Last fall my wife and I journeyed to the Chinatown studio of the photographer Alix Smith to see a new body of work, "Metaphorical Acts," exploring the theater of worship in New York City churches.
Just about everything Alix has done has been purchased by the mercurial photography collector Jean Pigozzi, but Pigozzi had balked at buying work that appeared so overtly religious, however stunning. Alix had overcome resistance from clergy when she hauled her cameras into St. Patrick’s Cathedral because said clergy distrusted her artistic motives, and it was likely that Chelsea galleries would also distrust the content of these photographs because they appear too churchcentric. What to do?
I contacted the directors of the Museum of Biblical Art near Lincoln Center, a beautiful new space devoted to the secular artistic treatment of the Bible, the book which the New Yorker informs us this week is not only the best-selling book of all time, but the best-selling book this year and every other year as well.
MOBIA (that’s the podlike acronym of said museum) fell in love with Alix’s work and we quickly arranged for Alix to mount a solo show, which is currently on view. The snaps are luminous, but then I’m partial. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson was at the opening and he’s convinced Alix, not a football fan previously, to do a series on football as "sacred rite" contrasting what Alix described as "the players and the tailgaters."
It gave me particular joy to see my friend’s work in the company of MOBIA’s other current exhibition, "Biblical Art in a Secular Century." The show includes perhaps the best George Segal sculpture, Abraham and Isaac (1978), a memorial to the Kent State victims, which was rejected by that university as too violent and ended up at Princeton.
There is a gaudy gold-framed Jeff Koons mirror, Christ and the Lamb (1986), next to a George Bellows complex backward view from 1916 of the Jazz Age evangelist Billy Sunday on the pulpit, full of Munchian grace notes on the faces of the assembled.
A pocket-sized Georges Roualt Sacred Heart beats with painterly precision, but the true gem of the show is James Ensor’s The Finding of Moses (1924), in which Pharoah’s wife magically anoints the bullrushed baby’s penis with a sparkling wand. Other works by De Chirico, Warhol, Kiki Smith and Mark Tobey belie the impression that our world of art may have nothing in common with the Bible. The ultimate art fair is in its pages, demanding a perusal. The people of all persuasions in Alix Smith’s photos will guide you there. After all, it’s Christmas.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).