God Doesn’t Like Ugly

Artists in a provocative new show at a Catholic church discuss art, God and religion


Throughout the side chapels and the interior of St. Paul the Apostle Church in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, the historically significant artwork on permanent display now shares space with a compelling and eclectic mix of contemporary pieces. God Doesn’t Like Ugly, as the exhibition is titled, is the third major group exhibition presented by Openings, an international art movement based out of New York — and sponsored by the Paulist Fathers — in which artists explore the connection between their creativity and spirituality. This year’s exhibition, which is free and runs until October 30, represents the work of fifteen artists, who were invited to address the show’s title theme in painting, drawing, mixed media, installation, sculpture and photography. The show’s opening on September 21 attracted more than 500 visitors and drew praise from the Village Voice, which named it one of their Voice Choices, calling it “dazzling” and “twisted” and declaring “there’s not an ugly piece in the bunch.

In one of the world’s great art capitals, overflowing with museums, galleries and artist spaces God Doesn’t Like Ugly is a rare and challenging event. If the juxtaposition of contemporary, non-sacred art with the Catholic church it’s displayed in is provocative, the questions about creativity and belief that the Openings movement invites artists to explore are extraordinary, because they deal with distinct areas of human experience that are frequently viewed as separate from — if not hostile to — one another. Busted Halo® asked the artists to discuss these questions in the context of the work they are displaying.

Photographs by Andrew T. Foster.

Robert Aitchison

How do your pieces relate to the religious space in which they are displayed?

Has religion influenced your art?

The artworks I am presenting explore themes of sacrifice, surrender and transformation; characteristics of Saint Paul, to whom my designated chapel space is dedicated.

Religion offers a framework upon which I can explore my spiritual path towards greater awareness of God. Making art provides a similar framework by constructing an aesthetic arena in which I can contemplate and express my ideas regarding the mysteries of existence and transcendence.


Lauren Gohara

How is displaying your art in a church different than in a gallery?

The art doesn’t stand alone, in neutral or traditional artspace. It is in dialogue with the art already installed, as well as the space, which comes freighted with meanings from a completely different arena of human life. Every year, I confront the question: how does my work hold up in this context?

What has surprised you about presenting your art in a church?

That we are still exhibiting there, instead of getting kicked out.

How do your pieces relate to the religious space in which they are displayed?

I hope my pieces expand the vocabulary of what can be considered spiritual.

How do you view the role of the Church in promoting art or reaching out to artists?

I do not think the Church is promoting art. It is promoting dialogue, and reflection.

Was any dialogue brought up when you announced your participation in this exhibit in a church?

No. For the most part, dialogue with other members of the art world was shut down. Much of the contemporary art world has a phobia of religion, and the Catholic Church, and is uninterested in talking about it.

Would you show in this venue again? Why?

Yes. The dialogue in the space, with the space, with the parishioners, is provocative and unique.


Anthony Santella

For me, religion and art are so confused; I don’t know that I’ll ever straighten them out. My sculptures are inspired by traditional religious woodcarving, primarily Medieval Christian, but also African and Native American ritual objects. I also deeply believe that art is most effective when it is a spiritual tool, an opportunity for the viewer to think about difficult aspects of life, and an opportunity for the artist to get his or her head into enough order to make some coherent comment about the hard things we all try to forget.

In my responses to the theme God Doesn’t Like Ugly, I’m trying, with difficulty, to do precisely that. These pieces wrestle with my own violent, ugly feelings about the world. They express rage and despair at distasteful realities, the compromise and indifference and cruelty that touch all our lives. But, they also try to step back and replace violent judgment with, for lack of a better word, a more Christian view. Christianity, at its heart, and in contradiction of much of human nature, says don’t reach for the gun, look deeper and love. It is humbling to bring a record of my own struggles into a church, a place devoted, however imperfectly, to that ideal and realize how far I have yet to go…


Hester Simpson

Do you personally make a connection between art and the spiritual?

I have never wavered in my feelings about my connection between art and the spiritual since I discovered Kandinsky in graduate school. Basing my thesis on his vision expressed in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, I embarked upon a journey in which I still hold the conviction that there is a connection between art and the spiritual.


Kinda Barazi

How is displaying your art in a church different than in a gallery?

This is my first time ever displaying at a church. My fourth time being in a church. When I stepped into the Church of St. Paul, I felt very serene, very in-touch with my spiritual side, and did not want to leave. I am honored and very touched that the church accepted my artwork to be displayed, and accepted me as I am, from a different religious background. A gallery is more financially oriented; the Church of St. Paul is pure and spiritually oriented.

What has surprised you about presenting your art in a church?

That my art piece was placed in St. Anne’s shrine area, and that her birthday was printed in a large font that read: “July 26” — my husband’s birthday. My husband was the one I was portraying in my painting. You may think it weird, but I saw that as a strong “sign” that we were meant to be there. My husband was very touched to say the least. He thinks very highly of St. Anne.

Do you personally make a connection between art and the spiritual?

Absolutely. I make a connection between life and the spiritual, and art is a big part of my life. The physical is important, but without the spiritual it’s meaningless.

Has religion influenced your art?

My beliefs are my religion. My beliefs are what my art is based on. I believe that we are all part of God, and each can communicate with him in our own way.

Has art influenced your spiritual path?

Art is a creation from the spirit, from the inner soul. I see my spirit in my art. It’s the other way around; my spiritual path has influenced my art.

How do you view the role of the Church in promoting art or reaching out to artists?

Everyone is an artist, in their own way, in their own specialty. By reaching out to everyone, including those who are fighting to have their independent ways of expression and thinking, by understanding all views, the Church of St. Paul is playing a strong role in encouraging love rather than “defensive” attitudes towards the church and God. Basically, you don’t have to be labeled as a Christian to feel like you belong to the Church of St. Paul, you can still be ladled as “you” and be accepted just the same. It’s a challenging role, very open-minded, and very inspiring.


Laura Resheske

How is displaying your art in a church different than in a gallery?

I think either way we are competing with stereotypes viewers already have of the either setting, whether it be a certain type of pretension, elitism or comfort of the sterile and conventional art gallery or a predetermined expectation of what is normally found in a church… But whether a church is your museum or a gallery is your spiritual retreat, I think what we are doing here, is simply drawing that connection. Or at least asking viewers to consider it.

How I translate the environment is something I keep in mind for all my work. The atmosphere of the church to me is very intimate and personal, so my pieces reflect that a little more. And I could also be a little more bold working within the magnanimous visual appeal of the church.

It also excites me that a majority of the people who witness the artwork at St. Paul’s didn’t necessarily come to see an exhibit. We are challenging what is normally a pretty stable aesthetic space already wrought with symbolism. I would be interested to learn what many of the traditional churchgoers thought about the contemporary infiltration.


A larger sampling of images from the exhibit (click any thumbnail to start slide show, then click left or right edge to advance or reverse):