Throughout history, when the vast majority of the populace was illiterate, the visual arts have been used to tell the stories and express the aspirations of religious and spiritual communities around the world. The arts could be a tool of enlightenment but also a tool of control, used to tell the devoted how to think, what to believe, and how to believe, helping political entities maintain spiritual and largely secular control over the masses. How far art has come and how far spiritual and religious art has evolved to this day in the 21st century, can be seen in the small town of Springville, known for its propagation of the arts but also for its conservative, Mormon establishment. As the Springville Museum hosts its 29th Annual Spiritual & Religious Art of Utah show, visitors will be able to judge the exhibit’s aspiration to “find common ground amid diversity.” Not only is there diversity in modes of artistic expression, but alternative vantage points, by which a diversity of spiritual and religious points of view can be expressed, including the presiding Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ viewpoint. As one wanders the galleries, to paraphrase the exhibition catalog, taking time to contemplate the “shared stories, simple symbols, and sacred spaces that transcend any particular faith or tradition,” one is struck by the heteronomy of alternative aesthetic representations by which the diversity of spiritual and religious artistic expression is manifest.
“Sacerdotal Transit” by Lee R. Cowan is an abstract painting that uses the motif of brilliant clouds to, by segmenting it into spheres and larger triangular structures, evoke a theme common in the show, the fundamental principle of transcendentalism. Transcendence is a commonality that joins the nature of all spiritualities and all religions, rising above worldly constraints to a higher reality, and Cowan, in this iconography, has created this literally, and, with the abstract methodology, has created it figuratively. He has created a subject that speaks of the spirit boldly and universally.
In an image that is entirely alternative to conventional Christian religion but is adapted to the essential principle of transcendence by which all spirituality and all religion finds common ground, or a higher reality, Dan Wilson’s image of a young girl, in a frock of white, with a background of Rembrandt browns, expresses the ability of music to transport the soul. As the girl’s flute shines, the viewer can sense the resplendent nature Wilson is trying to evoke in the spirituality of music. It is indeed an alternative approach to a spiritual subject that most every viewer can relate to on a universal level. “I wanted to convey the spiritual power of music with many layers to a high finish, then applying the final layer with bolder, more random brushstrokes and color,” the artist says. “I endeavored to use the subject, the vibrant sporadic colors, the texture and technique, to work together to communicate how supreme and mighty this divine gift is.”
Although it is a Christian subject, there is nothing conventional about Kathleen Peterson’s approach to her religion and her spirituality. Her work is iconic, addressing the narrative in simple expressive language, allowing for the experience of spiritual transcendence, beyond physicality or “the world,” as is commonly understood in LDS lexicon. “I am intrigued by the meaning and dignity of life,” says Peterson, whose depiction of a New Testament narrative is both historical and contemporary. “Whether it be a human life, a bird, a tree or even a house, there is a story or something to learn. My work is about what I observe from the lives around me. When I paint, I try to express the dignity of that life.” Her representation of Mary and Elizabeth is certainly an alternative representation of the two New Testament women, painted in what is a very appropriate stylization to Hebrew text, with profiles of the two women, embracing, ostensibly over the joy of Mary or their mutual motherhood, with what seems to be ancient Hebrew costume and headdress while surrounding both is a simple garland with a figure of a dove, the Holy Spirit, hovering above and between each. This is certainly an alternative representation of the subject to this day, but in essence, very authentic to the biblical narrative.
Sean Diediker’s “Medicine Man” is an alternative manifestation of conventional religious spirituality, at least in regards to Western culture, yet can have as much a transcendental spiritual experience for the Western viewer. Its reality and absolute truth may resonate as no less real to those to whom the medicine man is seer, healer, and spiritual guide from his Native culture. The roots of this tradition are ancient—we do not know how ancient—and Diediker created his subject in a context that exists in his own place and time. He seems detached, in his own realm, yet connected to the viewer by the vision in his eyes, his powerful presence, and his spiritual authority that is uncontested. He seems at one with himself, with his environment and all elements that surround him, a universal figure in his attachment to his historic surroundings, as well as the present the artist has introduced him to.
Since its development in the early 20th century, abstract art has been used to invoke, express and explore the intangible, as evidenced by the title of Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Several artists in this exhibit, then, use non-objective styles to express their own spirituality, and use pure color and abstract expression as a way to transcend the physical into the spiritual. Joyce Baron’s “Aqua Energy” is a painting that must be interpreted and responded to on a spiritual level, rather than understood cognitively. This abstraction, with a core of vermillion melting into yellow and encapsulated by turquoise green and purples, has a heavy layer of resin acrylic finish, and the very intensity of the colors colliding and churning cannot help but enliven the sensibilities in a spiritual engagement of elements. Baron calls it an “abstract interpretation of the energy of water in the creation of the earth.” Once more, the viewer is able to transcend the immediate physicality and arrive at a spiritual place where the ethereal realities of Baron’s contemplation exist and are considered.
Some of the most compelling works in the show are in the abstract vein, grabbing the viewer’s attention precisely because they do not conform to traditional notions of religious painting. Alternative to what one might imagine from a “Springville Spiritual and Religious Art Show” is “Of” by Alexander Morris; uncannily it is the very embodiment of LDS theology, speaking most specifically about worldly transcendence. The painting is entirely abstract, a nebulous orb of brown painted on a rustic panel of textured ivory with linear strokes carving a path towards the base of the canvas. The possibilities for meaning are entirely open and universal in the context of this Spiritual and Religious Art show. It could be a centralized focus of the Spirit with connectivity to the viewer. It could be a centralized focus of God-like power with connectivity to the viewer. It might be consciousness as it transforms and yields to thought. It is entirely a utopian subject in abstraction. According to Morris, from the time children are 8 years old, people of the LDS faith have conferred the gift of the Holy Ghost who acts as a guide throughout existence in this desert life. The world is a violent, dangerous, and corrupt place; here we see mankind consumed by the influence of the world only allowing a small sliver of a conduit where the spirit can communicate. Mankind has become “of” the world.”
This last abstraction by Morris, resolving a lamentable truth of the world and humankind today, is a revelation of the great benefit of the inclusion of a universality of spiritual and religious beliefs and a heteronomy of artistic approaches. Only in this way, by inclusion and not by rejection, can the paths to truths be sought by the viewer, who will come to know them when they find them for themselves, which serves the purpose of this show best, as is the great purpose of great art, universally, transcendentally, and on every level of reality as truth is revealed. As seen in Morris’ work, it is work which transcends conventional notions of what painting “should be” most directly addresses the reality of what painting “can be.”
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.