If it has become a cliché that art usurps the place in modern life once held by religion, it’s an ironic cliché, for of all the subjects and sources of our art, religion is surely one of the least respected. In fact, in its purest sense it is barely tolerated. Giacomo Manzu, twentieth century heir to the likes of Donatello and Michelangelo, sculpted cardinals and popes, but was always careful to represent the all-too-human vessel, while leaving the precise spiritual content to the viewer’s imagination. More recently, Maurizio Catalan showed Pope John Paul II struck down by divine judgment in the form of a meteorite. Even the Mark Rothko Chapel, despite its giveaway name, attempts no specific theological presentation. All the more unusual, then, that Casey Jex Smith, who has begun to compile enviable notice over the last three years, not only speaks longingly of renewing the spiritual language of art, but is unambiguous in identifying the religious sources of his sense of awe and wonder.
Let me say at the outset that it’s refreshing to come across such candor in what has become a troublesome subject matter for artist and audience alike. Religious feelings have a deep claim on our psyches — so much so that speculation has arisen among evolutionary theorists to the effect that pious vapors may bestow an advantage in the struggle for survival. For artists — for anyone, obviously, but perhaps especially artists — to have such universal impulses placed off limits, or behind compulsory walls of ambivalence or irony, is as intolerable as were the bad old days, when any spiritual inkling had to be chaperoned by doctrine and theology.
One of the appealing qualities of Smith’s art, regardless of how one relates to his subject matter, is his evolving vocabulary. If Donald Barthelme was right to identify Collage as the art form of the 20th century, then the new era, in the hands of artists like Smith, seems destined to be the century of something that could be called Post-Collage. His signature style, a collision of virtuoso draftsmanship and bravura geometrics done in colored marker, could easily have grown from works like “Dumbfounded Ass,” a conventional collage layered up from colored pencil gestures, a pen-and-ink drawing of a donkey, and some organic forms, each genre of mark-making having come about separately before being pasted together. But in most of the works seen here, many measuring up to twenty square feet — and apparently bounded only by the limits of available materials — he carries out the process on a single sheet of paper. In these, it seems clear that their origins lie less in collage per se, and more nearly in the series of notebook sketches that stray in gradually disintegrating files across the gallery’s back wall.
These sketches, labeled “Church Drawings,” demonstrate what can happen to someone skilled with a pencil who occupies his hands with drawing while his left hemisphere is busy listening to sermon and testimony. In them, as in the more formal work, impeccable realism strays casually into bizarre fantasy. Details like a disembodied ponytail or a forged iron bracket appear and melt away again in dream-like sequences of freeform visual association. It’s not hard to imagine these works as a kind of graphic call-and-response, where material reality impinges on a sudden sense of piety, mystery, or wonder.
By all appearances, this is more or less what Smith tries to capture in his more deliberate works. (It’s hard to know what to call them, with their promiscuous blend of mediums that co-exist in dynamic tension where no one dominates.) One of the more striking, repeated images represents skies full of elaborate cloudscapes drawn in the manner of engravings: hundreds or thousands of repeated, dashed lines that through their rhythmic interruptions produce the illusion of a radiant, light-filled sky. In the baroque iconography thus quoted in, for example, “We Draw Near,” the part that would conventionally be played by either the deity, or by the sun standing in for him, is filled instead by an enormous crystal structure made in a spectrum of colors that echo its geometric splendor. It’s as if the Enlightenment cosmology of Kepler or Newton, realized in prismacolor, found itself in Poussin’s sky.
Another large work, “Gathering,” links the source of this divine vision to fragmentary images of what appear to be LDS temples, wagon trains, tongues of flame, and a characteristic swirling blue line that is identified elsewhere with water. (detail) Other works, yet further explorations of tensile lines, unfolding forms, and organic growth within and alongside precise renderings, bear names that invoke similarly resonant themes: “Beehive Manifesto,” “Have No Fear,” “The Purifier’s Fire,” “Hand of God.” In this last piece, the artist has meticulously drawn, by hand, not the literal hand, but the fingerprints of the hand of a withdrawn and unseen creator.
I asked Casey Smith whether he ever considered the possibility that instead of challenging that portion of the audience that does not share his specific religious background, his images might shock or offend those of his fellow Saints whose views lean more heavily on tradition. He seemed troubled by the question. I didn’t even raise the specter of how his art, supposedly a process that aspires to universality, might speak to unbelievers in their various degrees. Yet if anything is clear in today’s polarized discourse, it should be the impossibility of achieving agreement on matters of faith. Still, Smith may be opening a door, whether he chooses to walk through it or not. If art can reconcile traditional religion, the Enlightenment critique, and modern science on the universality of religious experience in human nature, there may be hope for cohabitation in the future: not only for us to live together in mutual respect, but for a splendid, yet common understanding.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.