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.”
The faux-officialese, with its nervous care to avoid offending secular sensibilities, shows up in other Mortimer works, too: his alarmingly orange “Bible dispenser,” for example—a copy of the sort of kiosk that contains real-estate-listing pamphlets or Learning Annex catalogs. The outside bears a triangular warning logo with an exclamation point, and “Caution/Cuidado: Religious content may be encountered inside.” The orange covers of the Bibles inside the dispenser bear the same warning.
And there’s a digital print from 2002, “Caution: Interacting with the Homeless.” In the flat, saturated colors of airline emergency instruction cards, a man stands with a shopping cart packed with belongings and a Bible in his hand; another man sits on a park bench, also holding Holy Writ. “Interaction with the homeless may result in discussions of a religious nature. If you are sensitive to religious or spiritual topics, avoid interaction with the homeless.”
“Coming from the perspective of a person of faith,” says the artist, who is also the lead pastor at Kansas City’s Rivercity Community Church, an inner-city congregation, “I find it interesting to see how people in our culture are pressured not to acknowledge that they have spiritual or religious connections. I want to step into the messiness of what it would be like if you didn’t have to hide your beliefs.”
It’s a message that Mortimer sends in the most un-churchy visual vocabulary imaginable. The “cool” comes from his training at Kansas City’s Art Institute and the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan, from which he graduated in 2006; the interest in public signage was the result of an undergraduate semester in Britain. “Seeing foreign road signs for the first time jolted me out of my familiarity with signage and struck me with the immediacy of the communication that signs provide,” he says. He put up temporary, and illegal, signs in Bristol, including several near an Anglican church. They said things like “Prayer Allowed: 40 yds.” and “Some Sacrifice May Be Required” above a black-on-orange crown of thorns.
Mortimer had been attending Rivercity Community Church for a few years before going to SVA; on his return to Kansas City, he was asked by Rivercity’s departing pastor to take over the pulpit. But Mortimer the artist isn’t proselytizing for the Christian faith—as he explains it, he’s engaging with the reality of people’s lives, a reality that often includes faith, doubt, and the search for truth. The search is the main thing, he believes, that ties together his artistic and pastoral vocations.
“I told my friends in the art community that I was going into the pastoral stuff, and I was expecting them to be skeptical,” he says. “But all of them—one hundred percent—said ‘That’s awesome.’ And the people I respect most on the spiritual side are willing to do the same thing that artists do: question everything. Both art and religion are ways of mining for truth.”
His current work is insouciant in a whole new way: fusions of hip-hop culture and religion, including rhinestone-studded “bling” jewelry that reads “Jesus Christ, God!” and “Ble$$ed” and “Who Created Yo Ass?” The materialism of the milieu doesn’t deter Mortimer. “I get it that people in poverty sometimes express liberation through material things,” he says. And the frankness of hip-hop returns him to the values implicit in the sign pieces. “In hip-hop, there’s total permission to express things directly,” he says. “There’s no sense of ‘This is what I believe but I’d better not say it out loud.’ I find that really compelling.”