When Michelangelo and Da Vinci were working the Catholic Church embraced contemporary art as a form of prayer. These days the institutional church is more likely to condemn contemporary art than commission it, as evidenced by the uproar over Cosimo Cavallaro’s nude chocolate crucifix during Holy Week this year.
The Church of St. Paul the Apostle in mid-town Manhattan is doing its part to rehabilitate this contentious relationship by welcoming artists into discussion on God that focuses more on mystery than dogma.
Until the end of June, St. Paul’s is hosting a group show of contemporary painting that asks artists to address the questions “Who, What, Where, When, Why is God.”
The exhibition is not a collection of devotional drawings. This is serious, gallery-worthy art that struggles to deal with essential questions. The styles on display from the nine artists involved range from abstract expressionism to cartoon-like graphics and modern interpretations of Greek icons. The new works are intermingled with more traditional ones: brightly colored tattoo-inspired pieces hang near a statue of St. Ann, a shadowy unicorn drawn in oil on canvas beneath an altar to St. Paul. Angelia Lane’s pieces require close inspection and appear almost cartographic, tiny water color doodles brimming with detail interrupted by empty space. In the artist’s statement that accompanies the work Lane said she wanted to evoke a God’s eye view of life and time.
The show is curated by Frank Sabatte, CSP, himself an artist and Paulist priest who worked in campus ministry for more than a decade before coming to St. Paul’s last year. As Sabatte sees it, art and religion make perfect sense together as both are attempts to address the ineffable.
Involved in the Mystery
As Sabatte visited each installation before the show’s opening on June 6, he gave a brief description of the artist and their work but he did not discuss their religious affiliation or lack thereof. “We’re not out to convert people. What we’re trying to get people to understand is that they are already involved in the mystery. It’s really about them teaching us,” Sabatte said.
That’s why he wanted the exhibition in the church itself, not a function room elsewhere in the complex. “We need to listen to the artists. We need to bring this in,” Sabatte said. “This is prayer.”
Emma Griffiths has been drawing all her life and tattooing for 15 years. Religious imagery is always present in her work, particularly tattooing, she said, and she welcomed the invitation to exhibit at St. Paul’s as a chance to explore that influence. The show is her first outside a tattoo studio. “I think in religion, or tattooing, people are expressing something they can’t explain,” she said, referring to the numerous roses, knots, crucifixes and other symbols she has inked onto people’s bodies. “I tend to veer away from any big ideas about tattooing. You want a tiger, I’ll draw a tiger,” Griffiths said. “But there are moments when I’m doing it when there’s something happening between me and another person and it’s deep.”
Intersection of Creativity and Spirituality
The show grew out of Openings, a weekly discussion group for artists sponsored by the Paulist order, which also sponsors BustedHalo. Openings was conceived as a chance for contemporary artists to discuss their work, their lives and the intersection of creativity and spirituality, Sabatte said.
“The people we are trying to hook up with, many of them are alienated from the institutional church, many are skeptical of organized religion. But every one of them is spiritual,” Sabatte said as he walked through St. Paul’s the afternoon before the show opened. “They have issues with the church, as everyone does, but there’s a real hunger for the spiritual.”
Sabatte himself arrived in New York in September 2006 with vague instructions from the Paulists to begin a ministry to artists. He spent months visiting galleries and art shows to meet artists. At the same time he joined forces with Robert Aitchison a parishioner at St. Paul’s. They began the ministry with open weekly discussion meetings. Everything is on the table at these gatherings, in an atmosphere of trust and dialogue often missing from artists’ relationships in a competitive city, Aitchison said. “One week we talked about money, the art market. One week the word was masks. One week we talked about color theory. We often take a word and break it down, just use that to start discussion,” Aitchison said. “I can’t see how an artist wouldn’t benefit from it. And no one is going to stab you in the back to get a show out of you.”