Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Towards a Concept of LDS Art

The LDS International Competition came down earlier this month but the entire exhibit, including the works cited in this article, is online here.

Tom Alder’s recent 15 Bytes article on Henri Moser (June edition) included a comment by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ apostle L. Tom Perry to the effect that the reason the church no longer places art in their chapels and meeting houses is that they do not want controversy regarding the nature or definition of art. So, when I noticed that the Museum of Church History and Art was holding its Seventh International Art Competition, Our Heritage of Faith, I was interested to see what exactly an LDS vision (at least an officially sanctioned one) of art is.

The International Competitions are biennial events that invite LDS church members from around the world to submit work relating to a theme, such as “Our Heritage of Faith.” I was interested to see what, if anything, this exhibition says about an LDS art. The answer seems to be that it is certainly an art of many nations, though not necessarily one of many modes. Though the works here are not all alike, more often than not they are variations on the same general aesthetic: an emphasis on realism and narrative. A look at this exhibit does not give a sense of the numerous stylistic changes and adventures that have occurred in the art world over the past 100 years. I am convinced that this is not because there are no LDS artists working in these modes — it would be easy enough to identify some local Utah ones to prove the point. They simply aren’t shown here. It is impossible to know if this is due to the juror’s decision, the artists’ lack of participation, or the use of thematic shows, which, by their nature, exclude certain works, even though they might be made by active LDS artists.

It is difficult to make an aesthetic judgment based on absence, so what we must do is approach the exhibit and our question of an LDS aesthetic with what we are given and make assessments from there. It would be too facile a judgment to simply dismiss this exhibit because the modes of expression are, for the most part, “traditional.” The LDS faith, and its heritage, is a proselyting one, making message paramount and forms subservient; which makes for an art that tends toward the illustrative or the propagandistic, neither of which are bad in and of themselves, but to confuse them with that pursuit of something deeper we usually refer to when invoking “art” would be helpful to neither the artists involved nor the culture seeking to find artistic expression of its religion and culture. And my greatest fear for an LDS aesthetic is that some of the more readily digestible veneers of a realistically rendered or sincerely meant work leads to a complacency that affects artist and audience alike.

In an exhibition of this size there are going to be numerous exceptions to any general statement, but I think it is not untoward to say that the Seventh International Competition is dominated by narrative art, rendered in a realistic manner. There are few examples of more contemporary modes of expression, as if to say that the Mormon culture has yet to develop new wine skins in which to pour their new gospel. Some interesting old wine skins are employed however; for example, Cheng Cin-Tai’s “It Was Founded Upon a Rock” (a traditional Chinese ink painting featuring a Mormon temple in the place of a hermit’s cottage) and Connie J. Daisy’s “Baptism of Jesus Christ” (which uses traditional Australian motifs), examples that people from non-Western cultures are at least attempting to withstand total cultural assimilation while going through religious conversion.

The tendency of these LDS artists to incorporate historical styles can be read favorably as a mirror of the Mormon culture’s understanding of its religion as a reinstatement and culmination of the past. Thus David Babcock’s “Prayer” shows his wife in a stylized posture set in a Netherlandish landscape. Gary Ernest Smith’s “Christ Appears to the Two Marys” also incorporates an art historical style — early Renaissance. In both pieces they seem a restoration or reinterpretation of styles.


For the most part, however, the style or mode employed in this exhibit is one to be associated with the sentimentality of genre painting — an emphasis on realistic renderings, uncomplicated themes, didactic content and affirming worldviews. In other words, what we might call a Victorian bourgeois art. Due to the LDS conservative response to new aesthetic modes (modernist tendencies were often called “communistic,” a wonderful irony considering that what became a Soviet realist style is not far removed from what some might call a Mormon realist style). I doubt the late nineteenth-century narrative mode ever really went out of style in the Mormon consciousness. So, such a style would not be read as a reinterpretation but rather as simply the continuation of “good painting.”

The culturally acceptable LDS art, then, is an art of narrative that requires nothing more than the familiar modes that have served to tell other stories. From a critical standpoint I see this as problematic. I see no reason an LDS illustrator should not strive for the simplest and clearest way to convey a message in the simplest terms to the greatest number of people; but an LDS artist’s job should be the attempt to probe, display, examine, point out and exalt the many layered aspects of its religion and its culture.

In the case of this exhibit I feel that deep searching, for the most part, is deflected by an aspect of the LDS culture which I think can be used to understand a great deal of its aesthetic. This aspect is “knowability” and its influence on realism and symbolism.

LDS faith, religion and culture is anchored in “knowability.” The direct conduit to an omniscient God — “modern day revelation” — is the Mormon solution to Fitch’s Paradox of Knowability. This is not to say that Mormons know everything (despite that vibe you might get from your neighbor) but that through revelation everything can be known. While some see in Joseph Smith a new revelation of a Gnostic “knowledge” of God, in the LDS culture his legacy of knowledge seems to be something much more pragmatic and even mundane. Take, for instance, Section 77 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where Joseph Smith includes a question and answer revelation in regard to the Book of Revelation that reads almost like a catechism. This section is emblematic of what I see in Mormon culture of knowability. The Book of Revelation loses the loose ambiguity of symbolism and is rendered as an allegory.

I think it is the concept of knowability that dominates LDS culture, which is the propelling influence on the “realism” present in LDS art. It may even be this, more than the conservatism of the culture that gives reign to the realism. This realism driven by knowability is problematic not only because it leads toward superficial content, but also because realism has gone so out of fashion in the general aesthetic world, at least one based on sound criticism, that an informed audience, one that will raise its artists to a new bar, will be hard to find. I make this statement because there seems to be a number of pieces in this exhibit which are simply not very well executed and so should have not been selected (I can only imagine that theywere because they are realist and narrative) and because a number of the well-painted narrative pieces do not hold together very well conceptually.

To understand what I am thinking about, recall the Book of Mormon paintings of Arnold Friberg. Take the one depicting Mormon instructing his son, Moroni. An anatomist might complain that Mormon’s body seems impossibly broad, but my main objection is that Moroni wears a Viking helmet worthy of a Wagnerian opera while that of a Roman centurion can be seen in the foreground. The paucity of realist art in a contemporary world leads to a paucity of critical thinking about it. And that permits artists to get sloppy conceptually.

We can turn to the representations of Joseph Smith to see this most readily. The representations are often very realistic. In his piece “First Vision,” Jeff Hein concentrates on the expression of surprise on the boy’s face. The boy is articulately rendered, the sense of awe and surprise is evident, but the sense of the struggle immediately preceding this moment is not. If this is a true realism, we can imagine leaves stuck to his clothes, his face worn and haggard, streaked by tears. But the vision of a First Vision seems a cleaned up re-presentation. Very selected. It is realistic but not realism. Matthew Warren’s “I Might Venture” is another piece that displays good draftsmanship but proves to be a complicated read. Warren’s Joseph Smith is seen at about the same moment as Hein’s, though from a very odd, Mannerist angle. It’s hard not to look at the viewpoint and realize that the angle of the viewer is from the ground. Is the viewer meant to be Satan, then?

The First Vision seems central to a Mormon aesthetic but I see few that satisfy. Invariably the young Joseph is seen in a dark grove lit by the heavenly visitors. The viewer often sees Joseph from behind a series of trees, making them feel like voyeurs. I like Lurain Lyman’s glass mosaic “Ask in Faith,” which just shows the rays of heavenly light in a grove. It doesn’t show the specifics of the 14-year old boy. In this scene we are not voyeurs and the scene depicts the wider import of the message of Joseph Smith, and that is that the illiterate farm boy not only revealed a heaven open to himself, but to every individual.

With depictions of Joseph Smith, images of Jesus are the most common in Our Heritage of Faith. The idea of knowability is probably no place more evident than in a painting of Jesus, not in this exhibit, but seen in a majority of LDS homes. This image shows a “portrait” of Jesus dressed in white with red robes over his shoulders. Its popularity might be explained by the figure depicted — extremely strong, large and masculine though with a sweet and merciful face. There is little else to explain its popularity. There is nothing to the composition and nothing particular about the paint quality. It literally looks like a posed portrait and a fairly boring one at that. It looks like any yearbook picture, as if the Lord went down to a Sears picture studio. The real reason of the painting’s popularity is the urban legend (maybe a task for Tom Alder?) that surrounds it. As the story goes, the artist who was working on the painting showed it to the current prophet of the church, who commented that it didn’t quite look right. An interchange between prophet and artist went back and forth until the prophet, who presumably had seen the original, declared it to be a good likeness. This is the dynamic of knowability, the concept that you can get the surface appearance just right. And that that’s what matters.

In this exhibit there were a number of images of Jesus in the same vein, simple portraits, though some might be more stylized than others. I almost think that these types of images are why God forbade graven images. They do not show us something of the Jesus in action, of his relation with man or the world. They are portraits, something you might carry in a wallet. If anything they have something to do with the “Personal Savior”of the Baptist and Evangelical tradition which seems to have seeped into the Mormon culture as well, but I don’t think will lead to anywhere of merit artistically. Samuel Evensen’s painting of Christ healing a blind man is an exception to the portrait Jesus, though I think I could do without the immaculate whiteness of Christ’s robes considering he regularly walked a desert country. Robert Barrett’s painting of Christ is somewhere in between the two. Christ is walking on the water, but he is walking toward the viewer rather than the boat (and Peter); which, admittedly, creates a connection to the viewer but at the expense of the entire import of the story in the gospels.

My favorite of the Christ images is Eric Dowdle’s “The Good Shepherd.” There is something almost comical in its “Where’s Waldo?” appearance, but something very interesting about its all-encompassing view of the city and the narrative of the Savior’s life. I think this painting gets at more of the concept of Christ than an airbrushed portrait.

In other words, what seems to be missing from many of these is an examination of the symbolism of the Christ figure; which might be surprising considering the emphasis on symbolism in the LDS culture (the emphasis being more important than any actual practice, I think – this a direct result of the overriding drive towards knowability). The outward LDS culture has little symbolism, or “pageantry,” but a great deal of emphasis is given to symbolism within the context of its temple culture. Here the ceremonies and performances are stressed as being symbolic. From my own experience, obviously purely subjective, what is termed symbolism in these cases should more accurately be termed allegory. What is “symbolic” is read as a one-to-one correspondence, much like Joseph Smith’s reading of Revelations in D & C 77.

I would say that the overarching drive of knowability in the LDS culture pushes or constricts any loose symbolism toward a rigid, allegorical reading.

This approach toward symbolism leads to an art of illustration rather than symbol. Look at Jan C. Astle’s “Transition,” an allegorical painting referencing the LDS Church’s Young Women program, where the artist herself provides the allegorical reading in her placard notes. This painting obviously tends toward the didactic, which in its own sphere seems fine. But once again I fear our society may have lost much of its astuteness in reading such paintings since they have gone out of style. For instance, an ironic soul might point out that the painting really shows that the girl goes through the process of giving up one fairytale castle (in the upper left) for another (the temple in the upper right). I actually like this ironic reading, but I doubt it was in the mind of the artist and probably not much in those of the viewers (irony not being a strong trait of the LDS sensibility). Also, if we are going to produce narrative, realistic, art to be read allegorically, more attention needs to be paid to detail. Why for instance is the youngest girl the most buxom? This may seem a crude observation, but the progression of the body in a young girl is certainly a key factor in her consciousness. The developing body is an indication of her developing possibilities of womanhood and motherhood, both of which figure prominently in the reference to the temple, but which are given little attention to in this piece.


My point is not the failing of an allegorical art, but the failing of one not sufficiently critiqued and refined. In a world where most serious discussion of art and aesthetics has left the style of art dominant in this show untouched, serious scales of judgment are found lacking, and often only an acceptable veneer (of realism, draftsmanship, etc.) of manual capabilities is expected or desired. Far too often artists content themselves to rise to the standard set by their audience.

To take another example, we have a painting by Patrick Devonas depicting Hyrum Smith and his wife, Jerusha. The actual rendering of the image is quite capable, but the sincere intent of the artist does not play out in the painting. The artist says that his picture is about the love and admiration between the couple but I think a careful examination of the painting makes this difficult. Hyrum is seen entering through the home’s door. Rather than closeness and intimacy shown in the composition, at least three visual obstacles separate the couple — the door frame and two chairs. Jerusha is stiff and looks toward us rather than Hyrum. If anything this portrait reminds me of Degas’ portrait of the Bellilli family, not one of obvious marital bliss.

Symbolism is not completely lost on the Mormon artists and the more “mature” ones seem to know what to do with it. (See Geoff Wichert on Brian Kershisnik in the July edition; his observations about Kershisnik’s work apply to the artist’s piece, “But Ruth Clave Unto Her,” in this exhibit). Clay Wagstaff’s piece, “The Circle II,” is symbolic without being restrictive or didactic. Valeriano Ugolini’s “Theophany: Visible Manifestation of God” is a refreshing examination of the First Vision.

My critique of an LDS aesthetic in this exhibit is by no means wholesale; if the selection process had been more discriminating (the museum has packed more than 200 pieces into a space appropriate for 100 at best) I might have little room to speak. I enjoyed some other general trends I noted in this exhibition, as well as individual surprises, but a discussion of such can’t be permitted in this space.

This LDS group of artists has considerable talent when it comes to draftsmanship, paint application and other artistic skills of manual dexterity. What they far too often lack is a sense of depth or concept. I don’t mean to say the “concept” of conceptual art, but the refined concept, the mental content of a painting and its various elements (those aspects that elevated the Renaissance painters from craftsmen to practitioners of the liberal arts), the idea that these should act as a unified whole — this is what I see lacking in too much of this LDS art. The wineskins of this art are what they are and may be what the LDS culture wants, but they should at least be well mended and cared for, not full of holes through which the aesthetic merits can leak. But the fault for this state of affairs may rest as much with us, the audience — one that is easily swayed by a literally accurate representation of a “historical” event that does not look past the physical to the spiritual.


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