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Review: MOCRA goes there ... again

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 19, 2012 - The Museum of Contemporary Religious Art of Saint Louis University is notably fearless. Is a Catholic university in a Midwestern state allowed to host the work of an artist whose canvases are gashed, torn and made bloody from emotional traumas visibly rooted in the Church? Apparently, yes. This show’s organizers argue that art and faith follow a shared purpose of radical transformation that is not meant to be entertaining, but is serious and disconcerting. So, such internal confrontation may be necessary.

A panel discussion earlier this month organized by MOCRA director Father Terry Dempsey really put Patrick Graham - Thirty Years: The Silence Becomes the Painting in context. Jack Rutberg, Graham’s friend and gallery representative, presented the artist’s life as a young man in Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland.

Rutberg reports that, as a child prodigy in the acutely restrictive culture of the Irish Midlands, Graham’s chalk portrait of Pope Pious XII brought the neighbors round to his house, complaining to his mother of his sacrilege. Rutberg quotes Graham as saying, “I started in controversy.”

Graham’s struggles to express his talents continued. When home from the National College of Art in Dublin, Graham’s mother burned his sketches of classical nude figures drawn from marble statues. Darker days followed. Graham had trouble with alcohol, sending his life into tailspin.

Peter Selz, University of California Berkley art historian and curator of the Graham exhibit, finds in the artist’s work a poignant intensity that one rarely sees, “forcing the viewer to look beyond surface reality to see the dark spaces lurking below.” Selz finds that Graham deals not only with loss, but also with redemption and transcendence. Graham brings his son, Robin, into his work in moving ways. Cold and Fatal Heroes is a father’s version of Madonna and the infant Jesus.

Along with references to personal histories, allusions to religion thread through most, if not all, of the work. These take the shape of haloed figures and an intricately formed vagina that resembles a crucifix.

The panel speakers describe Graham as both reviled and beloved in his native Ireland. There, until the last decades of the 20th century, all panelists emphasized heavily, literary freedom far exceeded the possibility of visual expression. SLU professor of Irish Studies and the Literature of the American South, Ellen Crowell links Graham’s work to William Butler Yeats and gives a convincing case for their common bonds. Crowell points to text, tokens and signs in Graham’s cognitive topographies as symbolist mechanisms paralleling signature properties of Yeats’ poetry.

Formally, Graham’s work has been likened to that of Jackson Pollock and Anselm Kiefer. The Kiefer comparison seems apt, not only formally, but in terms of emotional intensity. Graham may begin with a single canvas, but his creations become sculptural as he builds out, using thickly tactile elements, sometimes sewn on. Like Kiefer, Graham’s work addresses taboo as it comments on spiritual and psychic pain.

Kenneth Baker, chief art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle offered encouragement to those at the panel discussion to accept the invitation to view Graham’s intimately painful and painfully intimate paintings. “You may experience some resistance to this work,” warns Baker. “We spend much of our lives swallowing fear. Permission to experience fear is provided through Graham’s art.”

After these dark, foreboding warnings, the work itself might appear buoyant in places, as in Dead Swan, Captain’s Hill, that is fun in the way that Bellefontaine Cemetery is the perfect place for a picnic.

Sarah Hermes Griesbach is a freelance writer for the Beacon.

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