Cape: The Good News was knitted from NY TIMES plastic wrappers, acrylic yarn, 2000 beads and painted bells. It was created from nontraditional, discarded materials, in order to transform their functionality from garbage into a handmade object. The dailyness of the bags is invoked by their functionality, while the knitting process serves to convert the humble blue bag from nearly invisible detritus, into an object that evokes royalty and status. Where once the form, function and texture were considered immutable, the bags transformation into a cape suggests a similar change for the wearer.
There are other considerations, such as the bags character and the skill of the artist. Its important to note, the identity of the bags has not been obliterated. Their identity serves to remind both the observer and the wearer, of the ordinariness inherent in transformations. Furthermore, the artists hand is evident, giving these mass produced objects the status of a handcrafted object. The slow process of knitting suggests not only the care and patience needed to create the cape, but also that these bags are worthy of consideration. What was once beneath notice, has benefited from the artists skill, and the bags thereby have gained in meaning. Knitting serves to intensify not only the hue of the bags, but meaning itself. Each stitch multiplies their significance. Where once the bags had only served to relay the transient news of our world, now they point to more permanent values that celebrate the ordinary transformations that occur in daily life.
Shroud: Unwrapping Lazarus also uses discarded materials. I began to knit them from dry cleaner bags, those nearly invisible yet ubiquitous bags; they are everywhere; do we really see them when we tear them from our clothes and discard? They served as the perfect metaphor for the shrouds in which we wrap ourselves: also ubiquitous and nearly invisible. I included gold thread and beads to symbolize the good reasons we cling to our invisible shrouds. This work gains in spiritual significance, as stitch by stitch detritus is transformed, pointing to the possibilities of similar transformation for the user/wearer.
Where did we get the idea that spirituality is easy? Though it's comforts are undeniable, it is equally true that spirituality is a rough sport. These paintings show what can happen when religion and culture meet in the same arena. Are they evenly matched, or does the contest dissolve into cognitive dissonance? In my work, racism and sexism meet spirituality head on in a struggle; the resolution of these encounters is ambiguous at best. Red Grooms' satire and Jacob Lawrence' vernacular are influences which are evident in my paintings.
In the Racist series, social commentary
is presented within a cross-cultural context. The titles are revealing: "Salvation Offered to the Racist by an African Saint and Angels"; "Salvation Offered to the Racist by a European Saint and Angels"; "Salvation Offered to the Racist by an Asian Saint and Angels." Here we are confronted by the question: when offered help, will we accept it if it comes packaged in the 'wrong' cultural wrappings? Are we likely to accept help only when it comes from within our own culture? It's a comment on how we will limit ourselves to a ludicrous degree. Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan cuts to the heart of our reluctance to see other cultures as viable as our own. These paintings attempt to parallel the shock of the first hearers of his parable, with an added twist of a reversal. In the paintings, the person in need is predisposed to reject the salvation offered by virtue of their racism. In the parable, the one thing we do not know is the inclination of the heart of the recipient of the Samaritan's charity. All we know is that barriers were broken that day, and aid given. Enough to know that the receiver was sufficiently open to take the help he desperately needed. Surrender is suggested. Imagine if the recipient of the Good Samaritan's charity had refused. The absurdity of that possibility is evoked in the parallel situations that I set up. Rather than chance the abundant life that Jesus promised, we hide behind the masks that our culture, race and religion have provided for us. Two thousand years later, we remain challenged to emulate the original recipient.
On the other hand, perhaps the first hearers of this parable, putting themselves in the place of the recipient, knew they would have to be knocked unconscious before they would ever accept help from a Samaritan. At a remove of two thousand years, we have painted the final scenario in the rosiest of colors: the injured awakes, sees his benefactor and they embrace like long estranged brothers. Perhaps when he awoke and understood who his benefactor was, he lay troubled for a long while. In fact the gospel tells us that the Samaritan let the innkeeper finish the job. "Look after him, and if there is any further expense I will repay you on my way back" (Luke 10: 35). Did he know enough to make himself scarce, his presence objectionable and possibly undoing his charity?
When the word salvation is used, our expectations are raised for a happy outcome. However, when salvation is offered to a racist by someone outside their race, do we assume
a flat refusal? Do we presuppose culture will override religion, the outcome of the contest between culture and religion already decided? Note in Salvation Offered to the Racist by African Saints and Angels, the angels and saints have African features. It upends our expectations for salvation, as something narrowly confined within religiosity parameters. Yet, salvation is never static; a response is implicit. If acceptance, then action is required to penetrate outside the narrow, cultural comfort zone. A look, a gesture, is all that may be required, but a response is necessary to obtain the salvation offered.
In the Racist series, the picture plane is divided in half, between the spiritual and the temporal, with angels of specific ethnic category bridging the gap. There is tension as they extend their offerings. Will they be rejected? Time is evoked has the moment passed? Has the subject responded? Ambiguity is in the representation of where the subject rests. Is that a coffin or a bed? If it's a coffin, is it too late? Or if the offer is being made after death, perhaps there's no such thing as too late. Perhaps the question is when it comes to God's mercy is there ever such a thing as being too late? The rosary beads in the racist's hand imply that he is already familiar with the traditions of religion, perhaps already 'saved.' The inference here is that salvation is multi layered, and piety not enough; the social dimension, cannot be neglected.
The angels are almost cartoon-like, yet the witty handling of the subject undercuts the seriousness of the business at hand. Is this meant to be a humorous moment? The titles would belie that. Upon further reflection, perhaps cartoon-like elements are appropriate; only a buffoon would refuse help in their last moments. Is our society able to at last recognize the racist, pursued by imaginary fears, as the real figure of fun? Has the racist at last become the lugubrious figure it deserves to be?
In the Eve Dreaming series, the social commentary addresses sexist categories, by reversing the Creation story. Or rather, the Creation story is corrected. After all, it is women who bring life into the world. It is patriarchy that insists on reversing the natural order in the Creation story, giving the man for the first and only time the role of progenitor. This painting restores and corrects. Here, it is the woman who dreams, rather than the man. It is from her dreaming head that a cascade of animals emerges. There is no sign here of the man, or a rib. As she dreams, her creativity is unleashed. Like racism, it is patriarchy's sexist categories that limit our spiritual horizons, and inhibit our ability to live full lives.
The influence of Red Grooms is evident in these paintings. Despite the traditional subject matter, there is tumult in the friction between religion and culture. They have more in common with Red Grooms "Ruckus Manhattan," than liturgical art. His city scenes are like a volcano bursting with the energy and vitality of New York. In my work, major saints erupt from out of the living room floor; water spurts and fills the room from a giant rock. Like Grooms, the paintings combine representation with story telling. In the Living Room series, I bend history within the narratives, placing spiritual giants of past centuries within contemporary, homely settings. Traditional spirituality would say those who have passed on are not tethered to time or place and so are not out of place there. The visitors explode into view, yet the occupants are unperturbed. Could it be that these visitors are expected? Like Grooms, who "sees his subject mostly in its social relationships or interactions," the crux is the subjects' interactions with their visitors as well (Perrell 2). In my work, there is serenity within the chaos.
Jacob Lawrence's influence is seen in my paintings in the flattened picture plane as well as the choice of bright colors. Figures are exaggerated and abstracted. Faces are masks. His vernacular is also seen in the interiors, such as living rooms and bedrooms, intimate spaces where people can be themselves. There is narrative within these spaces. With Lawrence, "this narrative quality was, and still is, the essence of Lawrence's vision" (Bearden and Henderson 299). In my paintings the narrative is equally essential. In the Living Room series, the tension of the Racist series is missing. Spiritual and temporal spaces do not have to be bridged, they reside peacefully with each other. It is in our intimate spaces that we can let down our guard and let go, where anything can and does happen. Within these comfort zones, surrender is more likely. And within this surrender, occupants of the spiritual zone may enter. Note how they are juxtaposed next to mundane item of our American culture, a TV set. It's a comment on how the sublime and the ordinary reside next to each other.
Invisible worlds are evoked both in my work and Jacob Lawrence's paintings. It could be said that Lawrence's objective was to make visible the African American community around him, a community that was 'invisible' to whites and considered unremarkable, by their black inhabitants. My paintings make visible the invisible interactions of heaven with earth within the intimate settings of living rooms and bedrooms. His "pictures of African American normalcy carried Lawrence's inquests into community life to a higher, more challenging level of cultural representation" (Nesbett and Dubois 155-6). The normalcy invoked in my paintings is the interactions between heaven and earth. The subject may or may not look at the other worldly being emerging from the floor. Their normalcy is their familiarity with each other, as if it is a reoccurring phenomenon.
In the conflict between religion and culture, I take the stance of artist-provocateur. Like the work of Red Grooms, my paintings are a satiric comment on
human weakness, whether it be sexism, racism or
the persistence of patriarchy within our culture. "Grooms' social conscience becomes evident in the caricature manner in [his portrayals]" (Perrell 4). The artist conscience is evident within my work, making visible our social conventions as a goad and prod.
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Bearden, Romare and Henry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists. New York: Pantheon, 1993.
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois. Over the Line The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Seattle: U Washington, 2000.
New American Bible. New York: Catholic Book, 1970.
Perrell, Franklin Hill. "Red Grooms." Ruckus in Roslyn: Red Grooms. <http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/6aa/6aa160c.htm>.