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O.C. Art Review : Weighing Religious Pros and Icons

November 08, 1994|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — Never a stranger to adventurous art--and hallelujah for that--Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery has taken on a hugely controversial topic in "Treading on Hallowed Ground" (through Nov. 19).

The 12 mostly little-known artists represented in the show address a society in which genuine spiritual expression often has been eclipsed by materialism, bigotry and doublespeak.

Organized by the gallery's associate curator, Maggie Owens (with a frequently illuminating essay by Jacki Apple, a performance artist who teaches art history at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena), the show encompasses a range of viewpoints and abilities.

Some of the artists seem to be making an earnest, if awkward, case for the viability of traditional religious symbolism, while others use it to comment on the oppressive results of religious dogmatism. (Although the show was to have included work by Joel Peter Witkin--famous for his photographs of grotesques--a dispute with his former dealer kept him from participating, according to Owens.)

Several pieces vividly telegraph sardonic points of view, if not necessarily with the degree of nuance and metaphorical richness offered by the most rewarding art.

Cliff Davis' painting "The Conformist" offers a standardized image of Jesus--except that he wears the brown business suit and American flag pin of a religious conservative. The irony, of course, stems from the disjunction between this image and the renegade historical Jesus. Amusingly, the celestial light around his head recalls formal Bachrach-style portraits of business leaders.

Bill Barminski's paintings give a hip, flip spin to traditional icons, reflecting an age that markets Christ and Pepsi with cheerfully similar crassness. "Time Out for Refreshing" archly implies that a swig of Pepsi might be just the thing Jesus could have used to take the sting out of his crown of thorns.

Fernando Hernandez contrasts the comfort and visual splendor of religious ceremony with the inflexibility of some of its religious tenets in "All the Pope's Children," an editorialized version of a Pope's miter. Against the blood-red silk of the ornamental headdress, myriad tiny blue embroidered hands symbolize aborted fetuses--or, possibly, babies abandoned by mothers whose faith officially allowed no other alternative.

Manuel Ocampo, one of the Young Turks of the Los Angeles art world, is known for images that fiercely decry the Catholic Church's historical complicity with politically oppressive regimes, particularly in New World colonial outposts of Catholic Spain.

In his untitled painting in this show, Ocampo ventures again into controversial territory by focusing on imagery identified with Nazi Germany.

The traditional image of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns merges in Ocampo's painting with the claws and wings of what appears to be a Nazi eagle emblem clutching a bloody, headless body. Accompanied by double swastikas, this man-bird (a bitterly distorted combination of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, often shown in art as a dove) flies above a prison or concentration camp courtyard peopled by devils.

In a corner of the painting--where a wealthy donor might appear in Renaissance religious art--a praying woman is consumed by fire. Viewed through Ocampo's uncompromisingly severe vision, collusion between evil temporal and spiritual empires demonizes the poor sinner and offers, at best, a false salvation.

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It is not clear whether Ocampo means to indict Pius XII, the conflict-avoiding Pope whose rule began in 1939. Decidedly anti-Nazi, the Pope nevertheless chose to preserve the church as an island of neutrality and to avoid possible reprisals on defenseless believers rather than speak out decisively against the slaughter of Jews and Christians.

For the most part, the other work in the show lacks the one-two punch of these pieces, in part because, as Apple points out, "the attempt to infuse the art object with a spiritual message or content is a far more difficult task" than ironic commentary. But there are a couple of exceptions.

Marcy Watton's quilt, appliqued with the words "Believe or Die," ironically recalls the dilemma of Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant women who cannot choose abortion without contravening the patriarchal laws of their religion. It is the medium, however, that lifts this piece above mere sloganeering.

Often made by several women working together, quilts are vehicles of cooperation as well as symbols of "traditional" (read: anti-liberal) values. Quilts also are attractive and useful articles made from castoff materials. Implicitly, the piece seems to call for compassionate understanding of women's struggle of conscience, as well as new ways of reworking outworn ideas for women caught between belief and reality.

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