Travelers driving into New York City on the Major Deegan Expressway may notice a huge billboard with the thundering words "JUDGMENT DAY May 21, 2011." It’s not an ad for a new Hollywood blockbuster. Rather, it is a warning of the impending Apocalypse, which is scheduled to begin on May 21, with the rapturing of believers, and finish with the Earth’s total destruction on Oct. 21, 2011.
Whether via al-Qiyamah, Ragnarök or the Revelation of St. John, the end of the world has been with us for one hell of a long time. The most recent date, May 21, is courtesy an 89-year-old California preacher named Harold Camping. But Cassandras can find portents of the End of Days everywhere from natural disasters and armed global conflict to the advent of the internet and Obamacare.
And you can find it in contemporary art. For Outsider Artists, Armageddon seems like a natural subject. Both Howard Finster and Henry Darger offered dramatic representations of the Apocalypse. Less known is South Carolina painter William Thomas Thompson, a businessman who felt the call to illustrate the entire Book of Revelations during a church service in Hawaii.
Despite suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system that has left him semi-paralyzed, Thompson has completed a 300-foot-long mural as well as numerous individual paintings chronicling the events in Revelations. Animated with fearsome figures and inscribed with Biblical passages and his own commentaries, Thompson’s paintings bring fire-and-brimstone themes to Neo-Expressionist life.
The art world is a secular place, but that doesn’t mean that religious symbolism is banished from
contemporary art. The late Chicago Imagist Roger Brown, who was raised in Alabama in the Church of Christ, referred to Biblical imagery in his art often enough. His An Actual Dream of the Second Coming (1976), for instance, transports Revelations’ doomsday vision to an urban setting not unlike Brown’s adopted city, filled with sinners lost in fiery despair while the faithful ascend to heaven.
Keith Haring was raised in the tradition of the United Church of God, a protestant sect imbued with a fervent belief in the imminence of the Apocalypse. As a gay man who rebelled against the homophobia of his childhood religion, Haring nevertheless embraced its ecstatic visions and powerful images of judgment. His many versions of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1984) divide the canvas into an upper zone where winged figures ascend heavenward and a lower one filled with snakes, beasts, skeletons and burning hellfire. And Haring returned frequently to religious symbols -- crosses, haloes, bleeding hearts and of course his signature emblem, the radiant child.
A more conceptual approach to the Apocalypse appears in the work of Paul Pfeiffer, who is the child of Methodist missionaries. He frequently gives his digitally manipulated videos evocative titles drawn from the Bible. A study for Morning after the Deluge (2003), for example, evokes both the flood in Genesis and J.M.W. Turner’s luminous masterpiece. Pfeiffer’s work comprises a repeated loop of the sunrise and the sunset, shot in real time, in which the camera is fixed on the sun, so that the horizon dips and rises. One is left with a vision of the void, suggesting the emptiness that both preceded and will succeed the human world.
A similar sense of absence pervades the work of Ed Ruscha, whose Roman Catholic upbringing is evident in paintings in which words drawn from catechism like “Sin,” “Hell,” “Heaven,” “Gospel,” “Devil” and “Angel” materialize against glowing grounds. Of particular interest here are paintings that employ the words “The End,” or simply “End.” Frequently presented in a Gothic script familiar from old Bibles, these both mimic the closing screens of old movies and conjure the idea of the ultimate conclusion.
Finally, we must mention Matthew Ritchie whose ongoing narrative is based loosely on John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. Divided into chapters featuring color-coded characters, these incredibly complex abstract works center around proliferating stories of seven groups of seven characters who are also metaphysical principles or laws of physics. Ritchie maintains that the "ekpyrotic" theory of the cosmos, which holds that the universe came about from the collision of two "branes" (the fundamental units of string theory), is analogous to the epic battle of Paradise Lost, while Milton’s description of Hell as “darkness visible” is another name for what contemporary physics calls "dark matter." This conflict inspires his own work, as can be seen in a painting appropriately titled How This Ends (2008).
Happy Judgment Day!
ELEANOR HEARTNEY is a New York art critic and the author of Art & Today (2008) and other books.