Even if I didn't know the title of the exhibition -- "Jesus 2000" -- I would have known the minute I entered the small gallery: I was surrounded by images of Christ.
One painting depicts Jesus standing against a royal blue sky amid shafts of sunlit clouds. His coat, made of colorful flags from many nations, billows behind him as he beckons with his right arm. In another image, Jesus, bare-chested and wearing blue jeans and baseball cap, is a carpenter. And from still another work, a collage comprising digital images of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a somber Jesus seems to gaze directly into my eyes.
These artworks are the results of a competition organized by the Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter in which artists submitted their versions of what Jesus would look like in the year 2000. The exhibit, which includes 34 of the nearly 1,700 contest entries, has been on the road for a year, making stops in New York and Illinois. It now is on display through Jan. 8 at the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville.
Controversy has swirled around "Jesus 2000" almost from the moment the winning entry was announced: an oil painting by Janet McKenzie, a 52-year-old artist who lives in Island Pond, Vt.
Titled "Jesus of the People," it depicts a black Christ, arms folded across his chest, right hand clutching a dark mantle draped over white robes. He has full lips, a broad nose, dreadlocked hair and a crown of thorns wrapped around his forehead, bandanna-fashion. Behind him, McKenzie has included a feather, a reference to Native American beliefs and a yin-yang symbol, the Chinese symbol for balance.
In "Jesus of the People," Christ is masculine, but the picture is softened and feminized by its shell pink background. Gender lines are further blurred when the viewer discovers that the artist used a woman as the model for her painting.
Complaints have been lodged against the Christ-figure's race, the model's gender, the color of the painting's background, the inclusion of non-Christian symbols, the stance of the figure, the position of his hands, and the suggestion of isolation that haunts the work.
To me, the painting has an arresting stillness that invites contemplation. This Jesus is less awesome than compassionate. And it is inclusive without trying too hard.
Whatever you think of McKenzie's work and its companion pieces, it is fascinating to see how contemporary artists from around the world envision Christ. In "I Am the News," German artist Michael Di Nunzio imagines Jesus as a TV news anchor (how scary is that?). In "The Bread of Life," Sergio Portillo of Albertville, Ala., creates a traditional image of Jesus -- a white man with beard and curly hair -- from the nontraditional materials of burnt bread and epoxy. Other artists imagine Christ as a woman, an inmate on death row, a child, a Haitian refugee.
But many of these works, far from being radical, are simply of their time. That is not to say they are less than inventive. It's that these are contemporary examples of an age-old struggle: the attempt by visual artists to capture the divine in images. And the works are far richer for having been built upon a long tradition.
A historical context
Just for fun, I asked Will Noel, curator of illuminated manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum to point out a few of the many examples of images, techniques and traditions handed down over the years and reflected in "Jesus 2000."
It's clear, for example, that Sara Beth Morton of Westwood, Mass., deliberately refers to other artists in her work, "Jesus 2000 Collage Digital Collage." It makes reference to Michelangelo's Adam and Eve; Flemish artist Robert Campin's Virgin Mary; and Italian painter Giotto's Mary Magdalene, Noel says.
Controversy itself is nothing new when it comes to religious images. The hoopla surrounding British artist Chris Ofili's depiction of the Madonna may be the most recent example of a work dealing with a religious topic that drew both admiration and fire.
In that painting, titled "The Holy Virgin Mary," the artist depicted Mary as a black woman in a blue robe that was decorated with clumps of elephant dung. The work, which was on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1998, drew crowds, caused some Catholics to picket the exhibit and so offended New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that he threatened to withdraw city funding for the institution.
Once during the early 1300s, a crucifix commissioned for an English church so upset parishioners that church leaders had to take it down during the night and hide it, Noel says. The controversial element? The crucifixion was depicted in such gory detail that it was deemed offensive.