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The good, the true, the beautiful

Contemporary Christian artists, facing temptations and controversies, are making inroads into an art world void of meaning

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The Virgin Mary pelted with elephant dung. Another Virgin Mary wearing a sexy bikini. Jesus Christ portrayed as a nude woman. The Last Supper with the pancake syrup queen Mrs. Butterworth playing Christ, and Cap'n Crunch and Toucan Sam playing the disciples. For many Christians, this is contemporary art. And indeed today's art establishment works hard to shock the ordinary Americans who often support it with their tax money by creating art that is deliberately shocking, blasphemous, or obscene. And yet other artists, many of them Christians, are trying to make art that honors God's design for beauty, truth, and goodness. Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), which organizes conferences, art tours, and exhibitions, now has 1,260 members in 42 countries. Its president, Sandra Bowden, points to the establishment of 100 church art galleries, 30 annual or biennial art competitions for Christian artists, and numerous exhibitions in churches, seminaries, and museums as evidence of increased interest: "None of that existed 20 years ago." Some Christian artists are taking their art into the general marketplace as well. This can sometimes bring temptation to compromise beliefs to attain worldly recognition, or to be swept along by the same fads-and silliness-as others. If a Christian artist's whole body of work is composed of random lines or self-focused expression, it's hard to imagine that he is making art consistent with his worldview. Christians believe that God, not self, is at the center of everything, and they believe that God has created in a wise and orderly way. Sculptor Theodore Prescott believes that the art establishment is often hostile to religion: "Good artists who have worked with religious subject matter ... have had a hard time finding respectable-in art world terms-venues to exhibit in." But he believes that "the 'wall of separation' in the art world is beginning to crack." Ironically, those in the contemporary art world who reject aesthetic standards are leaving a gap that Christians, with a worldview respecting beauty and creativity, are in a position to fill. Painter Dan Tennant, for example, says, "I paint God's handiwork because it is a reflection of Him (creative, diverse, powerful, good, pure, structured, etc.). Only God can make an apple, grape, or lemon.... If my paintings can draw attention to the beauty of things like fruit, books, tapestry, and wood, then I have succeeded." Meanwhile, Christian artists also debate how best to show biblical truth, with issues such as nudity in art becoming flashpoints at times. Edward Knippers paints nude figures in his large, dramatic scenes from the Bible. He argues, "The nudity allows me to have a timelessness in my narratives that will not quite be pinned down to the specifics of the biblical era." Mr. Knippers insists that his work is not erotic or pornographic: "Nudity establishes a universality. They had bodies in the same way we have bodies regardless of our contrary sociology." Some Knippers paintings-particularly his nude renditions of Christ--have been vandalized when they were exhibited at Christian colleges. Artist Carol Bomer disagrees with Mr. Knippers. She says that Christians, for moral and scriptural reasons, should not show nudity. She argues that scriptural references to nudity (after the account of the Fall) are negative: "You can check any verse--nakedness is a shame." The motif of nudity in art, Mrs. Bomer says, comes from the classical, pagan tradition. For all of its artistic virtues, this tradition takes for granted a humanism that needs to be questioned by a biblical aesthetic. The Bible, she says, focuses on how human beings are covered, how we are clothed in Christ. "The whole sacrifice of Jesus Christ was to cover our nakedness, to cover our shame, to cover our sin." Here are four Christian artists whose works are being exhibited. Dan Tennant makes highly realistic renditions of ordinary objects like fruit and flowers, as Dutch Reformation painters did. Realism is at odds with much contemporary art, but is now coming into vogue, since postmodernists react against "modern" art, which was notoriously abstract and nonrepresentational. Thus, Mr. Tennant's work was recently featured in New York's Bernarducci-Meisel gallery, which shows mostly contemporary realistic works. His still life "Books under Glass" shows the nicks on an old shelf, the torn jacket of From Here to Eternity, and the light glancing off a blue flagon with photographic precision. His "Still Life with Satin Pillow" shows a silver teapot, creamer, and sugar bowl in front of a satin pillow and on top of an oriental throw. Strawberries fill the creamer, and apples, yellow daisies, and strawberries are scattered around the silver. The teapot reflects the Yellow Delicious apple in front of it, as well as the Persian throw. Beneath it all is a cabinet with carefully executed shadows and woodgrain lines. The viewer can't always tell what worldview a classical realist holds, and non-Christians do use this style-but the good, the true, and the beautiful all come from God, and any picture that captures them shows God's hand in the world. Sandra Bowden says her experience in a church where the Bible is central pushed her to find a place for "words or language" in her work. Her recent collages include fragments of text and music: "Song of Songs" combines old book pages, sheet music, and a collograph of Hebrew text covered with gold leaf. Her use of gold is an echo of medieval illuminated manuscripts, but she uses it to make something "ultra-contemporary." She says, "The gold speaks of eternity, things that last forever, beauty, value." Ms. Bowden speaks of her art's foundations in both past and present. Her "Law and Gospel" consists of two gold squares, covered with Hebrew writing on two white backgrounds. One gold square is split top-to-bottom, resembling the tablets of the Law. The other is also split side-to-side, making a white cross. The resultant piece, "Law and Gospel," Ms. Bowden says, "is an extremely contemporary piece, but it never would have been birthed without a long spiritual search that gave rise to the technique and the visual language that my work uses." Carol Bomer uses abstract, expressive images, like many modern painters, and text, like many postmoderns. Her "Atonement: Injunctions Covered" has a person robed in white on an abstract background of hazy oranges, reds, and blacks. Beneath the glazes, the viewer can still see some text from the actual pages of a 1964 law book. Her subject, though, is salvation, how the Christian's law-breaking is covered with the righteousness of Christ. She tries to "deal with the reality of the human condition, so I definitely want to show all of the gospel, which is not always a pretty picture." Mrs. Bomer's "Outside the Camp" series shows white-robed figures leaving behind cities of classical ruins. The figures represent the saints, who suffer with Christ "outside the camp," and the cities represent the ultimate ruin of the worldly things Christians leave behind. She is also "trying to cross the line between total abstraction and realism, because Jesus is Spirit and He's flesh." Her painting "Until Shiloh Comes" has figures and a shepherd's crook blending with the purple shadows on either side of the painting. In the middle is a blaze of red-and-yellow light with the suggestion of figures, perhaps angels, in it. Beneath the light is a baby in a manger, the clearest part of the painting. Such contemporary movements as conceptual art, which emphasizes the idea and process of making a work, have influenced sculptor Theodore Prescott. Other current trends don't interest him: "The self will always be there, but to make that the subject matter of art seems to me to be a small universe." He draws on Christian subject matter but cautions that some non-Christians use Christian imagery, and Christians can legitimately make art that doesn't have an obvious link to faith: "You can bake fortune cookies and put Scripture verses in them, but it's OK just to be a baker." Mr. Prescott describes his art as "embodiment" art that "works with the substance and the materiality and seeks to deal with the actual nature of things as a source for imagery." Once he spent a week recalling sins from childhood to the present, and then wrote a "depressingly long and mortifying list of sins" on linen-based paper with indelible marker. He cut the paper into bits and placed it inside hot, molded glass. As the glass slowly cooled, the paper burned, leaving ash. Mr. Prescott arranged the four pieces into a cross shape, which he calls "All My Sins," noting the "process of making the form of a cross, but the whole process is about the relationship of the cross to our sins."

-Hannah Eagleson is a World Journalism Institute fellow


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