…ahh, back from the holidays.
Sorry for the delay, folks.
Here is the transcript for a presentation I gave at a religious studies class at NYU last week. It’s rather long and has plenty of illustrations, so I’m counting it as a double for last week and this week.
If you’ve been photographed and are not here, it’s probably not that I hate you, but more likely that I haven’t finished scanning and re-touching them all yet. Special thanks to everyone who has participated so far.
The Jesus Portraits…
“As a Christian, I know that one of the most important spiritual tasks asked of me is to learn to see the crucified Jesus in each and every person I encounter.” -Donna Frietas
Hi, first of all I’d like to thank Dr. Rainey for giving me this opportunity to be here today and my wonderful friend, Beth Haymaker for recommending me to speak to this class.
This is a picture of my studio-mate, Amy. It’s one of the images in a new art project I’ve been developing. I call these photographs “Jesus Portraits” for lack of a better term. Today I’ll give you a brief description of the project, how it came about, and why I’m interested in making people put on this amazing synthetic pelt. Pertaining to this class, this is the “north-Midwest-American-evangelical-kitsch-art Jesus” category.
The basic components of the images are pretty obvious, but I’ll give you a brief description. These are photographs I took of people wearing a brown wig and beard. I use a medium format camera and am intending to print them at 20”x20.” Most of them are in front of a white backdrop, but some are staged “environmental shots.”
Basically, it all started when I bought a “Biblical Wig and Beard” at a local costume shop so I could dress up as St. Paul. That didn’t really work. No one got the joke. Everyone kept guessing that I was supposed to be Jesus. I thought that was ridiculous. I mean, I had a running outfit on – you know…”1 Corinthians 9:24
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.” There actually was a guy dressed as Jesus at a party we went to. Everyone got that. He was making all these jokes about saving people and really playing it up. I felt like he was being sacrilegious.
This is often how artists get their inspiration. They have these recurring thoughts that they either love or bother them until they have to work them out somehow. Well, I had the idea to make some kind of art piece using this wig and beard – some kind of Jesus art – Christian art. That set up a few red flags for me all over the place.
I grew up in the world of bad Christian art. One might say the capital of American bad Christian art, Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was from a small town north of Grand Rapids. This was home to such “Christian stuff” producing companies as the publisher Zondervan (one of the largest Christian book publishers), Family Christian Stores (large retail chain with over 300 stores nationwide) and Baker Bookhouse (publisher). I also grew up with Precious Moments figures everywhere. I went to High School with one of the co-creators of these atrocities.
The idea also came from thinking of the contemporary artist Paul McCarthy who made this video/performance called “Painter” where he dressed up as a physically exaggerated expressionist painter and did crazy stuff like paint from giant tubes and cut off his own fingers in frustration. Weird stuff. It was kind of funny, scatological, and bitingly critical. It was a critique on the practice of being an artist. So could that outlandish costuming work with this crazy Jesus beard? I mean it was so bad, so fake, and I was so obviously NOT JEWISH when wearing it. Well, maybe that could give me an avenue into talking about Jesus in an art context.
This is where I should let you in on a little protestant evangelical artist’s secret (small group, I know – there are about 3 of us). When you grow up evangelical, you have it instilled in you that everything you do should be an opportunity for evangelism – witnessing – for converting people to Christianity. You were supposed to be ready and able to convince someone to change their religion – their life – based on what you were telling them about Jesus Christ and what He had done in your life. Well, I was a boring kid…I went to church 3 times a week (twice on Sunday) and never got a spanking from my mother (I grew up when people got spankings) and I wasn’t very convincing. But I could draw and paint, so that meant I could do something useful for “the kingdom.” I could make “Christian Art.” Right, like the world needs more Thomas Kinkades or Warner Sallman Jesus as Northern Europeans. But that’s what I wanted to do – preach with paint! I’ve since suppressed this desire – misguided as it was. Or should I say that I modified it a bit. I mean I still make art and follow Jesus. The two had to collide at some point. I hemmed and hawed and talked about it for a year or so – not sure if I was ready to spend time making enemies of ultra-conservatives. I mentioned it to a sort-of mentor of mine who is an artist (even a successful one) and also a Christian and he loved the idea. Another friend, who I’ll get to later, actually wrote an article on the topic and further encouraged me to do this. So I took some snapshots of myself with it on, let them stew for a little while and slowly introduced them to a few people. Then I began soliciting volunteers for the full-blown project.
So here they are…
That’s the basic story of how this all came about. Now I’ll talk a little about the conceptual ideas around the project. One of the main things that kept recurring to me was this idea of dressing up like Jesus. Was it wrong (is there a moral component to it)? Was it sacrilegious if I dressed up like Jesus without making jokes? I mean, I’m a Christian, after all. Then the thought process moved further out – what are you doing when you dress up like someone? What does it mean to represent someone, visually? On the negative side, I supposed that it could be mockery, but that would imply malicious intent – and I’m not at all malicious about it. On the positive side, this could lead to an expanded dialogue about Jesus and American culture or Christianity and kitsch. Imitating Christ is, after all, what Christianity is all about. Christians are by definition, followers (or imitators) of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:1 says, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.” Jesus Christ, being the purported Son of God, fits squarely in this mandate. If there’s any sarcasm involved here – and there probably is a lot – it’s directed toward the commercialization of imagery sold as representations of Jesus (Christian kitsch) – not at Jesus Christ.
What does it mean to actually represent Jesus? If the term representation connotes “the act of portrayal, picturing, or other rendering in visible form.” (dictionary.com), this is what’s being done by the people posing for my portraits. They are portraying a likeness of Jesus. One thing that really interests me is that very basic visual elements of the hair and beard combined with the universal popularity of “Jesus images” (even bad ones) seems to direct people to ward a visual association with Jesus Christ even though no accurate visual record of Him exists. I mean, this hair could represent any number of famous people or generic stereotypes, but why is it so easy to see Jesus in it? What are people going by? I think it’s interesting for this project to take such simple visual cues and create an iconic image.
Another significant concept this project brings up is diversity within the “body of Christ.” Unfortunately, as this is a work in progress, I don’t have a whole lot of diversity represented here. I hope to change this soon. It has come up a number of times in making this series and talking to people about it how protestant (and Catholic) churches are often highly paternalistic – with women marginalized when it comes to leadership or significant positions in the church. One of the effects this corny wig and beard a homogenizing the subject. The costume becomes a normalizing factor. They are all Jesus in this series, with very little of their distinguishing features showing through. This creates an idyllic image of Christians. The New Testament affirms, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 In the Bible, Jesus is the normalizing factor for His followers – eliminating cultural and racial distinctions and promoting unity. My photo series does this visually. Everyone looks similar, to an extent, with this getup on. They still carry the visual reference to Jesus without any means of elevating one over another, visually, other than the quality of their clothes. Everyone wears the costume similarly.
A lot of people still hold to the idea that you can’t make any kind of image and have it represent God because it violates the second commandment (thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image – basically, don’t make idols). I think there is some residual motivation to rebel against this notion that such abstract imagery could be misconstrued and worshiped as a pagan idol.
You’re studying the proliferation of cultural references to Jesus in this class, so it’s pretty evident to you, but for a reminder, here’s a few I’ve come up with. I definitely consider these to be influences in making this series. These are some more famous Renaissance and medieval icons, Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” from 1942 is probably the most famous American representation.