Let me ask you. Have you ever held a position in an argument past the point of comfort? Have you ever defended a way of life you were on the verge of exhausting? Have you ever given service to a creed you no longer utterly believed? Have you ever told a girl that you loved her and felt the faint nausea of eroding conviction? I have. That's an interesting moment.--John Patrick Shanley1
Why doth the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?--Palsms 2:12I've always had an uneasy relationship to art. It's true. At a cocktail party in a gallery not long ago, Mary Anne, sexy New York-hardened Mary Anne, found herself trapped in the corner with me. It wasn't intentional. We found ourselves looking at one another hoping for something to say. She was dressed in black, I in fleece; we could have left it at that. But her friend/partner? had gone to fetch a refill and the mutual friend that introduced us had shuffled away to close a deal. Before we could part gracefully, a moment needed to pass. We looked at one another, took a pull at our drinks, just the situation that can lead to over-compensation. And then Mary Anne did something surprising. She reached out, grabbed my elbow, pulled me close enough so that I could smell her, looked into my eyes, and then with the measured cadence and practiced profundity of an analyst asked, "and what is your relationship to art?"
I almost dropped my drink on her shoe. Where to start? Should I tell her I'm a maker? A collector? A lover? All, any of these answers, would demand more explication. Did I have a worldly answer in me? How to respond appropriately? I sensed that Mary Anne had a more definitive view of this world-of-art than I did. She's a painter. I know that. I know her work. Her gallerists. Plural. And at least one of them on the coast. Me? She doesn't have a clue about me. We've met three or four times over the years and she's yet to remember my name, or even recognize that we've met before. I'm flumoxxed. She might as well have asked, "and what is your relationship to Jesus?" I don't know.
"I have a personal relationship with art."
"How nice. And how is that working out?"
A canape tray--poached salmon on toast points with habanero jelly--passes. The liquor and perfume are going to my head so I grab two from the tray. "Great. It's great. It's going great. Have you tried these? They're spicy and wonderful."
"Can you excuse me for just a moment?"
I look around the room and realize my personal relationship with art is somewhat impersonal, if not downright quixotic. I will not be getting laid tonight. Soon I find myself standing before a row of abstract, black-and-white silk prints. Visually concise. Formally interesting. But Jesus!, weren't these same works shown last year, except in red? I look at the price. $2500 apiece and a red dot next to three of the four works. The artist is smiling, and I am slowly counting one...two...three...four...it is time to move on.
I walk outside. The night is clear, but bitter cold. I look up at the sky. In the country, this time of the year, before the moonrise, the sky would be lit up, as my grandfather used to say, "with half the answers to the universe. The rest you'll have to find on your own." But from the parking lot of an art gallery in the middle of the city everything is obscured. What's up there? What's inside? Anything worth a second look? Jesus. I haven't a clue.
Ask Dylan Mortimer a question and the answers come at you like quick jabs. His head bobs like a welterweight. Perhaps it's the personal juggle of faith, family, and art that makes him restless. Not many attempt that trilogy. He won't, can't, or will not stay still for a photograph. "It's not about me" he says of the work and maybe that's why all my images of him are blurred at the edges.
I have never heard, nor ever expect to hear, Dylan say, "I'm just a vessel. I just stand back and the ideas come into me." If anything, he's more likely to be found wrestling ideas to the ground in the sweat lodge of his mind, hoping to find a means and a way and to drag art, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the public temple. It's a crowded lot, this temple, some might even say cluttered. If the righteous were to bear witness some space might be cleared, lots of it in fact, but being neither righteous nor a Templar, that is not my call.
But there are those who are. Righteous.
And in a world where, in his words, contemporary art either treats religion as an abstraction or with complete cynicism, Dylan Mortimer's art seeks to balance his (and our) relationship to God on the scale of belief and doubt. Altogether, most of us would surely prefer not to be weighed on said scale of justice, lest we discover our rich diet to be gouty.
We want the belief...the certainty, even the humility, but the doubt, the toil and the trouble, are perplexing...and a bit of work. And we're busy. Lord knows that we are busy.
But if what lords us, if what anoints this day to be any different from(or even the same as) the day before, then for this day to hold any promise beyond the mediocre, then mustn't this day also hold the potential for failure? Surely it must. There are lessons aplenty in failure, but Big Fun? Hardly. Regardless of what the suburban, liberation theologist Rob Bell might lead you to believe, failure is not Big Fun3. Afterwards, you may find the humor and the pathos in your shortcomings but in the throes of your downfall, you cannot see them. And everything worth a second look (in the art world that usually amounts to any amount of viewing time beyond four seconds) has a struggle attached to it.
I ask a lot of questions. My daughter as well. Once, during a celebratory meal in a two-star restaurant we asked so many questions of the server, "why are the appetizers so small and the entrees so large?"; "what's with the English walnuts in that sauce, wouldn't Black ones make more sense?" that the chef de cuisine followed us to the car to ask if we were critics. "No. We're just chatty and enjoy fine food."
On the way home from the restaurant, we stopped to view William Pope L.'s exhibit, What Does your Democracy Look Like? Forty feet of our nation's flag slowly being obliterated by Hollywood special-effect fans in a public monument build on the back of the Great Depression. One could stand next to this flag, in the glare of airport landing lights, and hear our history being rent and bear witness to the destruction. What is the sound of art flapping in the wind?
Immediately, I withdrew my camera to document the experience. Within seconds, one of the two 24-hour security guards hired by the gallery demanded that I stop, demanded that I delete the images.
"This is a public space; that is my flag," I protested.
"Delete them, or I'll have to confiscate your camera," the beefy man threatened. And I, unsure of myself, and not wanting to end a birthday celebration in a brawl, or worse, in jail, relented.
"What does your democracy look like?" my daughter asked aloud.
"This. It looks like this," the guard replied emphatically.
There is no Gucci I can buyWe find a way. Somehow. A way. A path opens up and we walk down it. Is it the right one? The one less traveled? Regrets, we've all had a few.
There is no Louis Vuitton to put on
There is no YSL that they could sell
To get my heart out of this hell
And my mind out of this jail--Kanye West4
There's a path, a Via Doloros, through Ble$$ed, Dylan's show at Leedy-Voulkos Gallery. It's a red carpet walk that begins with Jesus, crying tears of
We do not know who anyone is. Not really. Mary Anne, the server, the chef, or the security guard. They do not see us; we do not see them. The connection, if there is one, between our disparate souls can be bridged. Art. God. Jesus. The Virgin Mary. Money. Fame. Fortune. We can put our marker down on any one of these and roll with it till the die is cast. Everyone has some skin in the game but who's got bank? Is your money on faith, doubt, or do you wish to cash your chips and wait to play another day?
It does not matter! I am happy about it--just so Christ is preached in every way possible, whether from wrong or right or motives. --Paul and Timothy, letter to the Phillipians.5But how do you sell something that's already been sold? People do it all the time. Some argue, the more you see something, the easier it is to close the deal. Black and white abstract print, or a red and white one? Different, or the same thing?
Purity never goes out of style, but what is pure? Unless you are but a babe, it's unlikely to be your soul. Ideas? Intent? The Bible, that perennial bestseller, tops the lists every year. It's a wonder it doesn't have its own list on the New York Times: Best Selling Bibles. Number one, for the 750th week straight week, the Revised King James Edition.
But this year two new versions may be climbing the charts. One is a glossy work in magazine format with striking photo-illustrations including those of: His Holiness the Dali Lami, Princess Diana, John Lennon, Che Guevara, Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, swimming polar bears, and self-immolating anti-war protesters.5 It's a bible for the waiting room, the check-out stand, the multi-taskers yearning to be set free.
Another edition of note, one that, according to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, can't be found in the top 50 selling Bibles for October 2008, is the Green Bible 6. You've seen the embossed, red-letter editions, now try the green one. If God created the heavens and the earth, wouldn't that make Him an environmentalist? And why, after a couple thousand years of theology, has this idea suddenly taken root?
Perhaps, as Dylan likes to say, it's all in the translation. We see what we want to see, when we are ready to see it. First glance, it may be nothing. Second glance, who knows, you might fall in love--forever, or just a day. And here, in Ble$$ed, Dylan offers a new place in which to get lost. The map, if there is one to be found, will have to come from within.
1Preface to Doubt, a parable, 2005, John Patrick Shanley, Theater Communications Group Inc., New York, NY.
2The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, 1958, King James version, William Collins Sons and Company, London.
3Rob Bell, Nooma 001, Rain, [Accessed December 2008 at URL http://www.nooma.com/Shopping/ProductDetails.aspx?ProductID=270&PMID=25&mode=FLV]
4Kanye West, 2008, Pinocchio, Def Jam/Rockafella Records.
5Bible Illuminated, The Book, New Testament, 2008, Forlaget Illuminated Sweden AB, .
6The Green Bible, 2008, New Revised Standard Edition, Harper Collins Publishers.
Ble$$ed, New work by Dylan Mortimer, Leedy Voulkos Gallery. 7 November 2008 through 20 December 2008.
dylan mortimer art
dylan mortimer sermons
leedy-voulkos art gallery
other m.o.i. art reviews:
m.o.i.: marcie miller gross @ review studio
m.o.i.: art in the loop: laura deangelis' celestial flyways