Here and There in Mormon Art

March 29, 2005 | 19 comments
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Last month I kindly provided my husband some uninterrupted bonding time with his children and flew to New York City for a few days. On the recommendation of a friend (bloggernacle personality D. Fletcher), I stopped by Lane Twitchell’s current art show, “Here & There,” at the Greenberg Van Doren gallery in midtown. Twitchell is a Utah-born and Mormon-bred artist presently based in Brooklyn, and his work has generated an enviable commercial and critical attention in recent years. The Van Doren gallery housing his installation is tucked into a floor of an office tower on Fifth Avenue, a lucid space of white walls and right angles and open to glorious crown sky lighting.

The show comprised nine wall pieces. The pieces, ranging in size from about 48 to 72 inches square (with the exception of two much smaller works), are assembled from an intricate cut-paper stratum layered on top of wood panel and underneath a glossy plexiglass casing, with colored paint applied to each layer in places. The dimensionality of its construction collapses in display, however: the pieces are viewed like paintings on a wall, flat in contour (though not in color or texture). Twitchell’s fold-and-cut paper technique–a grown-up version of a schoolchild’s paper snowflake–allows him to produce an inexhaustibly detailed field of cut forms, and then, astonishingly, to exactly reproduce a perfectly symmetrical opposite field: a work of art in our age of mechanical reproduction that, managing to marry aura with reproducibility, might even please Walter Benjamin. In this show, the relentless symmetry of Twitchell’s method orients itself around the diagonal axis, rather than around the radial or perpendicular as his past work has done; in certain pieces, however, Twitchell slyly shifts the organizing diagonal in successive concentric squares to produce a complex rubix-cubed effect, at once symmetrical and varied. His nesting rectilinear forms, like the yarn-and-popsicle-stick godseyes I made in elementary school, converge on an off-center vanishing point below the midpoint of the diagonal axis, providing an entry point for the eye and an anchor for perspectival lines. Twitchell uses color to draw the eye across the surface of the piece, often laying down darker earth tones in the bottom left or right corner and graduating the chromatic values–sometimes with an abrupt shift at the vanishing point–along the diagonal toward airy arabesques on top. The total effect can be shockingly polychomatic with neons and pastels or somber and restrained with neturals–but always kinetic, drawing the eye along swoops and sweeps of colored form. The forms themselves–the shapes cut into the paper–are intricate, iterative figures from natural landscapes (tree limbs and spider webs) and urban cityscapes (street lights, power lines, parking spaces). These shapes can be wildly diverse, without apparent thematic or narrative connection: cryptic personal symbolism, mundane images of a daily lifescape, and pure abstract form are connected only by the paper itself, incised as they are into a single sheet. In this sense, theme and narrative recede behind the papery medium itself. Twitchell’s cut forms are whimsical, often witty, as in motifs of Pringle cans and lotion dispensers. Their flat surfaces and sharply-cut outlines have a comic book’s clear graphic edge, and its weightless aesthetic, too.

What Twitchell’s work doesn’t have–and what, as a Mormon viewer, I couldn’t help looking for–is an overtly Mormon aesthetic project. This is in part an effect of his non-representational (or at least highly-mediated-representational) style: it’s difficult to say that his work in this show, at least, is “about” anything in the way that, say, Greg Olsen’s or even Wulf Barsch’s work is “about” something. In the past, Twitchell’s titles have provided a Mormon lens through which to view the work–phrases like “The Blood & Sins of This Generation,” or “Lands Northward & Southward”–but here the pieces’ titles were not posted. (Possibly titles were provided in a program or catalog, but this viewer, at least, could not locate any such thing in the gallery.) Twitchell has characterized paper cutting as part of the folk and craft tradition, continuous with historical Mormon craft traditions like carving, quilting, and pine carpentry; this connection doesn’t appear to me, however, either vital in present-day Mormonism or active in Twitchell’s work.

This is not to say that Twitchell ought not be considered in a Mormon context, however: Twitchell himself has situated his work in precisely that context in his contribution to Mormoniana , a fabulously innovative collaboration between LDS artists and musicians in which Twitchell’s creation is paired with the sublime work of D. Fletcher. Nor is it to suggest that Mormon imagery is absent from the show. The most striking instance is a large fist that appears to emerge, foreshortened, clearly displaying a CTR ring; its mirrored twin on the opposite field, however, wears a slightly different ring that substitutes a symbol resembling a doubled X for the CTR. Since this is the single passage of false symmetry that I detected in the entire show, it seems significant–but I’m at a loss for interpretation. (The artist was present in the gallery while I was there, and I almost approached him to ask about the mysterious CTR switch-out, but was uncharacteristically overcome by bashfulness.) Another piece features a white thrust ascending the diagonal above a field of green and brown and toward a heaven-like expanse of curving, dancing lines: Twitchell’s take, perhaps, on that most Mormon of all visual images, the temple.

Mormon visual aesthetics is still young, and its forms have largely been driven by its functions. Its functions, though, have been surprisingly diverse: included among them are portraiture, including the oil portrait of my children’s ancestor Charles Rich that hung in the Nauvoo temple; documentary, including C.C.A. Chistensen’s magnificent pioneer epics; ritual-liturgical, including Minerva Teichert’s breathtaking mural in the Manti world room (I was nearly transported with joy when I learned that the Nauvoo temple would feature wall murals); decorative, including the work of the French-trained “art missionaries” John Hafen and James Harwood; and, above all, devotional and pedagogical including the work of Arnold Friberg and Harry Anderson, who, incidentally, was not Mormon but Seventh-Day Adventist! (For an excellent and very lovely survey of Latter-day Saint art, see Richard G. Oman’s Images of Faith.) And the functional diversity of Mormon art, together with the (recent) cultural diversity of its producers, make it difficult to fix Mormon art along the Catholic-Protestant differential that has organized most discussion of Christian art. The traditional categorical divisons of liturgical/pedagogical, idolatry/iconoclasm, literal/figurative–all of which are simply cognates of the central Catholic/Protestant distinction–can’t accommodate Mormonism’s complex relationship to the the visual arts: a glance around an LDS chapel assures me that we’re resolutely pedagogical, not liturgical, about our art, but the recent emphasis on placing images of Christ and the temple in our homes bears a distinctly Catholic devotional cast. (For a fascinating discussion of Mormon aesthetics centering on the image of Christ, see this great issue of BYU Studies.)

That a Mormon aesthetic is difficult to discern in Lane Twitchell’s work, then, may owe as much to the aesthetic as to the work itself. In short, I don’t think a distinctly or uniquely Mormon visual aesthetic has emerged–and perhpas it never will. Inasmuch as Mormon art elevates theme and function above style and school, it must be understood as a primarily ethnic (religiously construed) rather than an aesthetic movement. And I, for one, like it that way. Because the emotional sensations accompanying an aesthetic stimulus can resemble the sensation accompanying a spiritual stimulus–you know, that thrilling rush of warm tingles–a “religious aesthetic” may muddy the message: am I responding to a recognition of spiritual truth, or to a recognition of artistic achievement? Later in my visit to NYC I visited the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s masterpiece “Bird in Space.” As I entered the room, I was immediately moved to tears by an overwhelming and totally unexpected emotional response to the beauty of its pure form, undulating, elegant, pristine; it was a singular artistic experience, and one that I treasure. I’ll never have that response when I look at a Del Parsons painting, probably. But when I do feel that rush of glad emotion as I contemplate the life and the love of Jesus Christ, I’ll recognize it as a spiritual witness. And I’ll treasure it.

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19 Responses to Here and There in Mormon Art

  1. J. Stapley on March 29, 2005 at 8:34 pm

    Thank you.

  2. Jack on March 29, 2005 at 8:56 pm

    Rosalynde,

    This is marvelous. I was nearly moved to tears reading your account of how you were moved to tears.

    You say: “Inasmuch as Mormon art elevates theme and function above style and school, it must be understood as a primarily ethnic (religiously construed) rather than an aesthetic movement.

    My sincere question is: do you believe that the two must, therefore, be mutually exclusive?

  3. Wilfried on March 29, 2005 at 10:20 pm

    Excellent, Rosalynde. We need these insights and this discussion. As I have followed the emergence of new Mormon artists over the past decade or two, I would tend to disagree that these developments in Mormon art “must be understood as a primarily ethnic (religiously construed) rather than an aesthetic movement”. I would even hope that would not be the case. Perhaps you need to clarify what you mean by “ethnic”.

    To me the strength of new Mormon visual art comes from its non-ethnic, universal appeal, its liberation from the pedagogical, and its discovery and exploitation of form as such. That approach stimulates the associative ability of any viewer, Mormon or not, to the point where one is overcome by the enigmatic essence of the object. At the same time the breach with the explicit-pedagogical and, may I say, the kitsch-liturgical becomes larger. Mormons who now purchase and display Christ-statues in their homes, and think it is art, remind me too much of Catholic bigotry and idealized closeness. My conversion to Mormonism included leaving behind that mentality. That’s why I welcome artists like Lane Twitchell, Kraig Varner, and many other emerging sculptors and painters.

  4. Rosalynde Welch on March 29, 2005 at 10:41 pm

    Jack, have you ever seen a version of “Bird in Space”? Brancusi produced many. The one I linked to was done in brass, but the one at the Met that I saw was shimmering white marble, unbelievably gorgeous. See one if you possibly can! Must ethnic and aesthetic movements be mutually exclusive? No, I don’t think so; most artistic “schools” have, it seems to me, arisen from communities that might be seen as ethnically organized. But I think an ethnic movement will retain a persistent focus on and referentiality to community identity, whereas an aesthetic movement will develop a set of artistic forms, techniques, theories and objectives independent of the originating community. Mormon art’s persistent connections to scriptural illustration, shared cultural experience, devotional purpose, and representational didacticism will, I think, remain ethnically bound. And let me reiterate that I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing.

    Wilfried, thanks! I love the way you described the “new Mormon visual art”–but I wonder, first, whether the artists understand themselves to be part of that “movement” (most aesthetic schools are initially quite self-conscious about their status as a new movement, it seems) and, second, whether the modernist and post-modernist influences on their work are really distinctly Mormon. I take Twitchell’s work, for example, to be aesthetically post-modern–with motifs and topics taken from Mormonism, but not informing its method or theory. Do you see anything distinctively “Mormon” in the “liberation from the pedagogical, and discovery and exploitation of form as such” that you describe? Maybe I’m expecting too much from a Mormon aesthetic: maybe an aesthetic need not have theoretical connections to Mormonism to be classified as such.

  5. Wilfried on March 30, 2005 at 12:13 am

    You caught me, rightfully, on a misnomer, Rosalynde. When I wrote “new Mormon visual art”, I should have written “new visual art by Mormons”. The topic of any of their works may or may not be explicitly Mormon in terms of referring to a typical doctrine or historical event. The most significant characteristic remains, to me, the search for daring, liberating aesthetic forms, without cognitive concern for pedagogy. Still, a message is there. It’s in the tradition of all artistic liberators. Think, for example, how Max Bill rendered eternity in his Endless Ribbon. (see here for the granite version). A Mormon may see in it the concept of Joseph’s ring, no beginning, no end, but the artist avoided an insipid linearity by the twist in the ring, which could be seen as symbolic of our belief in the meanders of our mortal passage. That’s what I see in the probings by our new artists: the form becomes the essence, while the message, if one wants to discover one, is open.

  6. Ben Huff on March 30, 2005 at 1:04 am

    Do you see anything distinctively “Mormon” in the “liberation from the pedagogical, and discovery and exploitation of form as such” that you describe?

    I think the open-endedness of Mormon cosmology, and the fluidity of doctrine (discussed, for example, here and here) really do give a theological basis for something like the freedom of form from pedagogy and liturgy that Wilfried brings up. In the infinite run of eternal progression, arguably any fixed goal must be surpassed. Even within the fairly definite picture of post-resurrection life summed up by three broad degrees of glory, there is an infinite variegation of outcomes (as one star differeth from another . . .).

  7. Christian Y. Cardall (TSM) on March 30, 2005 at 8:53 am

    Rosalynde, I don’t know that this is exactly the kind of “muddying” you were worried about, but I can certainly sympathize with concerns about blurring distinctions between lesser muses and the Muse. Heaven knows I’m liable to suffer confusion not just with high art—as someone with your exquisite tastes might—but with low art (read: say Van Halen or Desperate Housewives), which enters the bloodstream much more readily. In high school, in discussing the surge of tingles that would wash over us while playing Rush songs, a fellow band member and I decided that the best description of that experience was a borrowing from Star Wars: “Feeling the Force.”

    While I’m out of my depth pretending to discuss humanities, and while I’m probably misreading you, I don’t think I can agree with a message I perceive: a desired confinement of Mormon artistic expression to a ghetto of utility and pedagogy. I may be naive, but I suspect the most sublime aesthetic expressions depend not just on technical brilliance, but a depth of emotional commitment. One of the great experiences of my life was participation in Men’s Chorus under Mack Wilberg. At the end of the year he gave some brief comments whose exact words I don’t remember, a message in a bottle he wanted us to take out into the wards and branches wherever we might end up. I doubt he actually named names, but in what I at least remember as a thinly veiled jab at Janice Kapp Perry, he said something along the lines of, “Now you have seen what good music can do in the Church.”

    In the Mormon case, then, aspiration to aesthetic excellence is an expression of one’s faith in the Muse, and its execution an act of worship.

    As far as muddying the waters goes, it’s there whether we like it or not. Because of art’s emotional connection to deepest commitments, it might even be of more consequence than the “marketplace of ideas.” Perhaps there’s a competition between muses, even gods, that amounts to a confrontation not unlike that between Elijah and his contemporaries—and I would think Mormon artists would want to call down fire from heaven.

    But perhaps this is too stark. While Mormons must remain true to their commitments, they can also be generous in acknowledging that the lesser muses may usually be lesser perceptions of the Muse, and remain willing to harvest the bounty generated by the world’s army of lesser recipients of inspiration. Morever, we’ve argued about whether God is a physicist or lawyer, or evolutionary biologist or literary critic. Because unifying theories and even appellate briefs can be beautiful, perhaps the most comprehensive description of God is Artist—even the Father of Lights.

  8. Rosalynde Welch on March 30, 2005 at 10:05 am

    Wilfried, don’t get me wrong: I think we should encourage that “new visual art by Mormons,” and I hope those artists are fabulously successful (although then I wouldn’t be able to afford their work… wait…). Their work will be exciting and inspiring, perhaps especially meaningful to Mormon viewers–but I don’t think it will properly be seen to partake of a “Mormon aesthetic,” or a Mormon style or school. Do you think that the recognition and development of a school of post-modern Mormon artists would strengthen the movement and stimulate the production of more such art?

    Ben, very interesting possibility. Almost thou persuadest me… But I’m still skeptical. Although I’m attracted by your description of Mormon theology, I think it’s a poor fit with (present-day, at least) Mormon culture. I think our art is still growing out of our culture, not out of our theology–which is one of the reasons why I think think it’s still better described as an ethnic movement.

  9. Rosalynde Welch on March 30, 2005 at 10:22 am

    Christian, I think you’ve misread just a little bit: I’m arguing that because the idological work of Mormon visual art is so intimately tied to our religious community’s pedagogical aims, Mormon art is, *descriptively,* better understood as an ethnic rather than an aesthetic movement–and thus lamentations and gnashings of teeth about the adjudgedly low aesthetic qualities of the movement as a whole are misplaced and, as an analytical tool, pretty unhelpful. But this is not to say that I don’t rejoice and shout hallelujah when Mormon artists produce work–even religiously-themed work–that steps out of the ethnic norms: as you say, work of that kind can be deeply moving, even conventionally inspiring, and is immensely valuable; I agree that its production and performance can and should be seen as an act of worship (though not, I would argue, an inherently better form of worship than “ethnic” Mormon art produces). I deeply value and encourage it. I just don’t think that it’s “Mormon art” in anything other than the most superficial of ways.

  10. Wilfried on March 30, 2005 at 12:51 pm

    Thank you, Rosalynde, for your question: “Do you think that the recognition and development of a school of post-modern Mormon artists would strengthen the movement and stimulate the production of more such art?”

    Well, I have never really worked with a concept of post-modern artists forming a school. There is such a complex mingling of continuity and variety and renewal in contemporary art (I dare say over the past 100 years or so), that I tend to look at artists individually, of course noticing resemblances and alliances and tendencies. Whatever art critics say in trying to group artists, it seems individuality and originality have become core issues for any new artist. A look at any site, e.g. the sculpturesite seems to corroborate that. It’s become pretty difficult to speak of “schools”.

    My main question, however, would be: who are the Mormons in those lists of artists? Have Mormon artists, esp. in visual arts, some kind of organization or association (without being a “school”)? It would be wonderful to have a site in which their work could be viewed (and, who knows, possibly recognize trends and tendencies). But especially to appreciate their contributions which seem dispersed at the moment. I was at Sundance last week to view the work of Sibylle Szaggars, Pauletta M. Chanco, and Hugo McCloud. Since they have an exhibit in Mormon country, I couldn’t help but think: would they be “ours”?

  11. D. Fletcher on March 30, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    Rosalynde, golly, I feel utterly thrilled to be mentioned here. Lane Twitchell and I got along famously well; after 9/11 I commissioned a work of his which hangs in my home office, and we met many times to discuss its specifications. Then, when Mormoniana happened, I insisted that I got to use his art for inspiration, even though I think there were other composers who wanted to choose him, as well. I can’t say anything about his Mormon identifying characteristic, but he and I were both raised in the Church, and I find his work absolutely inspired, and inspiring. And you’re pretty inspiring yourself!

  12. William Morris on March 30, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    Rosalynde writes:

    “I take Twitchell’s work, for example, to be aesthetically post-modern–with motifs and topics taken from Mormonism, but not informing its method or theory.”

    That seems to be the way that he describes things in his conversation with Brian Evenson.

  13. William Morris on March 30, 2005 at 4:15 pm

    “it must be understood as a primarily ethnic (religiously construed) rather than an aesthetic movement.”

    I completely agree — but Orson F. Whitney (and his heirs — which Christian represents quite well in comment #7) wouldn’t.

    Here’s quote:

    “Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of “Mormon” literature. Not Jupiter, nor Mars, Minerva, nor Mercury. No fabled gods and goddesses; no Mount Olympus; no “sisters nine,” no “blue-eyed maid of heaven”; no invoking of mythical muses that “did never yet one mortal song inspire.” No pouring of new wine into old bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare [sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God’s supreme design.” (Orson Whitney. “Home Literature.” The Contributor: July 1988).

    I discuss this quote here.

  14. Jeremy on March 30, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    Lane Twitchell, in one of the handful of conversations I’ve been lucky enough to have with him about his work, recalled NYT critic Michael Kimmelman’s coining of the term “rational sublime” to describe the work of some American sculptors like Richard Serra and Robert Smithson. I think what Kimmelman was getting at was a certain elegance to be found in the overwhelming materiality–the stuffness–of those artists’ works. Lane might well disagree with my applying the term to his own work, but I think it fits: there’s something profound about rejecting the idea of creating ex nihilo on the “pre-space” of the canvas and instead demonstrating the materiality of the canvas itself by cutting the art out of it rather than painting the art over it. And I can’t help but see at least a whiff of Mormon cosmology in this materialist gesture. I’m predisposed to looking for this sort of thing, however, as my own work involves outing jack-mormon composers who do something analogous (with acoustics).

  15. Jack on March 30, 2005 at 5:31 pm

    “…Mormon art is, *descriptively,* better understood as an ethnic rather than an aesthetic movement–and thus lamentations and gnashings of teeth about the adjudgedly low aesthetic qualities of the movement as a whole are misplaced and, as an analytical tool, pretty unhelpful.”

    Ros,

    What is one to do when “lamentations and gnashings of teeth” are the only sincere response that one can conjure up? Cannot an appropriate aesthetic at least serve the element of worship by not being a distraction? I understand that you’re speaking of (or the lack thereof) a culturally defining aesthetic, but at some point it seems that aesthetic (style, school) must play a part in how we worship.

  16. DaveB on March 30, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    I’m a friend of Lane’s and an admirer of his work. It’s great that you got to see the show. The titles of the works were on a price list that was usually available at the front desk of the gallery, but it might not have been lying around when you stopped by. That’s kind of too bad, because several of the paintings had titles that referred to Mormon themes. The big orange and purple one right in the first room of the gallery was called “Mountain Meadows Mysteries” and was dominated by a circled wagon train beset by cowboys and Indians. Another one had something about “a stake in the heart of Korihor” in the title, although it was actually a tweak of Matthew Barney’s use of Mormon iconography in Cremaster 2. Another one had images of Elizabeth Smart being led through the desert, although I don’t think that was in the title. And I noticed the temple imagery you refer to; it also looked like the pillar of light of J.S.-H. fame to me, although what’s literally being depicted is Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

    The CTR ring is on a monstrous claw that turns out, in one sense, to belong to the Beast of Revelation. That painting features an avalanche of consumer goods, garbage, and rats, along with the Four Horsemen in the form of Ford Mustangs, being simultaneously sucked up and vomited out of the mouth of the Beast. This painting (“The Blood and Sins of This Generation”) is typical of Lane’s current work in that, if it uses Mormonism at all, it uses it as a particularization of larger American themes: expansion, materialism, transcendence, violence. In this case, the CTR ring seems to be just one more trinket demanded by an insatiable, goods-seeking creature. We’re supposed to fear and abhor the Beast, but Mormons also join in the frenzied carnival of consumerism that is the Beast’s work; we mark our right hands with our credit cards to be able to buy and sell, then seek insurance in our 72-hour kits. Or something like that. Lane is fascinated by the materiality of Mormon belief, the fact that there are millions of people walking around who believe that there were some physical gold plates under a rock in New York that were placed there by a Hebrew prophet, people who carry physical tokens of their commitment sewn into their underwear. This provides a lot of fodder for an artist whose works involve the concatenation of representations, patterns made of lariats, horses, circled wagons, and strip malls.

  17. Ben H on March 30, 2005 at 5:40 pm

    Yes! I think we’re seeing several different angles on the underpinnings of a distinctively Mormon approach to art here. Amen to Wilfried, Christian, William M., Jeremy’s comments, and I think there really is a kind of unity to these angles.

    Rosalynde, I agree that our art grows out of our culture, but I think our culture has been formed in significant part by our theology. Especially, I think our artistic power, such as it is (and in some of our artists it is a lot. Twitchell is amazing), grows out of a theological culture that is becoming less visible today, in the media age, but still is a lot of the life of Mormon culture. I actually think the increasing simplicity and univocity of the public, media-level discourse is one manifestation of Mormon theology’s Protean power, and in part a waypoint to greater unfolding of its polyphonic potential. Through two points one can only draw one line, but through one point, one can draw infinitely many lines. I think the correlated message is like the one point, through which one can draw more lines than if the media-level discourse were more manifold.
    : )

  18. Jeremy on March 30, 2005 at 6:10 pm

    the CTR ring seems to be just one more trinket demanded by an insatiable, goods-seeking creature.

    Funny, I was just this afternoon reflecting on those “Special Offers” on Meridian–particularly this frighteningly cynical special offer (for some creepy kiddie scripture add-on) disguised as an article on the idea of special offers…

  19. Kent Larsen on August 23, 2005 at 6:58 pm

    In this context, readers might want to know about Layne’s only ‘affordable’ print — Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, a laser-cut work he did for New York’s Mormon Artists Group. The work was created as a set of three prints, which retail at $1,000 each or $2,400 for the set of three. See http://www.mlandmh.com for more information.

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