The Biblical Imagination
The Devil can quote Scripture for his own purpose.~Shakespeare
For the Word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.~Hebrews 4:12
Missiongathering Church, Pasadena
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
The sprawling exhibit The Biblical Imagination is thoughtfully installed at the Missiongathering Church in Pasadena. It is a profound examination of Evangelical dogma by eight contemporary artists, many of whom have left the church but once were held in its thrall including the curator and artist-in-residence Gregory Michael Hernandez. At a time when Christian Evangelicals have become a potent political force in American politics, it is fascinating to take this deep dive into this complex and perplexing religion.
There are four tenets that Evangelicals believe in. They are the following: that the Bible is the actual word of God and is true; that the only way to Salvation is through belief in Jesus; that the individual must accept salvation for themselves and be born-again and that they must proselytize. These are the core beliefs that these artists have lived, have refuted, still believe, struggle with or are critiquing. The eight artists, Dustin Metz, Buena Johnson, JP Munro, Ben White, Akina Cox, Kim Dingle, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer and Edgar Arceneaux, primarily painters, are aesthetically diverse.
“Red Bible Book”, 2019, oil on canvas, 11 x 9 inches, by Dustin Metz is the first “object” one sees upon entering the church and is strategically placed on a mirror. The viewer, reflected in the mirror, sees the Bible as part of the body where the head would be. This is a clever and quite pointed commentary on the primacy of the Bible, its precepts lodged in the brain, making it the ultimate head-trip.
Metz’s piece from afar looks like a minimalistic single chroma painting (like an Ad Reinhardt black painting) and only viewed at close range does the image of the Bible coalesce. Metz describes his work often as a “slow reveal,” only visible or understood upon further examination, in the same way one’s eyes adjust to a dark room. Though the painting may look simple, it is a commentary on both religion and art, as the Church historically was a key patron of artists.
Down the hallway are several works by Akina Cox, including her small artist book entitled “When I tell you I was born into a Cult this is what it means”, stating simply what it was like grow up a Moonie. Suffice it to say it was positively Dickensian. Her densely painted “Trail of Dead (Morrow)” 2018, ink and oil on linen, 17”x 17 “, is the outline of a raised hand referring to the laying on of hands before an animal was sacrificed by a congregant in order to become free from sin – though it reminded me of pre-historic cave hand paintings and Aboriginal art but here the hand is symbolic of a specific action.
Cox tackles sublime faith in God by referencing the well -known David and Goliath story, which to believers attest the power of God to protect and strengthen one against daunting odds. Her large loosely painted, child-like installation “Book of Goliath (Set)” 2019, whitewash and tempera on plywood, cotton gauze, looks like it might be used in a camp for a religious play and has an ephemeral charm. Nearby miniature black paper cutouts in profile of various Bible figures are affixed to the wall alongside a small ink study for the set “Book of Goliath (study)”, 2019, ink on paper.) These paper cutouts echo Kara Walker’s pointed political work but their childlike quality suggests early indoctrination and is therefore deeply unsettling. Cox wrote in an email “my friends and I are the collateral damage, sacrificed for our parents hopes and dreams.”
In contrast, Buena Johnson’s large–scale pencil and color pencil drawings are richly detailed, highly decorative tour de force pieces, which highlight her deeply felt religious convictions and situate the Black figure front and center. “The Pieta”, color pencil on paper, N.D., 39” x 32”, features a very muscular Jesus in the arms of a beautiful Black Mary and is one of the few depictions of Jesus. JP Munro’s “Christ on the Cross”, 2014, oil on panel, 14”x 11’’ is more aligned to traditional devotional religious painting with a touch of Gauguin’s rich color but with a more sorrowful sensibility.
The only other artist to incorporate the body or face of Jesus is Kim Dingle with her ironic and conceptual piece, “The Cram Dingle Snow Vision”, 1991, photograph, pen, 10” x 8”, 15” x 8”. This is a send-up of those visions where people see the image of Jesus in toast or a tortilla but with a slight feminist tweak. Part of the scrawled text reads, “So, Cram, what makes you always think God is a man? Oh, I know because I’ve seen his photograph.” And then cheekily written underneath is: Snapshot of Christ, Pueblo, Colorado, 1937. The rest of the text is about the “miracle” of the vision appearing. The handwritten text and the high contrast image are side by side, casually placed on a table, which in itself is a curatorial statement. This is definitely one of the lighter pieces in the show.
All this time, as the viewer walks down the hallway, there seems to be a sermon coming from the main sanctuary through the closed doors. As one rounds the corner the rest of the show is revealed as the space opens up theatrically and the Church architecture itself becomes a major player in the exhibit. The darkness of the interior (so different than the bright white of gallery walls) is pierced by light coming from the large stained glass windows along with the intense spotlights on various painting that ring the walls.
Edgar Arceneaux’s mesmerizing forty-five minute video, “A Time To Break Silence”, 2014, the star of this exhibit, is shown on two large screens flanking the chancel (similar to an altar or stage,) and the soundtrack is the muffled sound of a preacher that could be Martin Luthor King, Jr. The flickering and fractured imagery, which mimics early TV when the antenna didn’t work properly (a metaphor, in itself) flashes images of political upheaval, riots (lots of fires and flames), Black soldiers in Vietnam, and footage that seems staged at an abandoned church. We see the back of a Black Preacher orating to an empty ruin of a church. This is an image ripe for contemplation. Is this where the church is headed? Another recurring enigmatic image is a mystical half man, half beast creature hunched over amid the Church’s graffitied ruins where a fragment of text is visible that says “ …And Shall Say God Did It.” What God did is left unsaid and open for speculation, as most of the work here is deeply ambiguous and contains coded narratives.
In the middle of the room, recalling the monolith from 2001:A Space Odyssey (cue the epic music) with bright lights shining on it is a plinth. A closer inspection reveals an oil painting, entitled “Book Bible”, 2017, 13” x 10” x1”, by Dustin Metz. The black bible is on a black ground with the pinkish gray of the pages visible on the right and the bottom reminding us once more of the allure and importance of the book.
“The Baptism” by Celeste Dupuy -Spencers, pencil on paper, 17” x14”, is a drawing of a congregant becoming born-again reminding us of the centrality of this ritual. The drawing is literally positioned in front of the baptistry where adult immersion takes place. Dupuy -Spencers work is a representation of ordinary congregants who might worship here. To further this notion of the regular people who inhabit this church and leaning casually against a chair is another Dupuy-Spencer work, entitled “The Crucified God”, 2020, oil on canvas, 20” x 16”. A scruffy fellow is seen reading the seminal theology book by theologian Jurgen Moltmann. From afar, the painted subject looks like he is sitting on the chair that the painting is leaning on, another surprising and meaningful decision by the curator.
The complex and entertaining narrative painting by Ben White, “Behemoth at The Mystery Spot”, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 60,” challenges the viewer to make a complete story out of disparate elements including a burning planet about to be destroyed by an asteroid, a dog decked out in survival gear, a looming scary Snake, a house about to fall down, an old white haired man, fires and a weird cartoon animal. Looks like a good time to get raptured up to Heaven as all Hell is about to break loose down here on Planet Earth.
This show reminds me of graffiti I once saw in a book “If God didn’t exist, Man would have invented him.” The artists in this intense and impactful exhibit critique religion, which should champion the poor and the unloved, but so often falls short. Hernandez, in his press release says eloquently “But the idea of God, the images and dreams and words inspired by this God of the imagination has real power- power to demand conformity, power to kill, power to heal, power to summon a new beginning. There is too much at stake to let the empire speak for God, claim ownership of God, contain God, manage God. If there is a God, we shouldn’t risk blasphemy by putting words in its mouth, but we should risk engaging those that do.” Amen. At a time when the boundaries between Church and State are narrowing it is especially worthwhile to see artists grappling with the true nature of the divine.
Missiongathering Christian Church
789 N Altadena Dr, Pasadena, 91107