Learn about the works on display this semester at Saint Louis University's Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA).
Click on the title of an artwork for a full description. Please note that artworks in the exhibition “Vicente Telles and Brandon Maldonado: Cuentos Nuevomexicanos,” are not included in this guide.
wire mesh and wire | courtesy of the artist and William Shearburn Gallery, St. Louis
St. Louis artist Sue Eisler’s works have been shown at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Design Center, and the William Shearburn Gallery (St. Louis). Eisler’s use of familiar, “found” materials while developing eccentric relief surfaces results in work that engages viewers. Beginning from structured environments of her own design, Eisler generates layers of explorative play and patterning. This balance of intention and spontaneity may reflect belief in a creator-being who playfully, yet with order and structure, designed the cosmos we traverse daily.
The triangular form of the present work addresses Eisler’s interest in a trinity of “mind, body, and spirit,” each an essential element in her creative process. The triangle’s symbolic associations range from harmony, divinity, and fertility (including both female and male aspects), to grouped principles such as “wisdom, strength, and beauty.” Repetition of images, words, and gestures has long been a spiritual language, bringing practitioners to a place of focus and peace. The work’s diagonal lines lead the eye among the repeated triangles within the work, visually involving the viewer while conveying a calming message of peace.
South Side Chapels
acrylic on panel under tempered glass | MOCRA collection • a gift of the artist
The late Bay Area artist Donald Grant worked in ceramic, mixed media, and painting. He often incorporated references to the human figure in his art, and explored the interconnection among people, mortality, and the possibility that spirituality offers for transcending the pain of being human.
Vessel alludes to themes of epiphany, destruction, vulnerability, receptivity, and transformation. This vessel floats in space like an idealized Platonic object whose calm waters are disrupted where something new and unexpected has been poured in. The suddenness of change is magnified by the shattered glass affixed to the painting—one of the most stable and permanent, yet fragile, of materials explodes in a lively play of light on its facets. We might read this as a metaphor for impermanent human bodies that are temporary containers for a universal and eternal spirit.
mixed media on paper | MOCRA collection
Michael Byron is Kenneth E. Hudson Professor of Art at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He has exhibited worldwide, including the 1989 Whitney Biennial.
In his “Cosmic Tears” series, Byron explores the relationship of the individual to the universal. The works are based on a text by the artist that meditates on the inevitable mix of emotions that accompanies the act of creation. The abstract works simultaneously suggest both microcosmic and macrocosmic perspectives, and evince a quiet, reflective quality. In some of the works there are forms that suggest continents or constellations; in others, the artist introduces trompe l’œil* images of water droplets.
* French for “deceive the eye;” a two-dimensional painting that creates a highly realistic illusion of a three-dimensional object
reactive dyes on watercolor paper | MOCRA collection
Based in Newry, Northern Ireland, Grace Digney is interested in multisensory art experiences and works in variety of artistic media. This work is part of a series of works based on the life of St. Patrick, who is closely associated with Ireland. It is inspired by an excerpt from St. Patrick’s “Confessio” (“Confession”), translated from Latin by Ludwig Bieler:
"That same night, when I was asleep, Satan assailed me violently, a thing I shall remember as long as I shall be in this body. And he fell upon me like a huge rock, and I could not stir a limb."
Digney evokes this passage with a brooding nighttime atmosphere using a batik technique. Wax was applied on portions of the heavy Fabriano paper. Then the paper was folded many times and weighed down in a green dye bath over several days, with the wax protecting certain areas from the dye. The resulting double image almost looks photographic despite no photographic techniques being used. The shifting, kaleidoscopic imagery and hallucinatory forms evoke an enduring conflict between light and dark.
ink, paper, and thread on Tyvek-backed fabric | MOCRA collection
Brooklyn-based artist Lesley Dill works at the intersection of language and fine art in printmaking, sculpture, installation and performance. She is deeply interested in faith and spirituality, and the possibility of awakening viewers to the physical intimacy and power of language itself. This work reflects Dill’s exploration of the lives and writings of American poets, speakers, religious visionaries, and abolitionists. Combining imagery with stenciled words, these works elicit themes of contradiction and excess and ecstasy, activism and terrorism, stillness and chaos, repression and freedom, madness and sanity.
The visionary words of Anne Hutchinson, a central figure in an early American religious and political conflict in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, radiate from this intimate work. Outspoken and unafraid to court controversy, Hutchinson convened weekly meetings at her home at which she articulated theological positions that put her at odds with the colony’s religious and political leaders (and also challenged the patriarchal social order). Put on trial in 1637, she asserted that her knowledge came directly from God, saying, “So to me by an immediate revelation . . . By the voice of his own spirit to my soul.” Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts; she died in 1643 in New Netherland (now New York) in an attack by the indigenous Siwanoy.
acrylic on canvas | MOCRA collection
Salma Arastu was born in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, home to sites sacred to both Hindus and Muslims. A major turning point in her life came when Arastu married her husband, a Muslim, and converted to Islam from the Hindu tradition in which she was raised. Eventually, the couple settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Arastu continues to create work in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture.
In this work, Arastu brings the beauty and elegance of Arabic calligraphy into dialogue with modern Western art movements like Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. Her text is a passage from the Quran, one that she believes reflects a positive, universal message:
"Who listens to the (soul) distressed when it calls on Him, and who relieves its suffering." (Al-Quran 27:62)
(incorporating works created 1977–1992)
mixed media (including wax, acrylic, oil, ZEC, and magna) on canvas | Courtesy of the artist
The work of Los Angeles artist Craig Antrim reflects his interest in the power of symbols, Jungian psychology, and the importance of mystery. For MOCRA’s inaugural exhibition in 1993, Founding Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., invited Antrim to create an installation for one of the side chapels. The resulting “Icon Wall” includes sixty-four canvases painted by Antrim over 15 years, most featuring crosses. The cross has both Christian meaning and a more universal significance for Antrim, as it refers to the meeting of spirit (the vertical line) and matter (the horizontal line) and the tension created at that intersection.
Antrim’s varied use of color and surface texture makes a concentrated visual statement in the confines of the side chapel. His installation recalls an iconostasis, a screen covered with icons that separates the sanctuary from the nave in Orthodox Christian churches. Standing in the midst of Antrim’s many panels may give the sensation of being poised before portals opening to dialogue with dimensions beyond the chapel walls, or perhaps with the interior depths of the artist.
silver, gold, copper, tin, aluminum, platinum, and black gesso on wood | MOCRA collection • a gift of the artist
Susan Schwalb is one of the foremost figures in the revival of the ancient technique of silverpoint drawing in America. Based in New York, she has exhibited nationally and internationally.
A silverpoint drawing is made by dragging a silver rod or wire across a prepared surface. (Other metals can be used as well, referred to generally as metalpoint). In contrast to the traditional use of silverpoint for figurative imagery, Schwalb’s work is resolutely abstract, and her handling of the technique is highly innovative.
Schwalb tells us that her “Harmonizations” series is inspired by the Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim,* or thirty-six righteous Jews. According to this tradition, in every generation, there are 36 righteous Jews living in the world. These lamedvavniks have no acquaintance with each other and do not themselves know that they are one of the 36. It is said that they only emerge when needed to save Israel, the Jewish people, or the world. For the sake of these 36 hidden saints, God preserves the world, even if the rest of humanity sinks into depravity. If the number ever goes below 36, tragedy will strike the Jewish people and the world. One implication of the story of these anonymous saints is that every Jew should act as if he or she might be one of them, leading a life of humility and holiness for the sake of others—the world depends on it.
While Schwalb was reading about this legend, a dear friend who survived the holocaust began to die. She reflected that if she had ever met a lamedvavnik, this man was one. This led to making works using 36 squares. One is left blank to symbolize a saint whose life is ending, and the moment in which a new saint might emerge to preserve the world.
* In Jewish tradition, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is assigned a numerical value. The value of Lamed w is 30, and the value of Vav ו is 6.
charcoal and mica on paper | MOCRA collection • a gift of the artist
Sculptor Peter Ambrose has works in private and corporate collections throughout the country, including New York, St. Louis, and San Diego. The main subject of his work is the human figure, interpreted through the lenses of Cubism and Constructivism. Lynn Gamwell writes that Ambrose presents “a metaphorical projection of a figurative presence into alien, unhuman materials.”
In “Lazarus,” Ambrose brings forth a figure from an assortment of geometric forms. Translucent slices of mica overlay boldly drawn lines, creating a sense of depth. Recalling the Christian biblical story of a man raised from the dead, this work suggests regeneration and renewal, the newborn emerging from the cast-off skin of the past.
archival pigment print; ed. 3/15 | MOCRA collection
In July 2003, Tom Kiefer began working part-time as a janitor and groundskeeper at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility near Ajo, Arizona. When permitted to collect food confiscated from migrants and asylum seekers and donate it to a local food pantry, he was deeply moved at finding personal belongings in the trash bins along with the food. These items, necessary for hygiene, comfort, and survival, were deemed “non-essential” or “potentially lethal” and seized and discarded by Border Control officials. Kiefer began to quietly rescue what items he could, and he resigned from his job in August 2014 to focus on photographing and documenting them. The ongoing project, “El Sueño Americano / The American Dream,” commemorates the untold stories these objects embody, preserving traces of human journeys cut short.
“43, Neutral” is one of Kiefer’s “mass assemblies,” which evoke both the great numbers of people arriving from diverse points of origin, and the failure of convoluted immigration policies and systems. He frequently speaks of the “sacred” quality of these items and of the people they belonged to. From clothing to hygiene products to tools to cologne bottles, Kiefer’s photographs unravel preconceived notions and boundaries between “sacred” and “profane.” He notes:
This work is about humanity, and the inhumanity of how we treat others, those who are the most vulnerable. . . . This work is about the preciousness and the importance of everybody, how we’re interconnected — we need each other.
gelatin silver photograph | MOCRA collection
Hailed as one of today’s most important photographers, Dawoud Bey was born and raised in New York City and currently resides in Chicago. Represented in major museums in the United States and abroad, he first gained national attention with a 1979 exhibition at the Studio Museum of Harlem of candid photographs of the diverse people who call Harlem their home.
This three-panel portrait comes from a body of work Bey produced in the mid-1990s using a large-format Polaroid camera. The majority of his models for these works are teenagers, especially African-American teens. Bey says, “My interest in young people has to do with the fact that they are arbiters of style in the community; their appearance speaks strongly to how a community of people defines themselves at a particular historical moment.” In focusing on individuals who as a group historically have been excluded from portraiture (but frequently portrayed negatively in the media), Bey wanted his subjects “. . . to be possessed of the power to look, to assert oneself, to meet the gaze of the viewer. Having had so much taken from them, I want my subjects to reclaim their right to look, to see, and to be seen.”
archival pigment print | MOCRA collection
Travel has been integral to the work of Baltimore-based artist Regina DeLuise. This image was taken in the southeast Asian nation of Bhutan, where she spent a sabbatical volunteering with VAST (Voluntary Artists’ Studio, Thimphu), a group of dedicated artists providing Bhutanese youth with opportunities to develop artistic and vocational skills, share social responsibilities, and interact with national and international artists. About this image, she notes:
The state owns most of the temples in Bhutan, and no photographs are allowed inside those temples. This temple was built by a private individual, and I could take photographs there. Three or four monks reside there.
etched and hammered copper relief on board | MOCRA collection
Christopher Schulte is a self-trained artist who began creating and expressing at the age of 35 with St. Louis, Missouri, as his home base. Since 1999, he has exhibited in solo and group shows at venues in St. Louis, Kansas City, Missouri, and Taos, New Mexico. His art is found in private and public collections around the United States and internationally.
This scintillating work in copper is a visual interpretation of a mantra favored by Schulte:
from the unreal to real
from darkness to light
from death to immortality
OM, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, OM
The artist says of his work:
"The mosaics and organic images that take shape in my work blend all of the fragmentary elements of my world and existence into a celebration of being, glorious happening of pattern, rhythm, color, form and balance, replete with the internal complexities that sustain and color my daily existence. . . . It is a soul-searching process that affirms and honors the pleasurable journey of living and evolving. It is my way of rejoicing in stretching beyond the borders and boundaries I was always told to maintain."
acrylic on canvas over wood | MOCRA collection • purchase made possible through
the generosity of Debbie Laites and
Ben Z. Post
New York artist Tobi Kahn is a painter and sculptor whose works have been included in numerous solo and group exhibitions, and are found in major museum, corporate, and private collections. He has also designed meditative and memorial spaces. Kahn writes, “In my paintings and sculpture, I am trying to distill the complex beauty of the world into its elemental forms, while evoking at the same time the mystery beneath such simplicity.” Kahn is interested in the interaction between memory and place. His titles are invented words–ambiguous but evocative, inviting us to make associations, just as the painted images jog recognition.
This work is part of Kahn’s “Sky and Water” series, a recurrent theme in his work since the 1980s. The forms in his paintings register as landscapes, although with ambiguous, shifting relationships. Art historian Donald Kuspit writes that sky and water “are elemental opposites, and Kahn’s horizon line marks their opposition, separating them—but also linking them, even reconciling or at least balancing them, however shifting the balance . . . ” The expansive vista invites the viewer into a space of spiritual and philosophical contemplation.
oil on canvas | MOCRA collection
Trinidadian-American artist Gary Logan explores our unique relationship with the Earth and its elements, drawing visual and conceptual inspiration from both Taoism and the Romantic tradition in painting. Through landscape imagery and the language of the sublime, he navigates the complex terrain of identity and human nature. His work speaks to universal concerns such as oppression, freedom, race, sexuality, healing, and renewal, as well as his concerns for the health of our planet.
“Red Sea” began as a meditation on the connection between the saltiness of human blood and tears, and the saline oceans where terrestrial life likely originated. Logan also had in mind J. M. W. Turner’s painting Slave Ship, a work that evokes pathos and terror in its representation of the implacable ocean and the unfathomable suffering inflicted on enslaved Africans during the Middle Passage. The painting also draws attention to the warming of the oceans as a result of human activity, and the potentially disastrous impact of climate change on all life on earth.
acrylic on canvas, oak | MOCRA collection • a gift of Georgia G. James and Richard T. James, Jr.
Chicago-based artist Daniel Ramirez is highly regarded for elegant minimalist works. His work is found in public and private collections throughout America. In 2017 his work was the subject of a major retrospective at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ramirez cites as his primary influences Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the writings of Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the music of French composer Olivier Messiaen.
This work utilizes a shape favored by the artist, the trapezoid. Gracefully arcing lines recall the arches and vaulting of Gothic churches in subtle tonal gradations of greys, blues, purples, and light beiges. An almost undetectable shift of perspective throughout the work draws us in and suspends us in space. The work appears to hover in front of the wall, forming an environment of harmony and grace conducive to quiet contemplation.
oil, magna, wood, cloth, paper, cardboard, and gold leaf on wood panel | MOCRA collection
Since the 1980s, Jim Morphesis has been one of the most influential members of the expressionist art movement in Los Angeles. His paintings express a deep, universal concern with the dehumanization of society throughout history. He often produces numerous works on a particular theme, such as Christ’s Passion (influenced by his Greek Orthodox upbringing), nude torsos (inspired by Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Soutine) and universal symbols of mortality, including skulls and roses. His paintings are characterized by sensuous, textured surfaces.
Skulls have long appeared in art as a form of memento mori, or a reminder of our mortality. According to the Gospels, Jesus was executed on Golgotha (“Skull Place”). While traditional representations of the Crucifixion often include bones scattered on the ground, the skull is the sole image in this work.
The dramatic and gestural handling of paint on a ground of splintered wood causes the image to break down the closer the viewer approaches, echoing the decomposition process. Morphesis notes, “It is important for me that a work be very physical and not just look physical. I employ used pieces of wood because they come with their own history and their own character.” The subtle use of greens and blues suggests a possibility of transformation and renewed existence.
oil and mixed media on canvas | MOCRA collection • a gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundation
Frederick J. Brown drew on many sources for his paintings, including his African-American and Choctaw ancestry, his religious upbringing, and the folklore of the South. He referenced religious, historical and urban themes in his work, but was especially noted for his numerous portraits of jazz and blues artists. His work shows the influence of the German Expressionists and the American Abstract Expressionists, especially that of his mentor and friend, Willem de Kooning.
In 1992, Brown offered to execute a large, multi-paneled altarpiece based on the life of Christ for the soon-to-open MOCRA. The resulting “Life of Christ Altarpiece” was completed in 1995 and is comprised of a central triptych (“Baptism,” “Descent from the Cross,” and “Resurrection”) and two side panels (“Madonna and Child” and “Descent into Hell”).
“Madonna and Child” is the hallmark piece of this set. The strong, iconic Mary emerges out of a long tradition of portraying Mary as Theotokos (“God-bearer”) and Sedes Sapientiae (“Seat of Wisdom”). She embraces the child Jesus, the most naturalistic of the figures in the altarpiece. The child has a melancholic expression that indicates, even at this early age, an understanding of all that is to come.
According to tradition, just prior to his resurrection, the spirit of Christ entered into the realm of the dead and released the spirits of the important figures of the Old Testament so they could participate in the Resurrection. Christ’s spirit then rejoined his body for his own Resurrection. For Brown, the idea of a “Descent into Hell” had modern and even personal resonances, a deeply felt understanding of what it is to look into the abyss and to be overwhelmed by the various struggles of life. His return to the style of Abstract Expressionism that he used in the 1970s and the removal of all figural elements heighten the sense of vast, even limitless despair. Yet, there is also a sense of triumph over those difficulties, expressed through the spirits that are ascending. It is the culmination of a significant, modern treatment of the life of Christ.
pastel on black velvet | MOCRA collection • a gift of the Eleanor Creekmore Dickinson Charitable Art Trust
Eleanor Dickinson led a prolific and varied creative career, much of it in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was Professor Emerita at the California College of the Arts. She noted that her art “involved drawings of emotional expressions of people in all aspects of life, often dealing with unpopular and unlikely subjects, techniques and methods.” For nearly 20 years, Dickinson documented the lives of fundamentalist religious people of the lower Appalachian Mountains. She says she began painting on velvet “when challenged by their assumption that, since I was an artist, I painted on black velvet. I found the black velvet to be the perfect union of form and subject.”
Dickinson remarked that, being raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, “I was taught that we all carry our own crosses.” She described her “Crucifixion” series as “huge psychological portraits of suffering figures limned in pastel on velvet; intense images of emerging praise shown through the cruciform shapes.” Her subjects are everyday women and men for whom the passion of Christ has some significance. Employing extreme foreshortening and tenebrism (high contrast of light and shade, enhanced in this case by the use of black velvet as a medium), Dickinson places us at the foot of the cross of each of these people, elevating commonplace suffering to a monumental scale.
This work depicts Dountes Diggs, an African-American man living in Oakland, California. Viewers are challenged to examine their preconceptions of the image of Christ: this figure’s “crown of thorns” is in fact, Diggs’ dreadlocks. In 2009, he told Dickinson:
I’m very spiritual—though I stopped going to church at seven years old.
My Grandmother told me there was good and bad in each heart.
I chose to be good.
Life is hard: you do the best you can.
Grandmother worked in the cotton fields in Louisiana in the ’30s;
they moved to California later for better opportunities.
They were all Methodists.
I’m very spiritual—just who I am.
I’m comfortable with that.
latex on wood with wire mesh | MOCRA collection • a gift of the estate of Adrian Kellard
Adrian Kellard was a skilled draftsman and artist (he studied art at SUNY Purchase and SUNY Empire State), but he chose to work in everyday materials and in a folk-like style—he came from blue-collar roots and sought to create art that would be accessible to people of all social standings. Throughout his art, Kellard explored his experience as an Irish-Italian, Catholic, gay man loved by God.
The term “Man of Sorrows” refers to a devotional image focusing on the suffering of Christ, who typically is displayed from the waist up and bearing the wounds of his Passion. The title derives from Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
Kellard found inspiration in a 13th-century Crucifixion by Italian artist Coppo di Marcovaldo. Kellard renders the powerful face of the Coppo work in a bold graphic style and isolates it behind a wire screen and bars. The spare black, white, and silver colors that dominate this work contrast with Kellard’s typical bold colors. Still, a bright yellow hint of Jesus’ halo shines from behind the bars, and significantly, a small carved red cross is found in the lower left of the work. Those who are imprisoned might identify with Kellard’s Man of Sorrows—whether they are literally confined in a cell, or living in prisons without walls, the kinds created by society, or circumstance, or our own choices..
pigment and wax on panel | MOCRA collection • a gift of Zita Rosenthal
Michael David is best known for his use of the encaustic technique, which incorporates pigment with heated beeswax. He notes,
"My work has its roots in three great schools of art to emerge out of New York City: Abstract Expressionism, the great jazz of the 1950s, and early 1970s punk rock. For me, the commonality between these three art forms consists of a direct, intense physicality borne of improvisation; a desperate search for content created out of materiality, gesture and process. . . . I believe painting is a secular spiritual practice and at its highest levels speaks to our better nature. The more the artist is transformed by their process, the more one 'lets go' of control, the more open the experience and the greater the record of that transformation. This experience actualizes the state of being part of something larger than ourselves, something we feel and know but don’t fully understand—something greater than oneself."
The surface of “Missing in Action” is covered with irregular chunks of red encaustic wax. Described by one commentator as a “red badge of courage,” this work may be perceived by some viewers as being covered with red flowers. But, horrifyingly, the wax can also appear to be human flesh. This work bears witness to the unspeakable suffering of Jewish communities during periods of persecution, especially the Holocaust. Yet in its grand scale, it also testifies to a spirit of perseverance, resilience, and even hope in the face of such evil.
- “Triptych: Eleventh, Twelfth, and Thirteenth Stations of the Cross for Latin America – La Pasión”
- “Cruz to Bishop Oscar Romero, Martyr of El Salvador”