Earthly Pain

Catholics have always had the best art and artists: the stained glass and the idols are in our blood. Unlike those sour, dowdy Lutherans, we had no problem imagining heaven using gen-yoo-wine gold dust and painting crushed lapis lazuli onto the Virgin's cloak.

But the church has been in a bit of a slump lately. Not only have all the sex and pedophile scandals demoralized just everyone, but the liberalizing spirit of Vatican II and Pope John XXIII (the best pope!) has also been grabbed by the clerical collar and shaken like a bad dog. Pope Nazi (so I'm not a fan) and his cohorts among a lot of reactionary cardinals have marginalized terribly the strong humanist wing of the church, the laypeople and clergy who believe in the dignity of all life and whose main aims have always been Jesus' strictures that whatever we do for the least among us, we do unto Him—that and a frickin' good Carnaval.

Now it's a bunch of prigs in Costa Mesa protesting because twin kindergartners in their Catholic school have two daddies. And you saw what happened to New Orleans.

It fucking sucks being Catholic these days. Torquemada's taken all the fun out of it.

Unfortunately, it's showing in the art.

“A Broken Beauty” at Laguna Art Museum was curated by folks from Loyola Marymount. It specifically explores Catholic attitudes—not “Christian” ones—toward the secular (we're for it), the saints (we're pro-) and suffering (you're soaking in it). The beautiful tenets of that humanist wing of the church are evident—spelled out, even—but they're subdued. The visual language—the palettes and compositions—doesn't shout or sing its hosannas out loud. It whispers, asking forgiveness for its temerity in speaking out at all. We're excellent at asking forgiveness.

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“Beauty” is most specific in its very Catholic supposition that the meek, the downtrodden, the suffering shall inherit the earth. Earthly pain (broken beauty) is something we should embrace for ourselves, offering it up for the poor souls in purgatory. (We're supposed to mitigate it in others, though, which is a classic difference between us and some of our more theocratic friends.) And so we have multiple portraits of the Holocaust and the Final Solution, many by Jerome Witkin, who's half-Catholic and half-Jewish (far and away the most common interfaith marriage; I am one myself). He paints a nurse traveling through the panels of a septych set in the laboratories of Dachau, meeting a Frankenstein Hitler demon in the middle, and continuing on, completely changed, to the other side. He also gives us a portrait of Edith Stein, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, took the veil and was killed in the Holocaust. She is shown, wee and hunched over, in both her nun's habit and the yellow star used to ID Juden. She was canonized in '98, but here she's anything but beatific. Her eyes are cloudy, her face is green, she sits before a background of stark gray and brown smudges. Witkin doesn't address the church's complicity in the Holocaust; he merely seems to drown in the fact that life's a bitch and God made us one fucked-up world.

Timothy Grubbs Lowly takes the opposite tack: Life sucks, and ain't it grand? His CarryMe is a large portrait of his daughter Temma, who's severely retarded and immobile. Her fingers twist together, her unheeding face glows with benediction. It's a beautiful portrait. But then a group of girls (Lowly's students) crowd around her on the canvas, lifting their eyes to the viewer and lifting her like they're playing Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board at a slumber party, and their crunchy, earnest, scrubbed-clean faces are so very Hands Across America and Free to Be You and Me that it positively glops Chicken Soup for the Soul all over what had been your perfectly nice lunch.

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“Beauty” is better when it returns to the iconography on which we were fed. A whole room is given over to the Fall, where the images are wry, subversive and grand. Gabrielle Bakker's Eve and Her Conscience is lovely and knowingly Botticellian. In the background, the shadowed mountains have been lifted whole from da Vinci. Joel Sheesley's Nakedness on the Journey is a horrifying nouveau-suburb Adam and Eve behind thorns and brambles. Their nakedness is that of the neighbors you really don't want to see—I'm glad Eve ate the apple!

In other bits of hagiography, we have two separate artists taking on the martyred St. Agatha with her severed breasts. It doesn't take much to interpret the works—in Patty Wickman's Anonymous (With St. Agatha), a woman with a pixilated face, bush and breasts holds silicone implants in her hands, Francisco Zurbaran's Agatha standing behind her, holding her breasts on a tray.

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For the most part, “Broken Beauty” is wan and sad and sorta '70s. I actually felt myself wishing for the shallow Marian worship of Patssi Valdez, a Chicana artist and costume designer who once said she paints herself as the Holy Virgin not as an examination of purity or faith but because she “really like[s] the style.” This exhibit could have used some of that playfulness and joy, some of the glory of God, more beauty and less broke.


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