Saturday I went to Provo, about an hour south of Salt Lake City. Home to Brigham Young University, which I refused to attend even though the school offered me a hefty scholarship, and the Missionary Training Center, my nine weeks at which I loathed with every iota of my being, Provo is not some place I would visit just for the hell of it. But currently one of my dearest friends lives there, so after two decades of staying well away from Provo, I've visited twice in the past six months.
This most recent trip involved looking at lots of art, some good, most of it downright terrible. The BYU's Museum of Art had an exhibit called As a Rose by sculptor Adam Bateman, made of sprinkler components. I totally dug it. The permanent collection is a bit heavy on fairly pedestrian landscapes, but there are some great pieces in it too.
But the art in the BYU bookstore is another matter. Oh my lord--and I say that as a prayer of hopeless desperation. The place sells so many depictions of Jesus, invariably northern-European-looking, usually cheesy, occasionally creepy. There's one of Jesus with four hot young women, one of them slightly ethnic looking.... Is this polygamist Jesus? There's one of Jesus hugging the three children (one of whom appears to be crying) of an attractive woman, who also gets a little affection from JC. The caption to the painting said something about how the intent was to depict a Jesus you could actually hang out with, someone who would be your friend--you know, the kind of guy who would provide really great booze at your wedding, or else date your mom after she kicks your no-good dad out of the house.
The only artist whose work A) we found on sale in the BYU bookstore and B) doesn't completely suck is J.Kirk Richards, who served a mission in Rome, which is probably one reason he actually seems to know something about art history and creates interesting variations on themes in Christian art. Pieces I liked include this really lovely Mother and Child and this Angel with (gasp!) wings ('cause in case you didn't know, in Mormon theology, angels don't have wings).
And after that, we went to galleries to look at bad Mormon art, because you have to know your enemy--at least, you have to know their work if you're going mock it effectively.
First we visited the Thomas Kincade gallery, where we saw Bambi on a Rock. I had seen this on the blog of this dreadful BYU student/matron-in-training whose blog is named bloggerlovesherhusband, except with their real names. (I would link to it, but then she'd find out that there are all these people who read her blog in order to laugh at her, and she might make her blog private.) This person LOVES Thomas Kincade, and she especially loves Bambi on a Rock. But she also loves Cinderella Wishes on a Dream. She actually wants to own all of Kincade's Disney paintings. I have to say that internet reproductions do not do these works justice. You really must see them in real life to realize just how tasteless and horrible they are.
Then we checked out the work of Jon McNaughton, best known for a soulless piece of shit called One Nation Under God. It's the most literal, pompous, didactic thing I've ever seen, but McNaughton is so stupid that he actually claims that "Everything about that painting is symbolic" (bold in original) but it's not. Everything in the painting is exactly what it appears to be: the pregnant woman is a pregnant woman, the little kid is a little kid, the various presidents are the various presidents, the American flag is the American flag. He assigns great meaning to the various figures he depicts--so much so that he has to provide a gloss (roll your cursor over the painting and you'll see who each figure is), but not one of them represents anything other than what it is, which makes it literal rather than symbolic. Thank god for the parody version, which is much cleverer and more interesting. (Be sure to check out the gloss on Benjamin Franklin and Davy Crockett.)
But the work of art that freaked me out the most was this statue of Joseph Smith encased in this strange little atrium in the Joseph Smith Building. Supposedly it depicts the First Vision, the moment when JS sees God the Father and Jesus Christ. But it looks sexual, in ways I can't believe are intentional.... He looks turned on rather than awed. His shirt's all open at the throat, his pants are pretty snug.... And why is he wrapped in a blanket? Seriously: it looks like he's getting ready to give someone a blow job.
Are Mormons so repressed that they don't recognize sexual imagery or allusion when they create it? OK, dumb question. At least Bernini knew exactly what he was doing when he created the Ecstasy of Santa Theresa: it looks really sexual because it's supposed to look sexual. And probably someone would accuse me of prurience, in that I can see something unsavory going on in images of Jesus with four hot babes or looking like he wants to date a divorcee. But I know I'm not alone in feeling both nausea and confusion when confronted by these images created by people too naive and blind to realize what they're communicating to anyone not equally naive and blind. And what blinds them is the identity of one particular figure in the work. If you replaced Jesus in the painting with the four hot babes with just a regular guy, well, anyone could see that it's creepy. If you didn't entitle the statue of JS "First Vision," If it was just presented as a guy in tight pants, on his knees with a rapt look on his face, most people would probably raise an eyebrow.
All of which is to say that fetishizing figures from religion to the point where you can't see their behavior in the context of how human beings actually act, is stupid, and makes you stupid. Which is why when it comes to art in Provo, I'd rather look at sculpture made from sprinkler components.