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After Our Likeness

September 16, 2017

God the Mother and God the Father take on the colors of their surroundings in After Our Likeness.

My art show at Writ & Vision in Provo has brought some criticism this week. Here’s my response to those criticisms.

First, I am sincerely sorry for alienating or hurting anyone. Whether you lean progressive or conservative, I imagine we share the common goal of creating a better world to live in.

Second, have you seen the show? I encourage you to go see it for yourself, and then come to your own conclusions.

A brief summary of the show’s subject matter:

The show, entitled After Our Likeness, depicts the Biblical account of the creation from the first chapters of Genesis. Many of the paintings depict God as a woman and a man working together, God the Mother and God the Father, working, in tandem, to make the world and its inhabitants. The race or color of God the Mother and God the Father are ambiguous. At times, they take on the colors of their surroundings. In a field of fresh green grass, they are green. In a forest of purple foliage, God’s skin is a kaleidoscope of browns, purples, and blues–at other moments, a rainbow of colors. They are semi-nude throughout because they are not meant to be Greek, Hebrew, or science fiction characters. (The body is universal through time and geography, while clothing is not.) Halfway through the show, Adam and Eve are created. They are unashamed in the garden. They have dark skin. Eve takes the initiative to choose knowledge. They sew aprons of fig leaves and then The Gods create coats of skins for them.

Contrast the description above with the creation as typically depicted in Mormonism: Two or three white men in white Greek robes make everything. Full stop.

This contrast reveals my intent—to offer an alternate visual narrative on which to base our assumptions of God and our relationship to Her and Him. As Mormonism moves into a new millennium and the information age, we will need to explore many new visual narrative possibilities. I hope my artist friends will take up the challenge.

Please bear with me as I address a few criticisms:

APPROPRIATION

Art is appropriation. It is the synthesis of old ideas and imagery recreated into something new. Much of the best art comes at the intersections. The Mission, Hamilton, The Book of Mormon. It’s not comfortable for Mormons to see their temple motifs crowning the set of a raucous musical, but if success is any indication, The Book of Mormon musical is great art.

I don’t mean we shouldn’t change the name of Squa Peak, because I certainly support the name change effort and initiatives like it. In fact, I would argue that my show seeks to disappropriate the creation story out of the hands of white Mormonism and place it where it should be—in the hands of global Mormonism and gospel believers throughout the world.

A parallel has been drawn between my show and the recent controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting, Open Casket, from the Whitney Biennial. Do a google search for “Schultz Whitney” and you’ll likely find the following quote from artist Hannah Black: “It’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.” It was brought to my attention that my painting Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge reminded viewers of photographs depicting black nursing mothers bought and traded as slaves. That similarity and comparison was the unintentional result of my not being aware or sensitive to those photographs, which saddens me and gives me just a glimpse of the deep multigenerational pain experienced by my friends of color.

In the current show, I included the Eve painting which was created over a year ago in order to place that painting in the context of a larger narrative. Careful observation of that painting and comparison to the more recent paintings in the show indicate my having taken earlier criticisms into account. The new paintings do not use in-your-face nudity as a method of shocking the viewer to take notice. The figures are rendered more abstractly, more gently. In fact, Eve is covered or clothed in many of the new paintings.

NUDITY AND THE HUMAN FIGURE

The new painting I was most nervous about including in the exhibit, Naked and Unashamed, depicts Adam and Eve standing together. I was careful to give them gestures that were strong, confident and even with a bit of attitude, because I didn’t want them to be reminiscent of black pain or compared to photographs of slaves. A large painting of the Garden of Eden furthers the abstraction of the two figures.

The creation story is laced with themes of nudity and shame. I am drawn as an artist to those themes because of my love for the human figure. My art studies centered and continue to center around being able to draw, paint and sculpt the human figure, its intricacies and anatomy.

A secondary intent of my show After Our Likeness was to disappropriate the human figure from current U.S. and Mormon trends of shaming. While I personally don’t use pornography, my threshold of what I would consider art vs. pornography is perhaps farther along the line than many of my Mormon friends, and I believe the current atmosphere of shaming and equating the body to pornography is a devastating trend.

I will continue to create work that celebrates the human figure in all its shapes and sizes. I will continue to argue against shaming, including the shaming of those with supposedly overly sexual body types, those with supposedly non-ideal body types, those with the scars of surgery whether optional or critical, and everything in between. Let’s appreciate our bodies as the amazing gifts from God they are, and drop our old inherited body-hating attitudes.

PROFIT

The laborer is worthy of her or his hire.

I have worked exhaustively to be independent of any institution so I can have an unfettered, independent voice. While the LDS Church uses many of my images, as do Catholic and Protestant groups here and there throughout the world, I am not an employee of any church or university. I don’t receive grants. Also, I’m not running for office, so my relationship to the public is different than that of a public servant. In my opinion, independence is important for an artist. (And as a side note, none of what I do or say should ever be understood as official LDS church policy, doctrine or thought.)

I am grateful to Brad at Writ & Vision for creating a place where independent voices are expressed and heard. So many great conversations have happened there–so many great book releases and panel discussions I have personally benefited from. Art sales keep Writ & Vision open. Books and discussions create community. It’s a symbiotic relationship that seems to work. Many of you have benefited from Writ & Vision events, and by extension, from the sale of artwork including mine.

The Writ & Vision show took months of my time, along with that of multiple paid studio assistants and framers. I’ve been criticized for not making substantive contributions toward a more equitable and just society. A good friend posted a list on my Facebook page to demonstrate that I have indeed tried to make contributions. Earlier this week, I was tempted to completely disengage permanently from efforts at social dialogue, which is the immediate effect the criticisms had on my psyche. Today, however, I appreciate the criticism. I think I can use it to lengthen my stride. I will continue to look for ways to make substantive differences in the world as I talk it over with my partner in marriage, my partners in commerce and social endeavors, and with my friends. I hope you will be my friend. My friends do more than raise their voice to criticize me once a year–they say nice or even neutral things to me during the year. My progressive friends respect the comments of my art friends. My friends who want to defend me must be respectful toward my critics. Please, be respectful.

Of course, you may choose to not be my friend, and I understand that too. If that’s your choice, you may never know about my efforts to make the world more equitable. I don’t intend to make those efforts in order to prove anything to the public.

In conclusion, I admit that the show comes together at a dangerous intersection—where race, religion, art and the body meet. Despite my firm belief in freedom of expression, I partially agree that I (a white man) should not have been the artist to create this show, but humbly suggest that this show needed to be done here and now. Thank you to the many people of color who responded positively to the show. I will continue to hope for the day when a Mormon artist of color will eclipse my depiction of the creation with an interpretation that transcends our current understanding.

Love and peace.

Kirk

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