From 'Sexy Jesus' collection by Anna Stump

Current renditions of Jesus in art range from the cloyingly sentimental to glaringly hostile, but at least he’s still in the A-list as the world’s most famous celebrity. With thousands of distractions vying for our attention and time, artists have taken to vulgarity, shock and occasionally awe in portraying Jesus for widely varying motives.

Last fall Los Angeles artist Anna Stump made quite a splash with “Sexy Jesus,” where the Lord materializes as a variety of Hollywood stars in her oil paintings. Stump’s defense of her somewhat offensive title is that her image of Jesus comes from Hollywood’s representations and is not her own – and therein lies the entire problem.

Critic Matt Gleason’s convoluted defense of her title in Huffington Post must leave readers confused. Gleason claims it titillates because of a “preconceived notion” that art “must intentionally” provoke a reaction. Huh again? Provocative art has nothing to do with the intent, words or imagery of artists, but it all boils down to the “perception” of viewers? Please.

That said, Stump’s exhibit itself wasn’t bad, consisting of a group of loosely painted head shots of famous modern actors with extremely long hair extensions, along with some of her personal friends. James Caviezel from “The Passion” makes an appearance as does black actor Jean-Claude La Marre from the film “The Color of the Cross.”

Stump claims that while she is not “religious,” she means no personal offense but is remarking on “selling Jesus” to the public by using handsome actors or rock stars.

Would they be more effective with homely actors? I confess I haven’t put much thought into this topic, but perhaps someone will try it in a film soon.

Stump seems to jump around somewhat, coming up with alternative statements on her paintings in another interview. This time her intention is to explore how the image of Jesus is marketed to women “in a confused projection of religious and carnal love.” Shades of Madame Bovary.

From video 'Casting Jesus'

A London exhibit at Lisson Gallery last fall dealt directly with this issue of typecasting in the film “Casting Jesus.”

Christian Jankowski became interested in artistic representations of Jesus after he happened upon a film site for “The Passion” in Italy. Intrigued by the sight of priests co-directing and coaching the star James Caviezel, he began to wonder how the church presents an image of Jesus.

Jankowski organized and filmed a strange “audition” for the part of Christ, using a panel of judges straight from the Vatican and staging it in an 8th-century hospital in Rome. Thirteen actors competed to represent Jesus best by doing “miracles,” such as struggling under a cross and other scenes from the Gospels.

His odd documentary feels little like a game show – using a screen split between “contestants” and reactions of the judges – and can be amusing, with unexpected remarks from clerics and actors. First prize went to a Slavic-German man, while none of the contestants appeared to be especially Semitic. Jankowski hasn’t followed up with a film, and the event seems to be a joint experiment between him (a non-believer) and church officials.

Around the other arch of the earth, Megan Hansen-Knarhoi of New Zealand crafts huge portraits of Jesus with unusual materials such as fiber yarns. Her striking installation “Jesus Spells” has graced the walls of galleries there with a gigantic, posterized face of Christ made of hand-knitted French wool, spilling like rivers of dreadlocks onto the floors.

The piece has a 1960’s Beatle’s album feel to it, and that is deliberate. Surrounding her Christ is a cartoon bubble “speaking in tongues” with a field of three-dimensional hand-knitted crosses subbing for text.

While Hansen-Knarhoi rather coyly does not commit to religious beliefs herself, she does mention the dearth of Christian themes in contemporary art and the fact that much great art is found in churches rather than galleries. She also names her pieces “devotional portraits” and speaks of the importance of religious themes in the history of art in her statements. The body of her work peers into the relation of Christianity, art and modern society including art galleries, which she labels as “sites of worship.”

"Jesus Spells" by Megan Hansen-Knarhoi

Hansen-Knarhoi claims a desire to simultaneously “invigorate and interrogate” modern religious art with her own works. Whether she or the artists mentioned above are traditional believers or not, their work is attractive and innovative – and because of it Jesus is currently appearing in another art gallery somewhere in the world. That’s something to applaud.

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