In 25 years, the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art has not backed down from the risks

Michael Tracy, “Triptych: eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth Stations of the Cross for Latin America – The Pasin”, acrylic on canvas mounted on wood with glass, pottery and mixed media, with pewter crown, 1981-1988. (MOCRA Collection)

I still remember standing in front of the enormous triptych by Michael Tracy during a visit in February 2015 to the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at St. Louis University. From a distance, the corroded surface of the mighty work could be mistaken for a sculpture by Anselm Kiefer, and Tracy’s work boldly stood in the enormous gallery, a former chapel with ceilings nearly 30 feet high. The hall and triptych remind viewers how small they are, which is a respectable thing for religious art.

“It looks like it was made for space,” said the Jesuit father. Terrence Dempsey, art historian and museum director, told NCR. “Its dimensions adapt perfectly to the space.

But the perfect adjustments are rarely completely effortless. Five people had to drill a hole in the wall to transport Tracy’s sculpture, which is 30 feet wide and 24 feet high and weighs over a ton, into the gallery. They then had to create a new wall to contain the work.

Fortunately, the artist donated it later. “It’s just too big to show anywhere else,” Dempsey said.

The massive work continues to look at the rest of the gallery, but is now joined for the exhibition “MOCRA: 25” (until February 17) by another work by Tracy. The exhibition celebrates the quarter century of the museum with the works of 25 artists. Oscar Romero de Tracy’s cross, first presented at the Venice Biennale in 1982 and since donated to the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, has just completed a seven-month clean-up. The sculpture commemorates the recently canonized saint, assassinated in 1980 in El Salvador.

Tracy saw a tabloid photograph of the murdered Archbishop during a visit to Mexico City in 1980 and was so arrested by what he saw that he studied the background around the conflict that claimed Romero’s life . The cross is on display for the first time at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, and it is one of many examples that testify to Dempsey’s commitment to taking risks and thinking broadly about what art can be. religious and spiritual.

Previous exhibits have looked at Andy Warhol’s spiritual side, AIDS, and Tuskegee’s experience with syphilis. It is clear that the museum, which Dempsey developed from his Graduate Theological Union thesis, is not a religious bookstore or church gift shop selling spiritual tchotchkes.

Michael Tracy, “Cruz to Bishop Oscar Romero, Martyr of El Salvador”, acrylic on rayon fabric on wood, horns, iron tips, hair, fabric braids, oil paint and silk covered rods, 1980-81 . (MOCRA Collection)

“We’ve tried to broaden the notion of what addresses and engages in religious dimensions,” Dempsey said. “It’s not just the art of the gift shop that people, when they hear the name ‘religious art’, reduce to these little statues and bottles with saints inside.”

When Dempsey opened the museum 25 years ago, an artist he invited to exhibit told him, “You better do a good job there because you could ruin my career and my reputation.

Dempsey knows that artists don’t want to be labeled “religious” for the wrong reasons. “People will think you’re doing Hallmark cards or that sort of more sentimental thing,” he said.

He also organizes exhibitions by the administration of the University of St. Louis in advance, so it’s not taken by surprise. He has not yet been pushed back, he said.

Another artist in the exhibition is the late Cuban painter Juan González. In December 1993, Dempsey traveled to New York to visit his friend, who was dying of AIDS. It took three tries to find a day when González was well enough to have a mass, and on the third day the dying man surprised Dempsey with his sudden energy. González, who hadn’t been able to get out of bed the previous days, moved a drop-leaf table himself and leaned over a sofa to plug in a light.

During Mass and the anointing that followed, González smiled radiantly as he sat between his two daughters in his Sunday attire, now too large for his shrinking body. The nearly a dozen people present cried as González gave each one a long kiss.

He fell into a coma the next day and died three days later on Christmas Eve.

“That’s when I thought, this is important,” Dempsey said. “There is a connection between the religious dimension and the people facing this deadly disease. “

He included González’s work among that of about two dozen other artists in the 1994 exhibition “Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS”. The opening, which featured dancers Pilobolus and Alvin Ailey, was the most glorious in the museum’s 25 years, according to Dempsey. “There was so much love and compassion there,” he said.

González’s multimedia “Freefall”, which he created a week before his death, appears in the current exhibition and is from his Diver series. The work, which refers to an ancient Greek fresco, depicts people falling into the sea, in the manner of Icarus. “The divers in this final work represent Juan’s many friends who died of complications from AIDS,” notes the exhibition.

Juan Gonzalez, “Free Fall”, 1993, from the Teresa and Lawrence Katz collection. (Courtesy of MOCRA)

Three butterflies on the surface of the ocean symbolize Christian belief in the resurrection, which González juxtaposes with a classic reference below from an ancient sculpture of sleeping Eros. This sleep is doomed to be interrupted, however. González cut a triangle into the top of the frame, creating a notch in the middle of the artwork and suggesting that “the effects of the pain we have endured persist,” the museum notes, “although we can hope the spirit will survive. “

The enduring spirit is what Dempsey had been looking for from the start. He sensed that something was happening in the 1980s, so he created a roster of 800 artists creating religious and spiritual works that would inform his doctorate.

After completing his dissertation on “The Pursuit of the Spirit: The Re-emergence of Spiritual and Religious Concerns in American Art of the 1980s,” he came to the University of St. Louis. There, an elderly Jesuit, who at the time ran a historic mansion on campus that exhibited decorative arts, recommended that Dempsey ask to reuse a chapel that was part of a large Jesuit residence that had been built in 1952. “It’s kind of the Bauhaus ersatz interest in it,” Dempsey said.

The number of Jesuits studying for the priesthood there had fallen from 250 in the mid-1950s to just 25 in 1989, so the Jesuits sold the building to the university and moved to more comfortable quarters. In 1990 the building was a residence for lay students, but no one knew what to do with the chapel. Dempsey proposed turning it into an interfaith art museum.

Some fraternities wanted to make it a fraternity meeting room. “Suddenly my proposal hit the top,” Dempsey said.

Sr Helen David Brancato, “Crucifixion – Haiti”, acrylic and collage on wood, 1999 (MOCRA / Jeffrey Vaughn collection)

Since the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, Dempsey and Deputy Director David Brinker have presented more than 55 exhibitions by some 230 artists, mostly American but also from Australia, France and Germany. “As with any project, what you think is going to happen at the start suddenly becomes very expansive,” Dempsey said.

Having loved the Alvin Ailey Dance Company since his graduate school, when he volunteered at Zellerbach Hall at the University of California at Berkeley and watched Ailey dance, Dempsey showed “Body and Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater “in 1993.

“What I wanted to do with it was show that this little museum in St. Louis could connect with one of the greatest figures in choreography in the world, Alvin Ailey,” Dempsey said. “We had gospel singers here for that. It was really: let’s see how we can expand it.”

Expand it, he did it, with what he thinks is the only interfaith museum of contemporary art in the world, and others have taken notice. The Museum of Contemporary Religious Art was one of the institutions the New York Museum of Biblical Art was inspired by, said former director Ena Heller, who now heads the Rollins College Cornell Fine Arts Museum in Winter. Park, Florida. (The Museum of Biblical Art in New York has since closed.)

Dempsey and the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art have contributed to a shift in the dialogue about the place of religion in art, particularly contemporary art, according to Heller.

“MOCRA filled a void in the museum landscape when it opened and proposed a model – highlighting religion in contemporary art – which has since been adopted by other institutions and researchers,” he said. she declared. “Their exhibits showcased art without hesitation to unveil religious meanings, and that’s a lesson learned for museums today.”

Dempsey, for his part, remains humble about his accomplishments. “So far, everything is fine,” he said. “After a quarter of a century, they haven’t arrested us yet.”

[Menachem Wecker is a freelance reporter in Washington, D.C.]

Enter your email address to receive free NCR newsletters.