The best religious art of any time, like the important work in any subject matter, challenges its audience. The naked, physically powerful saints of Michelangelo shocked the Renaissance congregation, while the 1st to 2nd century transformation of Jesus from bearded elder teacher to youthful shepherd helped the early Christian community to reconfigure their prophet as a god. It’s too soon to tell if what Frank McEntire calls a “reappropriation” of the Passion — a reference to the events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection — will produce lasting works of art. But the work is of a quality and originality that demand serious contemplation, while questioning the way the LDS Church edits its biographical roots. These works ultimately challenge viewers to redistribute the emphasis on three influential foundation texts: the Old and New Testaments and the Book of Mormon.
It should be noted that except for a few indirect references, the Book of Mormon is present in this exhibit only by implication. McEntire, a convert and so presumably a devout and well-informed Latter-day Saint, does not challenge the Church to which he converted. He accepts its emphasis on the expected behavior and anticipated future lives of the faithful. But he does seem to be concerned about what is left out — what in today’s parlance might be called Mormonism’s back-story: the history of the worship and imagery of Christ before the revelations of the mid-19th century. It’s futile to tell a believer not to be offended, but if anyone should be put off by McEntire’s art, it isn’t his fellow LDS faithful: it’s the Jews, Catholics, and Protestants whose images he appropriates in a bid to find an inclusive picture of the complete human relationship with Christ. As someone once said, prophets — those with new and challenging ideas — are rarely met with easy or universal acceptance.
ReAppropriated Passion is divided into two parts. In what could be called the outer room are numerous small sculptures assembled from found objects. This invocation of Assemblage, one of the key strategies of recent art, allegorically sets the theme of the entire show: attempting to assemble new symbols from old ones that have fallen by the wayside, yet remain emotionally plangent. Formed into unified and coherent new expressions, they bring a level of force only made available by symbols long in use. Seen from a perspective or faith, these newly forged symbolic images carry power, while viewed from without they refer, possibly ironically, to an analogous power: electricity. “Voltomatic Menorah” uses an electric meter as base for a traditional Jewish candlestick, on which the crucified body of Christ hangs. It freely mixes metaphors and times: electric candles and the tree-like menorah with seven branches in place of the wooden cross. In another, a copper knife switch, linked in the popular imagination with the electric chair, supports a crucified figure cast in the same metal. The poster image for the show, “The Olimite Almighty,” features another crucifixion on a circular ceramic electrical device that recalls the circle as symbolic of eternity and the mandala, or full-body halo of Byzantine and Medieval art. Two others, “Prayer Coder” and “Code Messenger,” use Morse Code devices to make the point that spiritual messages invariably come in a kind of parabolic code not unlike the way meaning is encoded in art. In all the massive physical presence of the vintage electrical equipment stand in contrast to today’s digital technology. A cellphone or a computer hardly seems like an electrical appliance at all when compared to these strange, vaguely recognized antiques with their relic sense of power and danger. Other symbols — an eagle, musical instruments, feathers — likewise convey impressions of almost verbal specificity, yet like poems their words reach us in new, unfamiliar contexts and combinations.
A single work invoking the Stations of the Cross — key moments in the crucifixion story — includes fourteen variations on a single assemblage: a crucified figure attached to the latch plate of an old-fashioned door lock mechanism. |3-4| In each the iron case and decorative escutcheons form the upright of a cross, while the crossbeam is suggested by the doorknobs that protrude on either side. While the original narrative is missing, the found variety of designs, glass and metal knobs, ornamental covers, and crucified bodies well represent the variety of religious objects actually in use. Take any of the symbols invoked by doorways — passages, strongholds, obstacles, safeguards, keys, and the list goes on — and there will be endless iterations, each used by someone who responds to its particular means. Jews throughout time have placed scriptural scrolls on their thresholds to protect them on departure and welcome them back safely. Like other home decorations that express the dwellers’ individual taste, they changed gradually over time and from place to place, until today’s version bears little resemblance to that of biblical times.
In the dark, cavernous inner room, the works take on a different character. Where those in the first room hang on the wall in clusters, those within are presented individually, monumentally, apart from each other in space, each standing in its own pool of light. |5| Instead of blatantly recycled objects, each construction appears meticulously crafted for this specific and sacred purpose. In actuality, some of the parts are salvaged, but they are disguised by thoughtful placement in new objects and renewed by fine craftsmanship. These objects mimic the ornamental richness, great age, tradition, and long-standing familiarity that only centuries or millenniums of use can create. They bring to mind the Ark of the Covenant, or a tabernacle, a reliquary, an altar, each possessed of the stillness imbued in objects of great importance.
The Ark in the Old Testament contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Steven Spielberg’s currently better — known version held sand, as though the ancient Hebrews shared with vampires the need to carry their native soil with them in their wanderings. McEntire’s version cradles representative examples of ritual objects from throughout the history of Judeo-Christian worship: a Torah-like scroll, a purple vestment, a chalice, a crown of thorns. That they don’t appear to be real, full — scale objects is — or should be — beside the point. McEntire isn’t creating functional religious furniture; his objects, like all art, are meant to provide synthetic experiences, to stimulate thinking and feeling about real matters through the imagination.
The question remains whether McEntire’s everyday fellow-religionists will be open to his idea of a more inclusive and ecumenical religious practice. The twin pivots of popular reception and aesthetic success are never far apart in the arts, but here they lie particularly close. How is McEntire’s audience to gauge his sincerity? Might he not be mocking the sentiments his works refer to? Of course all sincere expressions of sentiment are vulnerable to abuse: a teary eye or a comforting hand open one to ridicule no less than the hagiographic image of a man who thinks he’s God. Indeed, there is a certain infelicity, a clumsiness on display here from time to time. At the top of “New Millennium Menorah,” |7| six identical red figures of the crucified Christ circle a beehive, from the top of which flames emerge. To an eye used to seeing the outstretched arms attached to a cross the image is nearly comic. An amusement-park ride comes to mind: “Here’s Jesus having fun on the Cosmic Merry-Go-Round.” Yet the piece has a geometric integrity that defies mockery. Seen as abstract elements, the symmetrically tilted heads and upraised and outstretched arms serve legitimate ornamental purposes. Another amusement park association arises in “Altar of Lights and Perfections,” wherein one of those ubiquitous ceramic models of the Salt Lake Temple rests in the center of a shallow paten that, upon closer approach, is seen to be a concave mirror. Because of the optics of such mirrors, the reflected image of the Temple appears to expand as it rises, as if the building were exploding or turning into light, or progressively yielding its material nature and merging with space.
The real question here is not McEntire’s sincerity; the real question is why make religious art at all? For the Egyptian and Byzantine cultures art was a way to show their belief that the really important facts were simply not revealed by material evidence. The Pharaoh is more important than us, so his image is bigger. The Emperor Justinian’s floating, glittering mosaic body argues its own insubstantiality. In the Renaissance, rigorous adherence to physical appearance argued for a new faith in the material world and its relation to truth. But today, most religious art makes no new epistemological claims. Instead, it clings to a sentimental view of the ultimate importance of the human condition and argues emotionally for hope in the face of evidence. The great art of recent times, like the Abstract Expressionist canvases of Mark Rothko, limit themselves to general statements about spirituality and avoid the specifics claims of temporal religion. Seen in this context, Frank McEntire arguably achieves two things. One is he creates art that while retaining a posture of reverence, acknowledges the clumsiness of human efforts aspiring to express the sublime. And he argues for a renewal of the humble task of making peace that too many of today’s religious have chosen to abandon in favor of arrogant self — absorption. It’s all well and good to teach others to speak with our tongue, but unless we also learn theirs we will never understand ourselves.
Reappropriated Passion will be at Gallery 303 in the Harris Fine Arts Center (BYU campus) through July 15. To view more of Frank McEntire’s work visit his website.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.