Art for God's sake

Most people don't want their art-going experience mixed up with God. To them -- to us -- the separation of art and church is a modern-day luxury we've grown to take for granted, necessary for keeping our high culture clear of any brainwashing effects of organized, God-fearing religion.

Artistically inclined kids who grow up in the shadow of religion-based guilt and restraint (read: years' worth of Sunday school) want their grown-up expression liberated from such indoctrination, and so do their viewers. Better to have art stick to themes of politics and pop culture and sex and heartbreak and pure moodiness. If anything, the artist's evolving work might reference the trauma of a religious upbringing. Art people look at grad-school Joey's painting of a terrified kid getting his hand slapped by a ruler-wielding nun, or at Andres Serrano's crucifix-plunged-in-urine "Piss Christ," and nod knowingly. Ah, yes. We 21st-century types are escapees from the barbaric iron fist of the church, free from the notion that we mortals should make art solely to glorify a God greater than our own ego.

America has witnessed the secularizing of art more than any other culture; as a rather young and profane country, we've managed to leave the high rulings and wars of religion back in Europe (and Africa, and South America, and...) with our ancestors. Not to say that America isn't riddled with organized religion, but it seems our visual-art world has, especially in this century, disposed of such trappings, brushing with it only in tense little conflicts -- i.e., Jesse Helms vs. the NEA. These things pass.

When traveling through our old, paternal countries, we visit their art worlds and accept that theirs is a history so mired in religious rule that there's no way around the fact that their greatest art consists of stained glass at Chartres, cathedrals in Barcelona and Edinburgh, biblical figures carved in marble in Florence. That's their baggage, we think. Gorgeous, but baggage nonetheless. By time-line standards, our own Puritan leanings evaporated pretty quickly. (Oh, there's always a gaggle of folk artists obsessed with the New Testament, but that's another story.) So to us back at home, art like Mark Rothko's chapel in Houston isn't so much directly religious as it is subtly spiritual, which is borderline OK -- amorphous, serenely nondenominational.

The more recent national fascination with the spiritual world has certainly invaded the media landscape: TV shows about angels and plays about angels and books about angels. So it's not so much about God or Jesus or even popular-guy Dalai Lama as it is about winged guardians and crystals and martyred monks living in the mountains of Tibet. But serious art hounds won't touch this stuff unless they want to be ironic. Or, happy and obtuse in their denial, they overlook the spiritual content of an artwork entirely.

Too often, even an artist's personal spiritual experience comes off religious to the viewer: It smacks of some religion's parameters and history. It may be a set of beliefs unique to that artist, but wafting off his artwork, it may seem prayerful or preachy.

How many rock critics, when listening to the acclaimed Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel sing out on his last album, "I love you, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do," winced with startled confusion and hoped that: One, Mangum was being sarcastic; or two, he meant Jesus Christ as a passionately charged expletive, added to his declaration of love for his girlfriend. Or boyfriend -- critics are cool with various sexual orientations, just not religious orientation). In the dozens of glowing reviews about the record, not one writer addresses this lyric with any wonder or analysis. Too awkward, too out of line with pop music's aggressively non-Christian profile. Let's just assume Mangum's being perverse.

This conflict is baffling when you think about rock's roots stemming not only from R&B and country, but from gospel as well. The whole issue is even more curious when you admit that visual art, like music, is often the closest this world gets to any sign that there's a force more potent than our material-bound life, that we need expression beyond our nine-to-five workdays and the newest Tony Scott movie. We yearn for something bigger and better and more truthful, and the musicians and artists of the world deliver some slice of that. They're the modern-day equivalent of shamans, eccentric and removed from the mundane world by their visionary tweakiness. That's why we make them rich and famous -- as long as they don't pummel us with actual religion, that is.

An exhibit in Dallas evokes this whole issue with neither irony or subtle allusion. Local artist James Michael Starr makes no apologies for his beliefs, which are clearly Christian, and he shouldn't have to. His artwork throughout Stone By Stone Gallery is beautiful, lyrical, dripping with dense iconography and melancholy stories. This is a man who clearly has something to relate, an experience to purge through his carefully assembled photos and lightning rods and moths' wings. Not all the work is about Jesus -- he makes side trips to address the women in his life, his upbringing -- but the overriding sense is of an artist steeped in his own meditative, spiritual world.

Assemblage, the type of refined, subtle art pioneered by Joseph Cornell, turns out to be the perfect vehicle for Starr's lush messages. That Starr adds so much text to his pieces is both surprising and successful. He turns out passages as gracefully as he turns out sculpture, so that it never seems shrill or preachy. "He did not know how to be delicate and often did not want to be," he scrawls alongside a sepia-toned photograph of a father figure.

Many of the traditional elements of assemblage are found here: doll parts; old picture frames holding various aged photos and trinkets; leafy, twiggy things sticking out; tiny found objects that glint with metallic sheen. But there's nothing chaotic or sloppy about any of it (a common problem with amateur assemblage that leaves any viewer cold). Starr's sense of balance -- both aesthetic and thematic -- conquers the potential junkiness of artwork made with things he picks off his lawn and coffee table and out of his pockets. He's got a clear line of vision for each piece, whether speculating on man's need for flight (his series of nude-study photos doctored with real insect wings and myth-gleaned text) or reconstructing a crucifix using muscular Leonardo figures and bona fide lightning rods. His God is in the details. Nails spiral into a halo above a striated medical-drawing face; dried branches become the roots beneath a photo of a growing boy's feet. The artist has written, "I have been told that the roots of the tree extend below the surface as a mirror image of its branches reaching up and out..." Tiny starfish skeletons mingle with photos of Starr's ancestors like ephemeral punctuation marks: Yes, things on this earth can be beautiful, and all things pass away, leaving only the shell of their physical lives.

The common New York subway token hidden behind one cross speaks volumes if you just listen: perhaps Starr's lineage traced from the northeast, the transit between this world and the spiritual one, Jesus' journey from flesh to savior.

When Starr spins off into the secular, it can be as funny as it is noble; the thoughtfulness of his written observations never undermines his more religious leanings. In a series of insect portraits made from old encyclopedia pages, he writes messages of droll caution regarding the man's fickleness. For "The Dragonfly": "He dreams of hovering close by, feigning intimacy, then quickly darting out of reach, sometimes disappearing like vapor." As opposed to beetle-like "Insect," who "...dreams that he will swoop in from darkness and hurl himself passionately at the object of his affections."

Here, no viewer can hide behind a scrim of profane denial, no critic can separate Starr's aesthetics from his theme. It's religion all right -- more religion than mere spirituality -- and in this case, the art world would do well to give him this space. Instead of squirming with moral discomfort, just let yourself enjoy the work of one truly gifted. The best artists are driven by real impulses, by the need to say something. That Starr's voice springs from his devotion to a certain messiah and the perspective he gained from this conversion not only seems perfectly natural here, but gives his work its power.