COVER STORY: Imaging God — 100 artists explore the Divine in new exhibit

Michelangelo saw God as a bearded old man in the sky. But his artistic descendants sure don’t.

How about God as an egg with chicken feet and peepholes? Or as a big blue wooden ear? As a half-loaded dishwasher? Overstocked medicine cabinet? A two-headed hanging sock puppet with male genitalia?

Feeling pious yet?

There’s more, dozens more, in all their irreverently ambiguous glory, at “100 Artists See God,” a new exhibit opening Sunday, March 7, at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Works by celebrated artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Gerhard Richter and William Wedman are included, and their ranks — Jews, Christians, atheists, seekers and non-seekers of every stripe — all address that most probing of themes: who, what and why is God.

“It’s an incredibly ambitious show for the Jewish community, for the art community and the community as a whole,” says Connie Wolf, director and CEO of the museum. “Each [piece] is a personal entry point. There is no single approach to picturing the Divine.”

Meg Cranston and John Baldessari, both highly respected artists in their own right, co-curated the traveling exhibit in conjunction with Independent Curators International.

Said Cranston, “The more we thought about it, the more we realized this was a theme you don’t see a lot of in contemporary art. The media is full of stories about religion. But the art world wasn’t talking about it. We didn’t know if artists had any thoughts about the subject.”

As a matter of fact, they did. Cranston and Baldessari simply contacted about 100 of their favorite artists (or the estates of deceased masters such as Lichtenstein) and got nearly unanimous enthusiasm.

“That was the genius of the topic,” says participating artist Jonathan Furmanski. “There are as many ideas about God as there are people. I myself was not raised with any religion, and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about God, but I do spend time thinking about what other people think about God.”

Adds Kim Schoenstadt, a Jewish L.A.-based artist, “There are so many ways to go about it. Religious institutions, personal relationships to God, what’s going on in the world: to sort through all that and figure out how to put forth your big idea is difficult.”

The sheer range of works (they actually total 108 pieces from 105 artists) is indeed remarkable. From multimedia video installations to giant photographs to neon light sculptures, “100 Artists See God” brazenly trespasses across any and all aesthetic trip wires.

Anyone can see God in a constellation of stars. But how about seeing God in a constellation of freckles?

Artist Shoenstadt does in “Freckle Series: Adding Lake Nagawicka.” The dual-photo print depicts Shoenstadt’s arm, one image before she got a tiny spiral-shaped tattoo, the other just after.

Is it a meditation on the Jewish prohibition of tattoos? A glimpse of cosmic majesty with her freckles mimicking distant galaxies?

In sculptor Furmanski’s “Bumper Fish,” three plastic fish, each emblazoned with a familiar car logo, rest on an automobile floor mat. Car logos on a fish. Get it?

Is it Furmanski’s commentary on American car culture? Or perhaps a flippant comparison of religion and consumerism?

In art, there are no simple answers, nor should there be.

Rita McBride’s “Polyptych,” a work made from a quartet of cardboard air fresheners, is displayed side by side with Jeremy Deller’s “Bumper Sticker” (which boasts the slogan “God Less America”).

John Waters’ “15th Station,” an eerie filmstrip-like print of Jesus on the cross, somehow dovetails with Catherine Opie’s photojournalistic image of evangelical homophobes carrying signs urging gays to “burn in hell.” Organizers aren’t expecting any Mapplethorpian art scandals, however.

“I don’t anticipate Rudy Giuliani staging a protest,” quips Wolf, in a humorous reference to the former New York mayor’s fury over a painting of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung, displayed at the Brooklyn Museum.

Adds Cranston: “Artists do have a general tendency to be irreverent. Only recently has sincerity been creeping back in.”

For much of history, “seeing God” was Job One for most artists. Whether painting the Sistine Chapel or carving a fertility goddess out of limestone, artists once saw their chief purpose as concretizing the divine.

“In earlier times, artists were limited in subject matter because of patronage,” says Cranston. “The church footed the bill. Today the world is more secularized. There’s still plenty of religious art, but not so much in the contemporary art world I participate in.”

This exhibit was meant to remedy that. However, Wolf is quick to point out that “100 Artists See God” is not a Jewish exhibit, despite the setting.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be a Jewish show,” she says, “but we liked the idea of doing it in a Jewish museum where we could bring these differing ideas together from an interfaith perspective.”

Some works recycle traditionalist iconography, such as the Rev. Ethan Acres’ dizzy photo collage of Christian symbols. Others draw on the inspirational power of nature, such as Glen Walter Rubsamen’s painting of an imposing tree-topped crag titled “Hopewell 2.”

Jewish artists have their own eclectic spin. Actor Leonard Nimoy, who has earned accolades for his art photography, contributed “Shekhina,” a provocative image of a young Jewish woman, nude, wrapped in tefillin and a diaphanous shroud.

Another important Jewish artist in the line-up is Eleanor Antin. Her piece “The Last Day” should turn a few heads.

It’s a large chromogenic print depicting the day after Mount Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii. In the picture, shattered Roman citizens wander aimlessly as they comprehend the end of the world.

“I had a vision of the American Empire and the Roman Empire,” says Antin, a professor emeritus at U.C. San Diego. “Of people living the good life on the brink of annihilation.”

So where is God in that?

“I’m not interested in spiritualism,” she says, “but I do have a strong ethnic sense of being Jewish, which for me has no relation to religion at all. But when I think of God I think of the last day.”

For Schoenstadt, her own body became her canvas. Known for stretching the definition of drawing (she once created a work comprising sound recordings of her drawing), the artist wanted to expand artistic frontiers once again with her latest piece.

“There have been many conversations going on about Jewish law,” she says. “I decided to take part in that conversation.”

Intrigued by the traditional opposition to tattooing, Schoenstadt combined her avant-garde ideas about drawing with an impulse to test the limits of Jewish law.

“In World War II, Jews were tattooed against their will,” notes Schoenstadt. “Now, young people are getting tattoos because they want to. This ties in with my ideas about drawing. To me, tattoos are just ideas on skin.”

Schoenstadt, who grew up in a Reform household in Chicago, knows her tattoo goes against Jewish law. But to her, that only adds to the “performance art” aspect of the project.

“When art is great, it continues a conversation,” she affirms. “This project is an outright dare to Jewish law.”

For Wolf and her colleagues at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, such provocations won’t be limited to the installation itself. This exhibition, she says, will extend beyond the museum walls and into the community at large.

For example, Cranston and Baldessari will lead a “meet the curators” discussion. Nimoy will beam himself up to San Francisco for a joint appearance with the Rev. Alan Jones and Wolf at Grace Cathedral to discuss the exhibit.

Several other panel discussions will also be offered to the public. Perhaps the most intriguing companion project will be what organizers are dubbing “100 Urban Students See God.”

The project is the brainchild of Leah Whitman-Salkin, a junior at the Urban School of San Francisco and a macher-in-training (her dad is Sam Salkin, outgoing CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation).

“I was very interested in curatorial work and what goes on behind the scenes in the art world,” says the 17-year-old Whitman-Salkin. “Last fall, I met with Connie [Wolf]. She told me about the show and we started brainstorming.”

Next stop, the office of Kate Randall, head of the art department at the Urban School.

“Leah approached me,” recalls Randall, “and thought there might be a way to work with the museum on an education program. We got excited about idea of having the whole school doing something in conjunction with the exhibit.”

The plan now is to have students visit the museum, attend lectures and then undertake their own artistic visions of God. The project culminates with a late spring public exhibition of student art at Build, a Guererro Street gallery.

“This is a total adventure,” says Randall. “When I asked students in the past to think about what is sacred, many were stumped. This makes the task of teaching interesting, and keeps me alive as a teacher.”

Adds Whitman-Salkin: “Kids have all this energy toward art. They make interesting work. I’m not totally clear about my own feelings about God, but I know what is beautiful and wonderful, and those things give me a feeling of spirituality.”

As for the curators, both have high hopes that the exhibit will resonate for a long time to come.

“The idea of God is formed in part by the representation of God,” says Cranston. “By providing alternative images, artists and image makers have an impact on how we think about God.”

Adds Baldessari, “It’s always up in the air what the audience takes away with art and what they get out of it. But there is a need for it. It provides nourishment.”

And though not strictly a Jewish art show, the exhibit as it stands still embodies something Wolf sees as essentially Jewish.

“It comes down to not being afraid to tackle tough ideas,” she says. “What feels Jewish about this show is the Jewish questioning of life. This show invites people to think about who they are, and how to find more meaning.”

The exhibit “100 Artists See God” runs Sunday, March 7, through Sunday, June 27, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 121 Steuart St., S.F. Admission: $5 adults, $4 students and seniors, free to members and children under 12. Free exhibition tours Wednesdays and Sundays, 12:30 p.m. Information: (415) 591-8800, or www.thecjm.org.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.