HISTORICALLY, the relationship between art and religion has been undeniably intimate. As much of society becomes more secularised therefore, art has some thinking to do, and many artists have begun to wonder whether being so closely associated with religion is the best thing for artistic expression.
A new exhibition at Leontia Gallery explores just that, asking whether religion in contemporary art is Friend or Foe.
In her Willesden Green gallery, the eponymous Leontia Reilly presents Godliness, an exhibition showing the work of a number of contemporary artists who use their work to explore the relationship between art and religion.
On her decision to use the religious as her inspiration, Reilly said “Religion and art have been bedfellows for years, but now a lot of artists seem to think that it’s kind of done. I wanted to examine where the line between the religious and the spiritual lies as an inspiration for art.”
In the exhibition, the inspiration of religion is particularly explicit in the work of Magnus Gjoen, an artist who often uses allusion and history to inspire his creations. His piece, Break Glass for a New Beginning, presents a classically depicted Adam and Eve, but with the figures posed motionless within bell jars. The jars are bound up with tape reading “Fragile”, while labels on the sides declare “Break Glass for a New Beginning.”
Magnus Gjoen – Break Art for a New Beginning
Gjoen’s art piece invites viewers to consider whether they would start the world off on the path of development that has led to the world we know, or if, given the choice, they would prefer to invoke a new beginning, allowing a different destiny to take its toll. The implicit question that the piece asks is whether, knowing everything we know now, would we choose to have a human history so affected by religion? Or would we instead choose to keep Adam and Eve, and their influence, locked in their bell jars?
Asked his opinion, Gjoen commented that even he could not see an obvious answer.
“Historically, I see religion as a way of controlling the masses, but it’s also about the individual rising about that control and being able to interpret things for yourself,” he said.
“A lot of beauty has come from religion and would we still be where we are without it?”
The act of renewal, of starting again and finding creation through destruction are themes also explored by artist Jean-Luc Almond.
The human desire to create was classically seen as proof that humans were made in the image of the first Creator, however, Almond’s creative process is controversial. After first meticulously crafting a portrait from oils and resins, Almond then smears the paint beyond recognition.
Jean-Luc Almond – Virginia
This is, Almond acknowledges, undoubtedly destructive, and yet, he claims, it is through this destruction that what he seeks to create is found.
This is not a new artistic approach. There is a famous saying, often attributed to Pablo Picasso, but actually voiced by philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, that “The urge for destruction is also a creative urge.”
Almond describes this urge to damage as a desire to discover that which is most human in the artwork.
“The destructive element brings it to an emotional level,” he commented.
“Some people interpret the destruction as angry, some find it dark, some find it beautiful. I like the ambiguity it creates, everyone feels differently.”
Michelle Mildenhall’s contribution to the exhibition was an intriguing challenge to traditional religious values.
The world’s first latex artist, Mildenhall explores the kinky and the provocative by creating striking portraits from pieces of latex appliquéd together.
While Mildenhall’s pieces in the exhibit were paper prints of her creations, they nonetheless retained their sexual overtones, perhaps all the more obvious because their religious connotations made them incongruous.
Her pieces Bloody Mary and Sedusa explore both contemporary Western religion and more ancient mythological religion, in an overtly sexual manner which challenges the stereotype of prudish religion.
Bloody Mary depicts the Madonna with a red halo, framed with phalluses, while Sedusa is a depiction of the classically snake-haired Medua. Both are powerful women, who seem very different from other depictions of the figures as objects of the male gaze.
Michelle Mildenhall- Bloody Mary
Michelle Mildenhall- Sedusa
“I like portraying strong women”, said Mildenhall. “I love wearing latex, and I feel that these women I portray are also empowered through their costume and through the material which makes them up”.
Eugene Ankomah is another artist who is not afraid to challenge society’s norms and values, and, for his exhibit, he took the opportunity to explore the way that secularism can bring people to create new gods for the modern age, whether that be through consumerism, or through the search to gain ever more likes on social media.
Ankomhah attended the exhibition as an art form in himself. His face painted in striking yellows and blacks, he explained the ubiquitous images of the brain scans which made up the basis of each of his pieces.
“I have this artistic obsession with brain scans,” Ankomah explained, “they don’t denote gender, or race, they represent a stripped down human being.”
Because of the technology necessary to achieve these images, as well as their restricted depiction of the human body, Ankomah feels that the brains scans reveal a futuristic representation of the human race.
“There’s something robotic about the brain scans, they bring the human body into the 21st century,” he said.
However, this post-humanist approach does not mean that the religious was irrelevant in Ankomah’s creations.
“My pieces are certainly making fun of religion to some extent,” he said, “but it’s about finding light in the darkness, and religion, both traditional and modern can help you find light or it can cover you in darkness.”
Eugene Ankomah- The Gods Were But Exhausted Until They Cried Jesus Three Times
Talking about his pieces, Ankomah said, “In one of my images, the image of a woman’s distorted body on the cross reveals what religion makes some people go through, but equally in another of the pieces, we see that those who don’t use religion find themselves a slave to something different anyway.
“So is the evil inherent in religion, or does it actually say much more about human nature?”
One artist who explored the theme of religion through his photography was newcomer to the gallery, Peter Zelei.
Reilly said, “He’s not afraid of taking dark themes and working with them.”
Zelei’s depiction of a female Jesus, who lies in a bloody bath complete with crown of thorns, is not, Reilly explains a cynical remark upon religion and patriarchy, but rather a comment on the universality of suffering through the model of Jesus as its archetype.
Peter Zelei- Consummatum Est I
“In a post-religious world,” reads Leontia’s catalogue introduction, “the exhibition explores mythical and biblical gods, religion and iconography”.
However, from her exhibition, it seems clear that we are not, in any real sense, in a post-religious world. Its influences and pervading spirit seem very real and very present, whether that be in the projection of religious feeling in social media, or in the way that religious themes continue to constitute an important part of everyday culture, or just an acknowledgement of the beauty that religion has brought us in the art and architecture that it has shaped.
As Reilly says in a recent article, “viewing art serves as a quasi-religious experience in itself, visiting a gallery and viewing art in a place for quiet contemplation and retrospection, a chance to be moved, and perhaps transformed to the sublime.”
by Hannah Valentine
Godliness runs at the Leontia Gallery in Willesden Green until November 22