Saturday, August 9, 2008

Controversial Religious Art

Dr. Christopher Allen of Sydney recently resigned from the judging panel for the Blake Prize for Religious Art (Australia's highest award for this kind of work) over his objections to a crucifixion painted by the artist Adam Cullen: Religious art prize judge quits in disgust

I happen to agree with Dr. Allen's assessment of Cullen's work: "It has a kind of deliberate ugliness which has been exploited as a gimmick." But I can't help but wonder whether he'd level the same attack against some of my work:
Similar words have been used to describe the above painting, which I painted in 2002. In 1998, some of my work was banned from an exhibition in a Wesleyan church because it was "frightening people." Like Cullen, I've "become used to strong reactions to [my] work."

There is a stylistic similarity between our works, but I believe there is a profound difference of intent. If I intend to shock, it is with the reality of the crucifixion. Cullen works with disrespectful flippancy, quipping, "It's just a Jew on the cross." My hope with this kind of work is to reawaken the viewer to the violent sacrifice of God's Son made Man. Pretty, pastel, stiff figures on the cross may have a place, but I try to express the pain and ugliness He endured in becoming our Paschal Lamb.

Update 12-2-2015: I have continued to paint like this now for many years. Examples of my work may be found here: The Artfinder Shop of John R.P. Russell


Anonymous said...

I don't think there's much, if any, similarity between your work and Mr. Cullen's: Cullen's work looks like something a 10-year-old would draw. Yours is actually GOOD. :-)

Dusty M Brahlek said...

I find that there is a time and place for artwork such as Cullen's. As I looked at other painints of his, his work belongs between the covers of MAD Magizine. Everything would fit: the style, subject matter, and the intent. May be he HAS done work for them...

Leyla Tov said...

Amen and Amen

Anonymous said...

Was Cullen's work just trying to offend people? To me it seemed like it had zero religious significance yet it was at a religious art show. Hmmm...

But I think it's an interesting approach you took trying to capture the pain of the crucifixion. That's an angle most Christians never really think about all that often anymore.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a difference between the ugliness of the act of Deicide, and representing Jesus and Mary as ugly.
The children of Fatima for example on seeing the vision of hell, described the souls of sinners as looking inhuman and like beasts.
Scripture dscribes Christ in his passion looking like a thing despised; (Because he took on the ugliness of sin) although he himself was not despicable.
I cannot understand why you have chosen to paint the virgin Mary (who was sinless) in the form of such ugliness; the" ugliness" was done to her, she didn't become so.

Personally I do not find either representation transcendant spiritually, which I beleive is the purpose of religious art.

No one could say that the tryptich by Grunewald is a "pastel" painted treatment of the crucifixion. It successfully exhibits individuality of expression without resorting to artistic plagiarism. ( Guernica?)or detracting from the sufferings of the pure virgin.

John R.P. Russell said...


Thank you for your comments. My painting is intended to visually represent the invisible emotional anguish Mary must have felt as a sword pierced her heart. I intend to show on her external features her internal pain. It is certainly just as meaningful to depict her with physical beauty, but I think the inexhaustible mystery has many facets.

I painted this just after my mother died. It was very poignant for me, after beholding my dead mother, to paint my mother in Christ holding her dead son. This painting was part of my mourning. I originally called this painting, "My mother holding her dead God," which, for me, expressed the utter desolation and abandonment of death.

Are you suggesting that my painting plagiarizes Guernica? I'll acknowledge Picasso as a profound influence on my work, but that hardly constitutes plagiarism.

I have no intention of detracting from the sufferings of the most holy Theotokos. Quite the opposite - I intend to inspire reflection on that precisely.

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