I didn’t quite know what I was getting into when I opted to review the current show of paintings by Jason Saager at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle. Scenes from the Time Collapse, curated by Michael Berube, features works by an artist who, as a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Hunter College, would know better than to make art that could be mistaken as religious. It was, after all, the SAIC professor James Elkins who first took up the strange place of religion in contemporary art, and another SAIC professor, Frank Piatek, who claimed that the high art world greets religion with “a system of refusals.”
Exhibiting these paintings in a Catholic church is all the more perilous. Why not have your first solo show at a gallery on the Lower East Side? Something secular, something cool, some place more in keeping with the market and where writers will feel more comfortable engaging with the work on their own terms. It may be that this is where fate put him — he’s a young artist, after all. It may be his trust in the curator.
Saager’s paintings work well in this context, though. The basilica’s design, according to the church’s website, was meant to “combine the artistic ideals of the past, with the American genius of [its] day.” The interior architecture, colors, and ornamentation reveal an eclecticism that was popular in the late 19th century. Saager’s paintings are activated here, since he too draws on disparate moments of place and time to build something new. He makes landscapes from his imagination and quotation. They’re fantastical with a cerebral bent, each work circling around an idea of the malleability of time and space.
“Expulsion to Holographic Simulation” (all the paintings are curiously undated) is an adaptation of Giovanni di Paolo’s “The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise” (1445), which was itself inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1320). The Sienese painting is now badly cracked, and Saager has used this historical accident as an impetus for transforming the image into broken ice. This relocates the barrenness outside of Eden to the Arctic, rather than, say, the desert. It’s clever, offering a different take on the expulsion narrative as traditionally imagined. (He could have painted Adam and Eve eating an apricot instead of an apple, as “apple” is not mentioned in the Torah.) But it’s corny too, in a self-conscious way, collapsing “high art” into science-fiction illustration, bringing the work into step with the Chicago Imagists.
Saager also takes ostensibly secular visions and redirects them. “Altered Reflections from Off-World Settlements” reenacts John Rasmussen’s “Berks County Almshouse” (1880), which itself reenacts an earlier “Berks County Almshouse” (1878) by Charles Hofmann. Saager has unsettled the same settlement by depopulating it and setting it adrift. The empty town includes an orange temple without doors and several openings to landscapes in other dimensions. This appears to reorient the society from its Protestant underpinnings to pagan ones, from a distant past or far future. Maybe a biblical plague wiped out the ancient Egyptians who once ruled Utah.
What I was not prepared for in reviewing this show were the depths to which I would be submerged in the art world’s last taboo: religion. How was I to orient myself to works of art installed in a place where people were also praying as I walked around? A man was playing the 4,965-pipe organ, swaying with the chords. I expected to go in, see the art, go home and write a review of the kind people who read reviews expect.
This was a challenge, but it still seemed navigable until now, as I finish the piece from overseas, where I’ve spent the last several days looking at hundreds, if not a thousand, religious paintings in museums. All these works of art are housed in places for which they were not made, presented as artifacts devoid of their cosmic significance. I am doing compositional analyses of, say, Francesco Pesellino’s “Stigmata of St. Francis” and seeing Saager’s work. The same with Stefano di Giovanni’s “Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poor from Prison.” Over and over, this happens. What is the connection between all this religious art outside the church and these contemporary paintings, speculative and quasi-religious in nature, being presented in a church right now?
I don’t quite know. The world is rearranged. Thrown back to my critical default, an eye for formal concerns, I can say that a couple of Saager’s paintings look like “early works” — they are not fully realized materially, which in fact makes them no less intriguing. The conceptual premise of these paintings — time and place coming into or out of being — is embedded within them. The works are in the process of self-realization, deciding where they want to go and how long it will take to get there. As someone who has taken up the task of deciphering what’s been created here, I am left to my own devices and speculations. Completely adrift. Art that’s worth your eyes can do this: it frustrates. It doesn’t let you know what you’ve gotten into.