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Friday, August 22, 2008

Currently Hanging

posted by on August 22 at 12:03 PM

The Adam and Eve page from the St. John’s Bible project

At Tacoma Art Museum. (Museum web site here.)

Several things make me uncomfortable about the traveling show of a contemporary hand-written and illustrated bible that’s now at the Tacoma Art Museum.

First, almost all of the illustrations are terribly, terribly ugly, like this one of Adam and Eve. They are in the style of religious craft-fair materials, or mass-produced religious posters, the kind you saw hanging in the offices of progressive churches in the ’80s. It is painful.

Second, and keeping that in mind, why is this show at an art museum in one of the least religious states in the union? When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts announced it was organizing a national tour for the show on behalf of Saint John’s University, it boasted that the show was looking for audiences in major cities, including New York, LA, Chicago, Seattle, and Detroit. Instead, according to that same web page, the exhibition only found exhibition venues in Collegeville, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; and Tacoma.

The presentation at TAM is unquestioning. In sweeping script on the walls and in labels that came straight from the organizers and were not allowed to be altered, the TAM presentation supports the project’s own elevated claims of importance.

But does this bible really matter to average Christians, or is this tour just a way to drum up money for the project? Is this bible really engaging any debates about the rapidly growing differences between fundamentalist and progressive Christian practice? If it has no art value—and believe me, it doesn’t—then does it even have any religious value?

And on a more general note, why does the Tacoma Art Museum lately feel like a red state inside? The history of that museum is one of innovation, progress, and underdog successes. Recent shows of children’s illustrators and quilters seem to send the message that the museum thinks Tacoma doesn’t know from art and might be intimidated if the museum put some up. As a former Tacoman myself, I take umbrage.

The one thing TAM still has going for it is curator Rock Hushka. He’s responsible for fighting to bring Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet” to TAM simultaneously with this bible show, and because of his determination, a trip there this summer isn’t a total loss. The spirit of Cardiff’s show is to experience and question the gaps between individual and collective experience, and between hearing something and knowing its full meaning. Now those are subjects that give religious people of all types something to relate to and consider.

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why is this show at an art museum in one of the least religious states in the union?


Posted by I wonder. | August 22, 2008 12:07 PM

One thing that's interesting about this Adam and Eve piece is that they are portrayed as Africans, not as Middle Easterners or Caucasians. It's sexist, obviously, too, but Eve also has a delicious evilness about her that makes her much more appealing and interesting than Adam. Like, way more interesting. I haven't seen the installation for the whole exhibit so I can't comment on the lack of critical eye--though I have no doubt you're right on with that observation.

Posted by Simac | August 22, 2008 12:09 PM

this is pure kitsch. Portraying the ur-couple as black makes complete sense since the out-of-Africa theory of human origin is widely accepted. Portraying them in this generic "tribal" makeup and costume is ridiculous because prior to their fall they went naked and unadorned in their innocence. I think their post-lapsarian struggles would have put decorative clothing and makeup on the back burner as well.

Posted by inkweary | August 22, 2008 12:28 PM

I don't get the point of your Blog.
Religion has always had a place and influence in art from all cultures.
Weather you like the technique or style is one thing, but to bring your prejudice of christianity in to it is another.. get over it.
The Bible is relevant in art, and to Christians and non. It has has a huge impact (for good and bad) on the formation of our modern society.

I think comment #2 has a great point about Adam & Eve are portrayed as Africans. This shows a keen and open minded take on this story that traditionally most churches tend to avoid. That the first people and probably most of the people in the biblical stories were not white.

You should concentrate more on what the art is about and less on museum politics, you might enjoy it better then.

Posted by whateva | August 22, 2008 12:30 PM

Jen, I'm tempted to answer that ecclesial art can't be evaluated on the same terms as general art. That isn't an attempt to guard it from criticism, or set up religious art as a protected class, but just an observation; ecclesial art is utilitarian. It has a clear job to do, an agenda of "discipleship". It doesn't have the same level of ambiguity in its relationship to the viewer as most art. Rather, it is explicitly pedagogical, even didactic. Just as you don't read or evaluate a novel the same way you read a book of MLK sermons, it doesn't make sense to evaluate an illustrated bible the same way you evaluate "forty part motet".

I don't know if i'm an average Christian but I'm definitely interested in this bible. If it's a little cheesy and embarassing, that's because Christianity is, at its core, cheesy and embarassing, full of gushy emotions, ugliness, weird history.

I don't know if this sheds any light on what it's doing at the Tacoma Art Museum, but 1) it's no worse than Chiululy, 2) Tacoma does have 2 pretty sizeable mainline protestant liberal arts colleges--pretty much the target audience for this stuff.

Posted by Kevin | August 22, 2008 12:45 PM

kay you oh double you, news and information.

Posted by w7ngman | August 22, 2008 12:46 PM

You're trying to make two points here.

First of all, you're right that this piece is pretty ugly and kitschy. That's a fair point to make, since, flipping through the pages of the bible online (you can do so here), most of the illustrations are not even as good as this African one you headlined with.

Secondly, however, your argument about the Bible having no relevance to a secular community is completely off-base. I say this as a former Christian myself, one who's grown out of Biblical literalism, but who still appreciates the Bible as literature and for its immense cultural impact, whether you like it or not.

The piece fails, because it misses the opportunity to re-frame Biblical stories in a new mythic or historic context, instead opting to take a stone-faced naive Biblical literalism approach complete with butterflies and happy thoughts throughout Genesis.

It fails in scope, vision, and ambition, none of which have anything to do with its religious subject matter.

Posted by DavidG | August 22, 2008 12:49 PM

Maybe the fact that Christian art of the past century or so has set the bar pretty low is a factor, but as a practicing graphic artist (if not a practicing Christian) I was pleasantly surprised by the image above. "Terribly ugly" is in the eye of the beholder, but it's certainly not boring.

Posted by Ian | August 22, 2008 12:56 PM


David, sorry to say, but the piece does re-frame Biblical stories in a modern context. This exhibition visited the Phoenix Art Museum some months past were I stumbled upon it looking for something else. I was very disturbed to see scientific illustrations of the HIV virus representing the ultimate evil from the abyss (Revelations?) in one of the illustrations (and the accompanying text identifies the illustrations as HIV). What the St. John's calligraphers/illustrators meant by this I'd like to know.

Posted by Eileen | August 22, 2008 1:12 PM

Actually, I don't think it's bad. Ugly, sure, but it looks to me like a Vertigo comic book cover. And that may be the point in this case.

Posted by eric sic | August 22, 2008 1:20 PM

@9 - Yes, some of the illustrations update Biblical topics, carefully aimed to be poignant (I recall my fundamentalist mother explaining to me as a child that viruses were Satan's failed attempt to create life), but most of them are just bland, sparkly, decorative filler:

Posted by DavidG | August 22, 2008 1:33 PM

Oops, that didn't work, try this:

Posted by DavidG | August 22, 2008 1:46 PM

Rock Hushka is devastatingly handsome. It more thatn makes up for the ugly art.

Posted by ScrewyouRusty | August 22, 2008 1:54 PM

..."the kind you saw hanging in the offices of progressive churches in the ’80s."

HAHAHAHAHA, good one, Graves.

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | August 22, 2008 2:15 PM

I went down to TAM last week to hear Cardiff's piece and LOVED it. Sat through it twice because it was so well done. Then i wandered over to the next gallery, saw these bible thingees and thought "oh, there's supposed to be a dialog going here - too bad it fails."Oddly enough there were twice as many people in the bible gallery than listening to the Cardiff piece. Goes to show what I know...

Posted by smiller555 | August 22, 2008 2:26 PM

A contemporary bible could be interesting, and could be art, but this one is not. It is Christian propaganda with churchy illustration. I'm totally shocked that it made its way into TAM.

Posted by Sue Talksaboutart | August 23, 2008 8:57 AM

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