Kata Billups helped Jesus to join the Beatles and appear with them on the Ed Sullivan Show – but only on canvas.
Apparent celebrity endorsements are far from her sole odd placement of the Savior, but she has her reasons, making a case through statements, academic research and even an upcoming film.
Beginning in 1997 the Colorado artist began introducing Jesus into paintings as a contemporary witness and personal defender of humanity.
Billups explains His presence where least expected: “The Jesus I visualize is genuinely interacting with people … vitally involved in their lives … and creatively working along with them to help them recover themselves from the adverse effects of sin and evil.”
Jesus appears in scores of her scenes with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Elvis Presley and other musicians especially. But He’s not always hanging with the high and hoity in her work.
Billups creates moral stories or visual narratives with Christ as an active though somewhat whimsical participant. This Jesus isn’t warning of the “wrath to come,” rather He identifies with the downtrodden and mocked to the point of looking foolish Himself. He is the vulnerable, sensitive hero who saves the day.
There is scriptural support for this part anyway in Phillipians 2: 7-8: “Rather, he made himself nothing – by taking the very nature of a servant … he humbled himself.”
Christ carries on a clownish compassion in Billups’ piece, “Jesus Put on a Fat-Suit to Deflect the Mocking.” Here teens taunt an overweight girl, and Jesus comes to the rescue in a makeshift “fat-suit.” Shoving pillows under his sash while downing a huge bag of chips, he looks comfortingly at the victim as an act of solidarity.
Billups claims her piece exposes judgmentalism and provides us with more scriptural context, paraphrasing Christ: “It is not what goes into a man’s mouth which defiles him (i.e. food) but what comes out of it (i.e. vicious words).”
Why the all celebrity appearances in her work? Billups frankly admits that for one thing, it helps gain viewers’ attention, and she isn’t wracked with guilt over it: “Nobody much cares what I think, but maybe someone will listen to what John Lennon or Elvis, the Beatles or Jesus says.”
Celebrity images perform multiple roles in her paintings. In “Bob Dylan Strolled Through Las Vegas in a Tutu” or “The Beatles Went to a Pool Party and Met a Guy who Said His Meat Was to Do The Will of His Father,” celebrities may symbolize love of the world or obsession over fame and money. Bystanders surround them like disciples or gape.
Her Elvis paintings feature him (and sometimes mom) rescuing Playboy Bunnies, working at shoe stores or volunteering for the Humane Society. Elvis stands for a Christ-type showing kindness and mercy to humiliated fans and the downtrodden.
Rock and movie stars loved her pop paintings in particularly, and she made a good living off Elvis and the crowd, whether or not they perceived her deeper meaning behind the symbolism.
Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts, Willie Nelson, R.E.M, Jimmy Buffet and Sting are among the pop art connoisseurs who have purchased her work.
Folk singers and rock stars from the 60s and 70s were the accepted prophets of that era, with fans combing their lyrics for insight and enlightenment. Billups followed this analogy to different ends, at times mocking or enlisting their messages.
Billups admits to a personal past bout of Beatlemania, and she still finds them fascinating. Obscure Beatle trivia works its way into several paintings with criticism of Yoko Ono and other references to rock history, relationships and social commentary. Not necessarily part of the spiritual message, but it lightens things up.
Jesus hanging with hookers and heavy metal bands or lighting a Marlboro may be considered a mere shock ploy, but Billups strongly denies it. She insists “my goal is not to offend anyone” and speaks respectfully of Christ and knows her Bible very well.
Her intent is to depict an emotional Jesus responding to our lives and enlisting the vernacular of our own time and place: “The expressions on His face and the gestures of His body are my conception of how He might behave if He lived in my neighborhood, during my time in history.”
This was a long, 30-year road for Billups, as she admitted to a paralyzing fear of “making a mistake” in her portrayal of Jesus and the ensuing judgment and criticism. Fear squelches spontaneity and creativity by superimposing inner critics and guardians before anything even begins. Billups gained courage by looking to artists such as the Reverend Howard Finster, a folk-artist and preacher who painted from his “heart and soul and gut.”
I’d guess by her current work that she overcame those fears entirely.
A long-time Christian, Billups considers both her work and statements a form of evangelism. Her thesis, “Let Jesus out of the Box: The Case for an Emotional Jesus in Painting,” seriously investigates the image and effects of Jesus in art. Citing thinkers such as John Sanders, Francis Schaeffer and Malcolm Muggeridge, she builds a case for a vulnerable God who feels “grief or joy, suffering or delight” in his relation to man.
Complaining that Jesus is generally portrayed as “stoic and passive,” Billups blames the influence of Greek and Roman mythological gods in Western art. She shares a personal epiphany discovered in one of her own paintings where Jesus was “practically devoid of emotion,” detached and isolated from the other characters who expressed a myriad of feelings. This is a point she feels artists have been stuck at for centuries.
Billups is hardly the first artist to depict an emotional Messiah, but the range has classically been very limited. Suffering, compassion and sorrow is tolerated and occasionally a little anger – but mischief, humor or disgust? Billups’ work has it all.
Many of her paintings depict Jesus in a comical light though pantomime, sarcastic gestures and witticisms. Defending her unorthodox style, she notes that humor can unite and provide a less offensive way to address sensitive subjects. Billups quotes Robert W. Funk on caricature and exaggeration found in Jesus’ parables, “like modern cartoons that exaggerate … for the sake of immediate and humorous recognition and to make a point.”
For unapologetic silliness in service of spirituality, Billups offers “Jesus Broke out the Lambchop Puppet in Order to Cheer Up a Clinically Depressed Paul McCartney.” With it comes a detailed explanation of what appears to be a domestic vignette, even down to black stage curtains. Despondent McCartney “is kept company by Jesus, who employs a Shari Lewis-style Lambchop puppet. Jesus ‘uses a falsetto voice in an attempt to cheer Paul up.’” Probably more realistically, Paul is totally oblivious to Jesus.
At 5×8 feet, “Jesus Lamb Chop” is the largest rock art Billups has yet made and possibly the most famous, as over 25,000 people have taken a peek on her eBay gallery alone.
Enlisting a little levity gave Billups new confidence in the visual potency of her “comedic style.” She has proof they are appreciated through sales, listing several big name collectors, galleries and shows who find either amusement or inspiration with Elvis, Jesus or the Stones.
Billups defends her rendition of Christ as valid: “I believe Jesus is primarily experienced in very unique and individual ways, and I want my art to reflect that viewpoint. [He] is fully capable of relating to us within the context of our own language and experience.”
“Jesus Retched” (yes, as in puked) is another complex, social-commentary scene involving a cast of mean kids, cruelty to the homeless, little dogs and anxious, hovering angels. Billups comments on television and film violence as well as crime and poverty.
Over the years Billups’ painting has fluxed and evolved. Her “Jesus” series varies quite a bit in dimensionality, detail and depth with some appearing unfinished. Most use a Sunday School, white guy Jesus, circa 1965, almost as an icon, rather than an attempt at realism or believability. Billups chooses to be effectively startling rather than historically accurate in this respect.
Celebrities tend to do little for me, but her work is provoking and just fun. I particularly like her Ringo (possibly because I didn’t recognize him.) A grey-toned Ringo reacts to Hieronymus Bosch with some type of spiritual enlightenment or revulsion. Billups proves she can paint beautifully when she needs to, with a background rendition of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” I just enjoyed Billups composition and contrast of the late medieval, apocalyptic work with her contemporary style. She did it well.
Bosch (also a preacher) painted lurid and fabulous tableaus on heaven and particularly hell, in a time of tenuous, hard living. Strangely threatening, his work has never really been interpreted centuries later
Elaborating on the unseen spiritual action in the piece, Billups speaks: “I think we are lulled into a sense of complacency – and even an odd sense of our own immortality. The simple act of believing that God sent Jesus to be our sin offering … to simply accept that gift, reverses the plague of eternal death.”
Bosch was saying this is still revisable, to “choose now.”