Loyola University Museum of Art (June–August, 2010)
The Conversion of St. Smithson
Robert Smithson invented the New Icon. Disenchanted with the art of his peers—Pollock’s paintings were “tumors,” and Allan Kaprow’s performance Happenings a “Black Mass for the retarted” [sic]—Smithson toyed with reviving traditional icon painting. He began his career, in 1959, by creating Catholic Pop icons, uniting advertising imagery with the crucified Jesus. In Rome, he despised how tourists paid, not prayed, to see religious art. “If icons are seen as sense objects, they are dead to the world,” he wrote in a 1962 essay titled “The Iconography of Desolation.” Smithson begged his Italian dealer to find a cathedral to exhibit his icon paintings for his first European solo show, but this was not realized.
And then Smithson disappeared. For two years he made no art and then emerged, transformed, as a scientist. His new sculptures referenced geologic cycles and crystal formations, industrial ruins and nature as waste. Smithson banished angels and saints, celebrities and logos from his art, but the icon was not completely exorcised. His taste for the sacred bubbled up through the Great Salt Lake, spinning into a cosmic spiral. Rocks and dirt met their parallel selves (yes, rocks have selves) in mirror displacements. Smithson found the New Icon, not in a static symbol of Eternity, but as a changeable subject thrust through space-time—the non-icon.
Iconoflux, or, White is Black
“The white which I see is black if the Church so decides it.” –St. Ignatius Loyola
At the turn of our millennium, the National Catholic Reporter held an art competition to determine the new face of Jesus—the Jesus 2000. The winning entry depicted Christ as “an African-American woman,” according to the press release, although the skin tone and facial features could be representative of any non-white ethnicity, and the gender is especially indeterminate. The artist chose a beardless male model with feminine features to heighten this ambiguity. In response, a group called Tradition in Action, which fights to curtail change in the Church, cited a list of the image’s offenses: the pink background represents sympathy with homosexuality; the figure holds a feather, a symbol of Native Americans, which is pagan; there is a crown of thorns but “no trace of any wounds or blood.” The list goes on, but Tradition in Action’s greatest evidence against the efficacy of the Jesus 2000 is the Shroud of Turin. This cloth, it is told, was placed on Christ’s corpse, and his sweat and blood burned an impression of his face into the shroud. Thus, says Tradition in Action, we know the “real picture” of Jesus’ face, which should serve as model for all future likenesses. “This is an objective figure that must be maintained.”
Tradition in Action’s extremist conservative view doesn’t reflect the entirety of religious art history, but it does reveal a bias for an artistic continuum, that is, Jesus often looks the same in so many pictures. If there isn’t a template for Christ’s face, then there is certainly an acceptable typology, but even within this facial lexicon there is much deviation. The same is true with Mary, the saints, and even God; the faces change, but the names remain the same.
Bodies are soft icons. The body—ours, His, anyone’s—can be kneaded into the bread, or squeezed into the wine. “Some priests scrape the paint off images”—icons—“mix it with the consecrated bread and wine and give it to the faithful,” reports Archbishop Mansi in the early 1700s, although he is wary of such outright image worship. But if we can’t adore the image, then how do we get to meet the embodied surprise within?
We identify the saints and saviors by their accoutrements: a pet lion, a carefully placed stigmata, or the instrument of one’s death, such as Catherine, who carries her own torture wheel. St. John always wears an animal pelt. St. Sebastian holds the arrows that pierced his torso. These objects spell out the identities of their owners. Without their magical equipment, they are unanchored ghosts.
Born again and again again
“A stable image becomes invisible,” said designer Bruce Mau, in 2007. “Unless an image is evolving and refreshing it becomes static, which is death to an image.”
Icons can be frivolous. Just as they are today, so they were back in the day. A carved wood nutcracker in the Loyola University Museum of Art’s collection does not identify its eighteenth-century carving as a Madonna and Child, though the collection’s context would deem it so, nor is it simply mother and child. It is just a wonderfully carved “Nutcracker” with a woman and baby on its handle. Does this nutcracker not carry the spirit of the savior into the hand of the nut-cracking user, through the cracked nut shell, into the nut, and into the mouth of the nut eater, just as the priests a century earlier could mash up an icon’s paint into the host and feed it to the pious? If we are going to look, we might as well touch, and then we might as well feast.
The object lesson of the New Icon is that it is a pill rather than a meal. It transports, not nourishes. Icons are touch-and-go, but the target is moving, like those rosy-cheeked winged baby heads. A New Icon is less the Madonna, and more the Madonna’s flowing blue robe. And oh! There are so many robes. So many folds to fashion, so much blue velvet to inhale. It’s in those folds that we identify the Old Masters by their signature zig-zag or softened styles, and it’s beneath those folds that we hide, like shy toddlers, peeking out upon an ever-expanding globe.