November 18, 2010

Iconoclasm, Western Style

by Sara M. Patterson  

Photo by Doug Crowl

About one month ago, Kathleen Folden drove almost one thousand miles from Kalispell, Montana, to Loveland, Colorado (a town that touts itself as having a thriving arts community), in order to walk into the Loveland Museum/ Gallery and destroy a lithograph with her crowbar. The offending lithograph Folden deemed too blasphemous to be, was an image of Jesus, decked out in a light blue bustier, receiving oral sex. Jesus looks pleased. As she tore the lithograph, one witness noted that she mumbled “How could anyone desecrate my Lord.” Since then, her supporters have likened her to the biblical Jael who, committed to her faith, was “hard as nails.”

Folden was not the only person offended by the lithograph that was only one panel of a twelve-panel, accordion-style piece. About three weeks after the exhibit opened to allow visitors to see the work titled The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals by California artist and Stanford University professor Enrique Chagoya, there was a complaint about the Chagoya lithograph that a city councilor tried and failed to place on the council's agenda. After word got around that the museum had this piece on display, protesters demonstrated outside the museum with picket signs. They believed they did not need to actually see the artwork; they knew that “This is not beauty, this is smut.”  (For an photo of the destroyed art work, visit here.  Visit this site for an image of the original.  Be warned. The image is graphic and may offend some readers.) 

One week after his art was ripped to pieces in the Loveland Museum/Gallery, artist Enrique Chagoya accepted a commission from a Loveland church to create a portrait of Jesus Christ, which he will do free of charge. Jonathan Wiggins, the head pastor at Resurrection Christian Fellowship, emailed Chagoya to inquire about his intentions in the original artwork. Chagoya responded with his explanation that the lithograph was a critique of the institutional church rather than Jesus himself. After the email correspondence, Chagoya said that he considered Wiggins his friend. Wiggins accepted Chagoya’s explanation and invited him to create a newer (and tamer) depiction of Jesus.

How does this relate to our discussions of religion in the American West—aside from the obvious answer that this is a western artist, whose artwork was displayed in the west and supported, protested and destroyed by westerners? It seems to me that these incidents are very much tied to what Tisa Wenger identified in her November 3, 2010 blog as the “power of religious imagination to shape local and national identities.” The rhetoric of the Loveland protesters clearly revealed that they perceived Chagoya as a religious outsider, one who could not be tolerated in Loveland, Colorado, a place they believed had Christian values that were not being protected by the local, tax-funded museum. And yet, the choice of the Resurrection Christian Fellowship Church to accept Chagoya’s new artwork—a piece of artwork done for free and with “no disrespect” to Jesus—allowed him to be reaccepted into the community. He was expelled as a “sodomite” and a “sinner” and reaccepted as a repentant believer. The narrative that allowed for his inclusion was deeply embedded in the narratives of evangelical Christianity. "I hope it's just a new beginning,” Chagoya said. His repentance of sorts was an indication that he could be welcomed; he could be a Lovelander, a westerner, because he promised not to sin again. 

News articles related to this incident:

1 comment:

Quincy D. Newell said...

Great post, Sara. I wonder if we could also read this as a contest over Loveland's religious identity -- the protesters insisting that Chagoya does not represent them (the "true" Lovelanders) and Resurrection Christian Fellowship asserting a more inclusive sense of identity. (I wonder, also, at my sense that this is about *Loveland's* religious identity, rather than Colorado's, or the Rocky Mountain West's...)