It Cannot Be Trivial

Cross Symmetry

June 14th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Sameness Difference Cross

Sameness & Difference Cross , 1995

My mother would implore me to hold the cross higher, “You’re so tall, you can hold the cross higher than anyone else. Use your height.”

I was an acolyte for an Episcopalian church for a number of years. I started as a torch bearer for the youth procession after Sunday school. Three of us would run after class to the back of the church, put on our frocks and blouses, and lead the other kids into church with a cross and two torches. I eventually became the cross bearer for the main procession at the start of the service, leading in the way for the pastor and clergy. The height to which I lifted the cross was a point of pride for my mother.

As an acolyte, you never actually sat with your family. The six of us, cross and torch bearers for the service and for the youth procession, sat in the front pew alone. We often got  into trouble for not being the model Episcopalian youth we were supposed to be. We would stand, kneel, and sit when asked, but we rarely read from the prayer book or sang from the hymnal when we should have. We’d open to the pages we were supposed to, but only to check them off a list of the various portions of the service. I would actually use my fingernail and “strikeout” each part of the mass listed on the weekly program.

I also spent grades 1-5 in a Catholic school and four years as an undergraduate at a Catholic college. I didn’t intend to surround myself with so much formal religious culture given that I’ve never felt comfortable with all the rituals and symbols, and was never a deep believer in what they were to represent. That there was a system of belief certain of “the way,” just seemed silly. How could you know for sure?

Maybe it was the science side of my brain, which would question, “show me the proof!” And I wasn’t looking for someone to prove to me that God exists, but that these religious words, symbols, and actions were the answer, the only answer.

(0, 0, 0) Origin Cross

(0, 0, 0) Origin Cross, 1995

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I spent a year in a chemistry Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. By the end of the year I knew I would leave for art school and would not join a research group.  But I was still required to take a research course to finish my Master’s degree. The chair of the department suggested a mini research project that he felt would be appropriate given my change in academic pursuits. The final project was titled Quasicrystals, Ancient Building Science, and the Golden Mean. It was followed by a quote from the mathematician Roger Penrose:

It is a mysterious thing in fact how something which looks attractive may have a better chance of being true than something which looks ugly.

Penrose was speaking about the researcher’s desire for the more aesthetically pleasing solution to be the right solution. This was how I introduced the presentation’s survey of examples in art, science, and religion where symmetry is used to find “perfect” answers. In the process I was introduced to molecular symmetry based in group theory that is a system used to classify molecules by their symmetry. Molecules fall into different symmetrical groups and each group reveals various fundamental properties.

Cross Symmetry analyzes the symmetry of different crosses, as an ancient architect would use the “perfect human form” as a guide to build the Parthenon.

Canon of the Six Foot Human Figure

James A. Kane, Ancient Building Science, 1940

This new cross symmetry system became a way to affirm, deny, or qualify the value of each crucifix.

Tags: Drawing · Print

It Cannot Be Trivial

June 1st, 2010 · 3 Comments

It Cannot Be Trivial

1992, Intaglio print on paper.

It resulted from an argument I had with a Jesuit Priest. “Michael, art cannot be trivial. You cannot make art from trivia. Art cannot be a trash can.”

This was how Father William O’Halloran let me know that my proposed sculpture installation for Swords Hall would not be allowed. Fr. O’Halloran was Vice President of Holy Cross in the spring of 1992 and he had, earlier in the semester, allowed me to install a sculpture temporarily in front of Hogan Campus Center. That success inspired me to try again.

In retrospect, I understand that every proposal made by an undergraduate seeking attention for his art cannot be indulged. But it was how he said “no” that was disturbing to me. The dialogue drifted into a polemic on the definition of art and its value.

I documented Fr. O’Halloran’s statements about art in my journal at the time. “It must be lasting. It must be exquisite. It must be magnificent.” I admit I did provoke him by asking if he believed Jesus was an artist. To which he answered, “Jesus Christ was not an artist.” Why not? “He didn’t paint anything, he didn’t draw or sculpt. Art may be directed performance, written word, music.” But he spoke freely about his beliefs and affected millions. “Jesus Christ was not an artist.”

This was an argument that I wasn’t going to win. The piece would not be displayed.

Though I couldn’t install the work, I didn’t let the conversation end there. I made 18-20 intaglio prints of a trash can on paper and stenciled each with one of Fr. O’Halloran’s statements in red ink. I posted them throughout Fenwick Hall, the main academic building on campus and home to the deans (mostly Jesuits) and Fr. O’Halloran.

After about a week, only a few remained, which I decided to take down and save. Fr. O’Halloran and I didn’t discuss art ever again, but it got back to me that a few faculty had taken the prints and put them up in their offices.

The words and definitions of  “it” as “art” stuck with me. They became the seeds of inspiration for many future works about art, religion, and safety.

Tags: Print

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