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Our subject today is God.
Not God as politics, which has occupied newspaper pages for far too long a time, but the much more agreeable one of God as art.
In the earliest centuries of civilization, in fact, nearly all art had to do with God or, if you will, gods.
Even in more recent times, artists of every bent have found God a compelling subject, but in wildly differing ways. Michelangelo gave us the patriarchal God of Judeo-Christian tradition, reaching to touch mere mortal man with the divine spark.
Casimir Malevich, the raging revolutionary Russian artist, spent the better part of his artistic career searching for a true image of God, and came up with a black circle.
Neither is represented in "100 Artists See God," a new exhibition of works by contemporary artists organized by the New York-based Independent Curators International. The exhibition travels about the country and next opens Sept. 29 at the Albright College Freedman Art Gallery in Reading, Pa. It stays there through Jan. 8 before moving to Nashville, a clime which may view it as a trifle provocative.
The show is curated by the whimsical and oft irreverent California artist John Baldessari and artist/arts scholar Mary Cranston. In an essay accompanying the show, they wrote: "Whether or not one believes in God, whether we describe ourselves as theists, atheists, or even anti-theists, we all live in a world that is profoundly influenced by concepts of God. We were pretty sure the notion of God was affecting world events, but we had no certain idea how, or whether, God and religion were affecting art. So we decided to ask the artists."
The art produced in response is in some cases the artist's own view of God, the artist's view of others' views of God, and views of places, things, symbols, imaginings, etc., where God might be found.
L.A. artist Sam Durant, for example, sees God, or the possibility of God, in a run-down, graffiti-specked California house, probably in the barrio.
"My work is primarily involved in an anti-nostalgic dialogue with history," he said.
Marnie Weber, another L.A. artist, presents a sort of wintry Eden, populated by beautiful birds and God in several representations of the same naked young girl.
"`The Little Girl God' takes place in one of 11 rooms of a large storybook dollhouse, each of them a setting for a different drama," Weber says. "In this one, a doll rises up from the icy depths of a pond to give a heartwarming sermon on finding God in simple things, such as the laughter of a little girl."
Some concepts run to the apocalyptic. Gary Simmons of New York gives us a square canvas with burnt stars falling across it. Others offer a glimpse of paradise. New Yorker David Reed, who lived for a time in the 1960s in Monument Valley, splashes a purple mountain landscape with bursts of other colors in a Navajo version of Eden.
"The closest I came to God in the desert was sharing a sense of humor about the contradictory meanings in our strange world," he said.
A Surrealist seascape from Rebecca Horn, a German artist, has a gigantic wave splashing architectural forms, including a stair, into the air.
"What can you say about God?" she said. "He's everywhere, in such a special frequency that our world can scarcely recognize him. We just have to train a little bit more."
In a color photo, New Yorker Louise Lawler lays the corpse of a mouse upon a lime green background. This is not what F. Scott Fitzgerald had in mind when he said, "Beauty is the scent of roses, and the death of roses."
Some of these images are of women. Liz Larner of L.A. gives us an elderly mom with a bottle of beer at hand.
"You don't have to understand me," it says. "You only have to love me."
Californian Leonard Nimoy's contribution is an exquisite photographic print of a beautiful dark-haired woman standing by the sea. She wears many bracelets.
Many fundamentalists would find some of these outrageously blasphemous. But these are artists, not clergy.
None in this exhibition is as profound as Michelangelo or Malevich, but a few approach that realm. Ed Ruscha, one of the better-known artists in this assemblage, has a painting with streaks of light penetrating a dark cloud mass that leads on to the black of night.
"I can't think of God without thinking of shafts of light," he says. "And I can't see shafts of light without thinking of God."
All these works have something in common. None proclaims itself to be the absolute, official image of God, with all others to be denounced or outlawed.
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.