspaper imagery, underlining the enduring message of the road to Calvary and the universal nature of its emotional force.”

No doubt many will be upset with Leech’s choice of visual metaphor, some will regrettably see the works as sacrilegious while others will most likely be more upset about the casting of US troops as Roman soldiers. Since going on permanent display in Saint Paul’s this past February during the season of Lent, both the artist and the Church have received angry letters denouncing the artworks. However, Nicholas Lang, the Rector of Saint Paul’s, steadfastly defends Leech’s paintings “If when we walk station to station, we do not see the cross in the pain experienced in Iraq and in the Middle East and in Africa and in so many other parts of the globe – including the violence and oppression in our own cities – we have sadly missed the point.” The artist created her oil paintings on wood panels, much like the old masters would have, but stylistically the 19 x 21 inch artworks are much closer to modern expressionism in manner and tone. I applaud the artist for her marvelous works, and she’s unquestionably provided me with inspiration to embark upon my own artistic exploration of things spiritual. Saint Paul’s is open seven days a week so that people may view the artworks. Click here for directions to the Church, or to view all 14 paintings by Gwyneth Leech.

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