Religion, with its emphasis on tradition, has a pretty uneasy relationship with the latest styles in contemporary culture, art included. Much church art, including public art, wavers nervously between a comforting traditionalism and an attempt to be of the moment—somehow. (The cringe-inducing attempts of religious authorities to “reach the youth” by, say, text messages from Jesus suggests that this nervousness is well founded.)

The work of two young public artists suggests, on the other hand, that very radical contemporary styles can work powerfully to convey religious messages—as long as the artist is equally passionate about the style and the message. For Dylan Mortimer, a seemingly irreverent conceptualism serves a deeply held conviction about the nature of the religious quest. For Mohammed Ali, the power of the Qur’an’s challenge to our complacency is perfectly conveyed by the energy and color of graffiti art.

Praying in Public

In the fall of 2008, visitors to Manhattan’s Tramway Plaza Park at 59th Street and Second Avenue were invited, in a particularly cheeky way, to pray in public. Kansas City artist (and pastor) Dylan Mortimer installed “prayer booths” in the park, in phone-company blue, with kneelers, a praying-hands logo instead of a Baby Bell insignia, and the word “Prayer” substituted for “Telephone.”

Within, there was an instruction panel indicating how to kneel and fold the hands, and a warning: “This device exists to facilitate and control prayer in public space. Improper use may result in a penalty or fine. Please avoid the booth if you are sensitive to or feel threatened by actions that are religious in nature.”