Where is God in contemporary art?

Stevenson cartoon
'Now there's a nice contemporary sunset!'

Has he retreated to the safer places for conventional religious art, like above an altar or in the carefully crafted designs of church kneelers? Is he buried somewhere in the easy appropriation of sign and symbol, or Biblical reference? Does he speak through artists’ attempts to reference the spiritual, even if they don’t know what they mean? Did we lose him altogether back in the old pre-modern days?

I’d like in my research to attempt to answer these questions by way of artists who refer to explicitly religious themes in their work, particularly from/of the Judaeo-Christian faith since this is the obvious blind spot in the eye of Western art tradition. Along the way, I’m anticipating the following possible design:

  • The thesis. Modernism set art on a pedestal, institutionalised the art gallery and lends to the whole sphere of fine or high art a lingering ‘bogus religiosity’ (to quote John Berger). The artist, the gallery, the work replace the priest, the temple and the icon (James Elkins). What vestiges of the sacred does modernism still carry forward, even as it has unquestionably rejected the faith-filled worldview? Can religious art ‘do’ representation of its subject at all given the self-reflexive turn that defined the progression of early twentieth-century isms (impressionism, cubism, abstract expressionism etc.)

  • The antithesis. Postmodernism attempted to deconstruct the pedestal and in some ways (but not others) art devolved to the irreligious in pop art, op art, minimalism etc. If there was a landslide of signs and symbols, a linguistic turn (Richard Rorty) where certainties melted and in religion where anything goes, are we now at a level playing-field for religious art to be able to dissolve dogma and embrace the end of form? Is such work suddenly super-spiritual everywhere at once?

  • The synthesis. Twenty-first century art isn’t afraid to look the Bible in the eye any more: exhibitions and cathedral residencies or commissions (including international celebrations of the KJV anniversary) and films/TV shows (The Passion, The Nativity) are increasingly frequent. Where is the locus for faith in these examples, and others that are less explicit, and what might this say about the latent theology that is carried in such work? Is it possible now to talk about religion and art in such a way as to honour both, without cheapening or nullifying the history of either?

Your comments are welcome!

What can you see in a cathedral of trees?

Narthex I - IVNarthex I – IV, 2011.
New work for exhibition at the Grant Bradley Gallery’s group show Walking Through the Veil.

Trees and forests have long been held as places of mystical encounter. For Britons, it’s in our psyche, and we defend woodland religiously. Even if only as a place of nominally unspoilt nature, it’s a demarcated zone for a different type of relationship with the world.
Here, I’m looking at the view through a cluster of lime trees during a Oxfordshire winter that ascribes something ‘otherworldly’ to the scene. The trunks and branches are silhouetted by an emanation of light which suggests some kind of presence, some ‘pentecostal fire’ to quote Eliot (below). It’s like being on the edge of a holy place, looking down an aisle towards an altar.

What do darkness and light say about concealment and revelation? Does one include you and the other exclude you? Is there a breeze where you’re standing? I’m interested in the perception of liminality – being on a threshold of transformation because a physical encounter becomes a metaphysical one. Feel free to post a comment about my work, and do visit the exhibition.

Midwinter spring is its own season

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,

Reflecting in a watery mirror

A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,

Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire

In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing

The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell

Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time

But not in time’s covenant.

T.S. Eliot, from Part I of ‘Little Gidding’.