The exhibition 100 Artists See God might more accurately be titled 96 Artists Fail to See God.
After the events of 9/11, artists John Baldessari and Meg Cranston observed a widespread rekindling of interest in God, but noted that artists seemed not to be participating. So, as guest curators for Independent Curators International, they sent out letters to over 100 artists inviting them to submit a work that "deals with the concept of God." The results are revelatory less for any spiritual insight on the part of the participants (which is largely absent), than for the varied forms of avoidance and denial that are evident in their efforts.
The curators have sorted out the works according to their perception of conceptual groupings in which they might be considered to fall. Thus they suggest "God as Architect" and "God as the Great Organizer," including in the latter works such as a Richard Prince photograph of Woodstock and William Wegman’s blisteringly cynical videotape, Minister. It’s a stretch to include the Prince at all, but maybe his photograph would be better categorized with Andreas Gursky’s Love Parade, a small iteration of Gursky’s huge Berlin street crowd scenes. The Gursky is categorized as "God as Love," which imputes a meaning to the photograph that one doubts was the original intention. Gursky’s photograph doesn’t need the assistance of imputed themes.
Wegman is forthright in the statement accompanying his videos: "I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in religions…that they exist." Many of these works are rooted in religion and religious iconography: Ethan Acres’ glitzy Fundamentalist/modernist take on Jesus; John Waters, continuing his lifelong fixation on bodily functions with a print of a vomiting Jesus on the cross; Leonard Nimoy’s handsome photograph Shekhina, picturing the Jewish concept of the female side of God, here wearing phylacteries, prayer bindings generally reserved to men.
A great many of the pieces in the exhibit are anthropomorphic and the cultural parameters are distinctly Western and Judeo-Christian. (What might a Buddhist viewpoint have added here?) Some artists escape into total abstraction (Jeremy Gilbert’s elegant gouache, Grey Genevieve), others into humor, satire, or wordplay, and at least one (Marnie Weber, The Little Girl God) into kitsch. Eleanor Antin offers a staged tableau of post-eruption Pompeii, one of a number of works that suggest a concept of God as vengeful, the inflictor of plagues. Perennial bad-boy Damien Hirst (who sells maggoty animal parts to wealthy collectors and polka dot multiples to the broader market) submits afully stocked pharmacist’s cabinet, which may suggest drugs/cures as a God-given miracle or drugs/escapes from the reality of Eleanor Antin’s destructive God. And if Duchamp found a urinal to be art, why shouldn’t Michael Craig-Martin find God in a chartreuse-and-fuschia colored painting of a similar piece of plumbing?
In all of this, one is hard-pressed to find a genuinely spiritual expression; these artists seem, for the most part, to be locked into rather narrow and cynical responses to, or avoidance of, the question. Such a result comes as no surprise. The art market of recent memory does nothing to encourage the topic–when did you last see a corporate office with religious or spiritual art hanging in its sophisticated Bauhaus rooms? Modernism, and the Western cultures (aside from the Fundamentalist/Orthodox fringes) from which modernism emanates, are deeply secular and seem embarrassed by confrontation with the spiritual. The artists reflect no more than the cultures from which they emerge.
And yet, there are a few works here that at least approach the spiritual. James Hayward offers a canvas covered in plain white acrylic, slotted as "God as the ineffable" in the curators’ categories, an irreproachable choice. It’s an apt response, if not particularly illuminating. Simon Patterson submits an image of a country house in Warwickshire where he set off smoke grenades to get a variety of effects in his photographs. His stated interests were historical and literary, rather than spiritual, but the photograph in the exhibit chanced to filter color and light in an ethereal evocation of religious paintings from an age when it was okay to express the heavenly.
Lillian Ball creates an intriguing sculpture of clear plastic piping with mysterious light reflecting off its glittery surfaces. Perhaps best of all is a handsomely executed pastel by Ed Ruscha, all in grays, with lighter shadings in the upper left hand corner, again suggesting light from on high penetrating into worldly darkness. It’s direct and expressive, eschewing irony or sentiment or embarrassment, with an understated simplicity that realizes the genuinely spiritual.