Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a Member »

Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. “Grande hazana con muertos (Wonderful heroism against dead men), Plate 39” (1863) (All images courtesy of the Hammer Museum)

LOS ANGELES — What does it mean to be a revolutionary? How does one portray a revolution? What are the parallels between religion and revolution? And does religion have a place in our current world?

These questions currently fill an exhibit in Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum with the very loaded title: Imitation of Christ. Los Angeles-based artist and curator William E. Jones selected images from the Hammer Museum’s and UCLA’s private collections to create a unique installation that engages head-on with the questions above.

Pedro Meyer, “El Guerrillero herido (Wounded guerilla fighter)” (c. 1982-1985) (© Pedro Meyer, photo by Brian Forrest)

While Jones’s own work has explored gay subcultures and the materiality of film and photography as mediums, the idea of revolution inspired this particular installation, sparked by Pedro Meyer’s “Wounded Guerrilla Fighter” (c. 1982–1985). On Jones’s first day looking through the Hammer’s collection, he discovered Meyer’s image and could not get it out of his head.

It’s not surprising that this powerful and intimate photograph of an amputated guerrilla would have such an impact on Jones. Despite the lack of personal or political information, the man’s direct gaze is as haunting as the absence of his legs, a washcloth over his genital area serving to remind us of how naked he really is. His shirt appears to have been quickly tugged on, the skin of his chest exposed, one shoulder bare. Gaunt and intense, he stares at us from a primitive hospital bed.

Personal sacrifice, much like religious imagery, is not only a complicated concept, but a timeless one as well; this exhibit makes that clear by featuring works spanning seven centuries. Some of the oldest images hung on the walls of this small room include an Italian 15th-century engraving of Christ’s “Descent into Limbo” and Francisco de Goya’s harrowing depictions of tortured and dismembered bodies in the series The Disasters of War. The chronology is clearly less important than the conceptual message though, with Giuseppe Scolari’s “Christ Crowned with Thorns” from 1580 beside a Larry Clark photograph from 1963, Pedro Meyer’s “The Statue of Somoza” from 1979 adjacent to an untitled Abraham Cruzvillegas silkscreen from 2009.

Käthe Kollwitz, “Outbreak (Losbruch)” (1902), etching and aquatint.

So if chronology doesn’t matter, then what is this exhibition trying to tell us? The almost heavy-handed pairing of Jesus images with those of guerrilla fighters and junkies makes the point painfully clear. Those committed to a greater cause, those made to suffer (often in misunderstood or underappreciated isolation) for their choices and ideals, are worth acknowledging, however disparate the causes themselves. Perhaps, in our current quick-fix, non-committal culture, with our rejection of religion, morals, and integrity in favor of our easily-digested idols of cash, technology, and capitalistic salvation, a devotion to any cause other than the bottom line is worth noting.

Installation view of “Imitation of Christ,” at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Jones’s selected works verge from predictable Jesus iconography to Che Guevara, from a 1954 Edmund Teske portrait of Kenneth Anger to Marion Palfi’s photograph of the wife of a lynching victim from 1949. Larry Clark’s image of a man in shadows shooting up drugs is juxtaposed with an image of a foot driven through with a stake. Jones also tackles the concept of artistic revolutionaries, casting those whose work defies censorship and morality restrictions as another type of sacrifice and courage. One piece, by Wallace Berman, explains in neat Courier typeface that during an exhibit of his paintings and sculpture in 1957, members of the vice squad entered the gallery and confiscated some of his work. When brought before a judge, the works were deemed lewd and pornographic. In the eyes of Jones, Berman is a revolutionary, much like Clark’s junkie and Palfi’s widow. They are all, like Jesus, anointed as martyrs for the sins of others, saint-like in their convictions.

Hendrick Goltzius, “Hercules Killing Cacus” (1588), chiaroscuro woodcut.

One of the first works of art in the show, a lithograph by Raymond Pettibon, features a rectangular box so completely crossed out that it is impossible to see what is underneath, if anything, in fact, ever was. Below the box, the caption states: “The most austere moralists go farther and would not permit the reproduction of pagan images and illustrations.” This quote is taken from Anthony Blunt’s book Artistic Theory in Italy: 1450-1600 and references the actions of the Counter-Reformers, whose mission was not only to remove theological inaccuracies from art but also to eliminate everything secular or pagan. They decreed that all words and music, much like all paintings, must be free of secular elements and paganism. Censorship, in this case, was undertaken in the name of God, and therefore standing up against religion and its related decrees was the revolutionary act.

Pettibon’s print is presented alongside another work by Wallace Berman, which features the text, “A face raped by innumerable messiahs places into sodden cotton an anxious needle. A face hisses rules to cathedrals and prepares for the narco myth.” Addiction, in this case, is a response to God. Sacrifice is to be found along with the needle. A paperback book entitled Jesus the Revolutionary is adjacent. The image of Che Guevara is directly above.

Drugs. Censorship. Religion. Addiction. Politics. War.

George Platt Lynes, “Walter Roemer” (1940)

Through this diverse group of artists and art works, Jones questions the very definitions of revolution, religion, and sacrifice — seemingly dated concepts in the 21st century. Our increasingly secular society, with its flattening of culture and cavalier rejection of religion on one hand, and its embrace of religious fundamentalism on the other, encourages an ephemeral state without any sense of past history or future consequence. Along the way, we have also lost touch with the core purpose of religion, with the true meaning of sacrifice. Religion is not just a superstitious form of social control. Religion is not just a tool of censorship and dictators. Religion, like revolution, provides a moral compass, a sense of order and right versus wrong. Religion, like revolution, gives us purpose and a way to understand our place in the universe.

So then how did we arrive at this place where religion has become a four-letter word? Where sacrifice has been replaced by quick-fixes and a determination to avoid the harsh realities of our frail human existence? And what have we lost along the way?

This exhibit made me think of Antonio Gramsci, an early 20th century Italian Marxist and a founding member of Italy’s Communist Party, who spoke of the value of religion in the middle of a movement that hated it. In his observation, religion wielded enormous power, not only because of the obvious reasons but also subtle ones involving narratives (who defines the stories inside of which we live?) and structures (how are these messages transmitted?). He argued that government — or better yet the movement — could never displace religion unless it found a way to be equally (or even more) majestic, spiritual, and all-encompassing.

Maybe this sense of the majestic and the spiritual is what we have lost. Maybe what Jones is saying in this exhibit is that we need more art, more history, more philosophy, more conscious choices in everything we do, say, think, and feel. Maybe we need more sacrifice and less convenience. More integrity and perseverance. Maybe we have to figure out what matters — and then commit to it. These days, standing up to religion can be a revolutionary act, but sometimes, embracing religion and imitating it, finding the spiritual in the everyday and the mundane, is the most revolutionary act of them all.

Imitation of Christ is on view at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through August 18.

Dahlia Schweitzer

Dahlia Schweitzer is a writer, teacher and former cabaret star who has toured widely in the Europe and the United States. Her books have been published by HarperCollins and Random House, while her academic...

14 replies on “How Does One Make an Image of Revolution?”

  1. WOW. An exhibition and a critique that not only makes one think but
    feel, intuit, ponder the larger issues through a questioning lens that
    is unafraid.

  2. I’ve found that personal sacrifice in the pursuit of spiritual truth is seldom achieved in the public forums where ‘Religion’ is often practiced. Collective imposition of moral norms onto the private lives of individuals inevitably leads to a buckshot-like generous splattering of dysfunction. In that case, ‘Revolution’ becomes the effort of individuals to rediscover and protect whatever corners of intellectual and spiritual autonomy they can while doing what’s necessary to continue living in the material world. [Or not- ed.]

    1. i agree with you. unfortunately, this is the role that religion now plays in contemporary life. it has become a method of collective imposition of moral norms. and yes, the idea of intellectual freedom and personal expression often comes as a result of releasing the shackles of religion. however, wouldn’t it be amazing — and truly revolutionary — if we could find a way to recapture the true authentic elements of religion without the elements of imposition and brainwashing?

      1. An investigation into the state of the human heart through the lens of art (and religion or spiritual seeking) might make for an interesting panel — we have become deeply afraid of our emotions (and hey no pun intended — but with good REASON) however REASON has also had its major failings YES? . . . I’m meandering here but responded to this quote strongly from my gut when I read it: “It will be a bad night when lacking truth itself, man suppresses the superstition of truth.” Rene Char [as quoted by Daniel A Seidel in “God in the Gallery.”] Some things can’t be proved, i.e. rationally — but are as timeless as mankind . . . like spiritual seeking, delving into the moral complexities of the soul, art!” It seems we’ve forgotten how to breathe into the state of paradox, myth, mystery. Nothing is 100% correct or perfection where human beings are concerned, but we’re so afraid we throw the baby out with the bathwater it seems. It’s just a story, a WAY . . . a powerful WAY (with various portals) to aspire to a higher consciousness, find meaning . . . and perhaps our better selves.

        1. I agree, Roz. Religion is a narrative that provides meaning and a moral compass and a sense of order — a way to understand ourselves and the world around us, but our tendency, as you say, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater — to reject religion without reforming it. which has set off its own problematic chain reactions.

          we’ve lost, in addition to these narratives and a sense of the majestic and the sublime, a connection to past history or future consequence, exacerbating our currently disposable and immediate way of living.

          and then, as a reaction to this loss, there has been a rise in new-age philosophy as an attempt to fill the void, but it’s grown too uncritical, too quick & superficial, too much of a lifestyle statement than anything else.

          i wonder how much our current aggressively military climate might be improved if we had a richer understanding of, not only our own religion, but of islamic religion and culture, as well?

      2. What we call ‘Religion’ is itself an imbalance, a statement that somehow our spiritual world is separate of material concerns. Modern Popular Culture in its’ best moments provides us collectively with moments of clarity courtesy of the artist (s) who strive to find truth while delivering it in an entertaining way. Preach at me- make me feel as though you know more than me- and you lose me. We have the seeds of what we think Religion fulfills all around us, provided by the sweat and pain of those artists (ie prophets) who can’t shut up the voice inside them. They hear the voice of life screaming out for balance, then channel it into their chosen practice. I say Art is Religion.

        1. i do think both art and religion exist not only to express what we cannot otherwise put into words, but to help us understand that which cannot be expressed.

          1. A friend of mine commented “All of art is spiritual.” Hmm. Seems right. Also to an earlier point made about seeking understanding into other religions YES! And it’s not about mixing everything together into a soup that loses all it’s beautiful distinctiveness, history and culture but about exploring, learning about and how to speak to other religions from the source of one’s own –. And YES to artists as prophets — and yet what about distribution channels of Art? We seem to be in a state of institutional paralysis in the art world —- there’s some kind of paradigm shift taking place and I do think it has something to do with digital and other things being stuck in the mud of yesteryear & over commoditization — while you can really see evidence of these voices through the latest Television drama series that seem to take much more risk and have much more richness and depth of layering in craft, story, etc. I must say HYPERALLERGIC seems to be addressing issues — it seems alive to this state, which is hopeful.

          2. Roz — I think the institutional paralysis isn’t just in the art world. I think a lot will change in the music world, in the publishing world — it’s all changing already. And I also agree with you about television. Many people will tell you this is the era of tv. There is much more risk and richness, as you say, happening there than in most contemporary cinema!

          3. Right . . . looking for church? Birth, joy, suffering, wretchedness, despair, resurrection, redemption? Get to know your neighbor or watch some great TV. Or see (read about!) an exhibition like this that addresses the real stuff (a timeless view) that is unafraid to juxtapose the secular (as in what’s happening here in the real world) and sacred. Church hasn’t disappeared, the hunger is huge out there . . . but its shape is transforming — if it won’t allow secular in and continues to build walls from a position of fear . . . the art, the spirit, and the forward beating heart is going to reach far beyond it. (back to that voice of the creative prophet that Andrew Harlander speaks to above!)

          4. Roz — you bring up the good point that a lot of religion and control takes place in the name of fear. And a lot of art is made in response/retaliation to fear and control.

  3. Thanks for another brilliant review. While I agree with many posters/commenters that art holds the potential to provide the sense of cosmic majesty traditionally provided by religion, it will need to extract itself from its current state of petty, trifling, navel-gazing insularity first. Even more importantly, we all need to stop rejecting and resisting religion as a subject of study and respect. (I don’t understand how one thinks one can study art, history, or religion in isolation. Transhistorically and transculturally, they’re intimately related.) Our current state of dismissiveness, aside from empowering and encouraging fundamentalists of all varieties, keeps us small and provincial. PS, to achieve the results suggested in this article, belief is absolutely, positively not a requirement.

    1. Sean — thank you so much for your contribution to the conversation! I absolutely agree with you that art’s attempt to isolate itself from the hoi polloi as had some tragic consequences. And yes, our current zeitgeist of ironic detachment and dismissiveness has also had tragic consequences.

Comments are closed.