Finding God through Belief & Doubt
On a visit to artist Julie Mehratu’s Harlem studio four years ago, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson saw God. At least, she thought she saw God. Or at least, she thought she saw, in “Looking back to a bright new future,” Mehratu’s ink-and-acrylic representation of a holy being and all that goes with it: creation and spirituality, belief and doubt.”Out of nowhere, the question popped into my mind: ‘What do you think of the role of God in your work?'” said Jacobson. Mehratu responded as would most people who had never thought there was a Godly aspect to their work – with silence and a blank stare. “Then she kind of shook her head and said, ‘Yeah, maybe that’s what’s going on here,'” recalled Jacobson.The more common references viewers made with Mehratu’s art were cartography and her nonhomogenous background. But Jacobson saw layers of circles at the top of “Looking back to a bright new future,” and a set of characters whom Mehratu had actually referred to as “pilgrims.””So this was a new interpretation of what was going on. I think I gave a name to something she was doing, but hadn’t necessarily qualified,” said Jacobson, whose article on Mehratu, “Found Rumblings of the Divine,” is the cover story in the current issue of the art publication, Parkett.Mehratu wasn’t the only one who had her eyes opened by the unexpected question. Jacobson began seeing God in numerous art works; she felt the artist examining questions of the physical representation of the holy spirit.”After that moment, the idea of God, a higher power, a spiritual presence became my Moby Dick. I started seeing references everywhere,” she said.Belief & Doubt is the culmination of four years of pondering the topic. Curated by Jacobson, the director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, the exhibit comprises work by seven artists. Belief & Doubt shows at the museum through Oct. 1, and has an opening reception Thursday, Aug. 10, at 6 p.m. On Aug. 15, Jacobson will conduct a public conversation with one of the exhibiting artists, Paul Chan.
Unlike Mehratu, the other artists in the exhibit would not be surprised to have notions of God attached to their work. “It’s there. It’s all there,” said Jacobson, dismissing the idea that she is the only one feeling the presence of the Lord in the art (as though it were an enchilada in the New Mexico desert). “Paul Chan knows more about the intersection of spiritual practice and contemporary America, and the philosophy of religion than anyone I’ve ever talked to.”Chan’s “Light Version #4” certainly puts one in the mind of the heavens. A light projection that takes up a small corner of a small gallery, the work puts the viewer behind a window glass. Shadowy objects – birds, boxes, telephones – rise skyward, while insect figures struggle in a spider’s web. The one figure that descends, from the sky to the ground, is a human body; along with the clear blue sky and the feeling of being high up in an urban skyscraper, the falling body suggests the atmosphere of the Twin Towers on 9/11/01.The uneasy humor of Chan’s piece gives way to full-bore laughter in works by Adam Chodzko and Brent Steen. For “The International God Look-alike Contest,” the British artist Chodzko placed ads in newspapers, asking people who believed they looked like God to send in pictures of themselves. The concept is humorous, and seeing the range of holy likenesses – animals; bearded, Jesus-like figures; the most ordinary faces – plays like comedy.”The thing I love about it is, why shouldn’t people think they look like God, or God looks like them?” said Jacobson. “It’s through art that we have an idea of what God looks like, and this is a contemporary update on that.”Steen, a native Texan living in New York, has three works in graphite on panel. The pieces feature typical Christian iconography: a church in one; blood and a monkish figure, displayed as in a gallery exhibit, in another. Jacobson says Steen, who was raised in a very traditional environment, is using the religious imagery to work out issues of his own past and identity. (She adds that there is an obsessive element to the art: the pieces are done in pencil, requiring meticulous effort.)
A third piece by Steen emphasizes the point about the autobiographical nature of his art. “One never knows, after all, now does one now does one now does one” has a person (Steen himself, perhaps) hanging on a cross. But rather than being nailed to the cross, the figure is willfully hanging on, as though doing a pull-up, and seems to be testing the waters, thinking about letting go or maintaining his hold. The piece works like a very good New Yorker cartoon, but with added layers of ambiguity.”Singing Lesson 1,” by Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, is a video of a deaf choir singing the Polish Mass in a gorgeous old World church. The words are difficult to make out; the deaf singers have trouble with melody. But the mood is beatific, and a possible interpretation is that God isn’t interested in the form or perfection of worship, but the intention behind it.Slater Bradley’s work – the video “Protector of the Kennel III,” and three related photos – feature the artist’s doppelgänger, a Manhattan dog-walker. The double, Benjamin, depicted as a charismatic is pictured leading his canine troops. The most straightforward pieces in the exhibit are a pair of Buddha photographs, one seated, one levitating, by Sarah Charlesworth.Jacobson is adamant that Belief & Doubt is not about religious practice, and most definitely is not intended to address the current climate of war and strife in the name of religion. “This show is very specifically not about religion,” she said. “It’s about a belief in a higher power.”Belief & Doubt, in fact, addresses something akin to the opposite of organized religion. The artists are working out issues in a personal manner, thinking more in terms of their own relation to higher powers than in terms of the organized practice of religion.”Part of my idea is, people’s spiritual belief system is not readily apparent, and not conventional,” said Jacobson. “There’s so much in our mainstream press that puts forth a unicentric view of religion, meaning that a belief in God has to look a certain way. This show argues that it isn’t – that it’s idiosyncratic, highly personal and all equally valid.”
Also opening at the Art Museum this week is “Oedipus Marshal,” a film by Venezuelan-born, New York-based Javier Téllez. During his time as the museum’s first Distinguished Artist-in-Residence in the spring, Téllez worked with outpatients from Grand Junction’s Oasis Club House, a facility for people with mental illness. The collaboration resulted in a retelling of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” fashioned as a Western and shot largely in Ashcroft, with elements from the Japanese Noh style of theater and clinical psychiatry. (Téllez’s parents were both psychiatrists, and as a kid, Téllez would play in the consultation room while his father treated patients.)”Oedipus Marshal” was co-written by and stars Aaron Sheley, an Oasis patient who studied at a Los Angeles film school. The film opens Thursday, Aug. 10, with a free public lecture by Téllez.
Also, “Oedipus Marshal,” showing through Oct. 1. Opening reception: Thursday, Aug. 10, at 6 p.m., with a public lecture by Javier Téllez at 6:45 p.m.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org