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Beefcake Jesus grabs art world's attention

"The Undefeated" by Stephen Sawyer

Today I officially join the ranks of the Pharisees – that is according to painter Stephen Sawyer, who weighs all less-than-flattering art critics in a theological scale before banishing them into the badlands of Christianity.

In spite of peril to my eternal soul, I’ll venture some observations on Mr. Sawyer’s modern and uber-masculinized portraits of Jesus, which ignited controversy on several continents.

A few years back Sawyer unveiled a series of paintings of Jesus that appeared remarkably kitschy and irreverent at first glance – with some exceptions. If Sawyer had intended to mock Jesus, it would hardly be unusual, and the fluttering mobs would be brief. But he’s dead serious – and there’s the rub.

In response to visions of a beefcake Jesus, both the art world and general media scratched their collective heads in amusement or asked for explanations. Sawyer reasons that Jesus was a great guy who “lived as working class man” and was not likely to be a wimp.

Tired of stale, delicately pale renditions of Jesus, Sawyer wanted to make something males in particular could identify with, thus the muscles and sports. He claims to create images of Christ that truly “honor his life and teachings” and feels creating a manly Jesus is one way to do that. Why should he be depicted as a smaller and weaker than real life?

I agree with Sawyer here. The “Jesus” illustrating most Bibles, Sunday school papers and our grandmother’s walls is one of the most bland, feminine, dull and ethnically incorrect humans around.

This is one of the major challenges facing Christian artists from all eras. How do we depict the Messiah as a powerful yet mistreated flesh-and-blood man?

Sawyer answered the call with his series “Undefeated” featuring a gorgeous, hunky “Jesus” locking eyes with the viewer from a boxing ring. Looking suave and unperturbed, Jesus isn’t actually fighting, but appears to bask in perfection and perfect peace – theologically correct, if not athletically.

In a thoughtful artist’s statement, Sawyer notes that Jesus “willingly fights and intercedes on our behalf,” although he is often overlooked and not appreciated.

He asks his viewer, “Would Jesus have the compassion to forgive and have mercy had he not suffered as we too must suffer?”

Sawyer countered criticism of “pretty-boy” renditions of the Savior with a full frontal offense. Claiming to have found the perfect model after a 20 year search, the ripped abs and virile countenance of real-life man Tyrone Dove Gardner appear in several paintings.

Far from apologizing for all this flesh, Sawyer was pleased with the “beautiful specimen of a human being” he found to pose as Jesus. Specifically, in an interview with The Guardian, Sawyer described his model as “a surfer guy who’s built like a brick sh**house.” Oh my.

Theoretically it all sounds good, and I like Sawyer’s attitude. Both Christians and artists need thick skins to ward off barbed criticism and require a strong internal vision to get anywhere worth going. Sawyer continues his boxer metaphors asking us to remain in the ring “to fight the good fight of faith and be grateful that we are in the same corner with the Undefeated one.” But what about the art?

I find most of these paintings unsettling and just slightly offensive, although it isn’t Sawyer’s intention to offend. His work has generated thousands of pages of discussion on Jesus’ identity, livelihood, appearance and how we should perceive him now. Those are such important and rare topics in secular discourse that it almost seems petty to complain about the mere appearance of art – but paintings are first visual.

"No Appointment Necessary" by Stephan Sawyer

In Sawyer’s painting, “No Appointment Necessary” a blue-jeaned rough guy invites us to admire his flexed biceps and curly locks. We know he’s Jesus rather than just a biker through his tattoos – a cross with the word “Father.”

What’s wrong with it? It’s just kind of creepy. “Jesus” seems to sport a little smirk, becoming almost a leer in context of the hyper-masculinized body.

Boxer Jesus in “The Undefeated” series has the same feel, with more of a “come hither” look than “come unto me” and nary a mark on his perfectly tanned face. Granted this may be more noticeable to women than with men, his intended audience.

The hardest to take is the bizarre 2006 “Calvary,” where Jesus mainlines for a junkie. I’ve got some problems with the theology.

Sawyer paraphrases Matthew 25:46: “What you’ve done unto the least of these, you have done also unto me.”

But in this case the junkie is shooting himself up (or attempting to) and he’s missing the entire point, which is a threat by God Almighty. It’s painful to watch the wretched, pained face of the Son of God offering his arm to a dirty needle.

But that’s just my opinion. These have been popular for years, and he’s sold multitudes of prints. In spite of perceived shortcomings in craft and taste, Sawyer’s work bears a good harvest. Dozens of letters from fans and buyers testify to a spiritual power and solace they claimed from his paintings.

"Calvary" by Stephen Sawyer

A struggling meth addict weeps every time he sees “Calvary,” and an ex-junkie from Virginia sends her thanks: “Praise God for this drawing – every time I see it reminds me of the death Satan had me in when I was using.”

Fortunately for Sawyer, his religious beliefs ward off all criticism, whether constructive or vicious. In an interview with The Christian Post Sawyer claimed that almost everyone (95 percent to be exact) responds to “No Appointment Necessary” positively. Offended viewers are waved away as modern Pharisees who “create a very judgmental God based on the fact that they’re very judgmental” and “Pharisees scrambling for my throat.” Some circular reasoning here, but I commend Sawyer on his confidence.

Although most secular reviews were tongue-in-cheek or feigned astonishment, I always love comments left after columns. Added to heaps of indignant remarks over tattoos, drunks and the Bible were these unexpected responses:

“Arfur Towcrate” comments after a column in The Guardian, “As an atheist and a hypocrite, I would like to put on record my disgust at this misrepresentation of your Lord.”

Scrolling down the page, “NotAJackoFan” fears, “This might be pointless.”

"The Warrior King" by Stephen Sawyer

There are a few standout works of art from this group of muscle-bound messiahs. “The Warrior King,” although still in a boxing ring, is technically superior to the others. The smirk is replaced with a serious, searching look off into the distance from a fighter who steadies himself against the ropes. His face is darkened in mysterious chiaroscuro shadow, cut by strong, diagonal ropes.

Because I have mixed feelings about Sawyer’s paintings, I imagine I only qualify as a partial Pharisee at this point. I’m so relieved.

Art to inspire or to use as a moral tale isn’t trendy right now, but up to the middle of the 1990s it was common and appreciated, especially in America and England. Norman Rockwell was probably the last nationally known painter who used art to educate and moralize. Like Rockwell, whom he greatly admires, Sawyer doesn’t particularly care about the critics as much as the spiritual impact of his work. He openly applies his talents for illustrative evangelism and issues such as sexual and child abuse.

Sawyer encourages other Christian artists through art competitions he hosts and attempting to keep God relevant and involved in his art and modern issues.

“I’ve made a difference in other people’s lives,” he informed Merlene Davis in her 2009 interview. “Would I trade that? God, no.”