One of the first religious artists we learn about was Ezekiel, the Old Testament prophet. He built models of the temple at Jerusalem, then tore them down. He sewed locks of hair into his robe. People found his displays so provocative, in fact, that God came to him and said, in essence: “People love your work, but they’re not getting the message behind it.”
And such has been the plight of the religious artist ever since.
Nick Stephens' mixed media piece "The Same Yesterday, Today and Forever" is featured in the BYU Museum of Art's "The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture" exhibition. | BYU Museum of Art
When does the vision of the artist tend to “one up” the vision of the Creator?
With representational art (depictions of the manger, the crucifixion, etc.) it’s easier for the artist to get out of the way and let the gospel message flow to the onlookers.
With impressionistic art (where shapes and colors can represent feelings and ideas), it’s harder. The artist must struggle to keep from blocking the spiritual content.
The best at it seem to do a little dance between their own sense of things and God's "message."
And many of the best are currently on display at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art exhibit titled “The Interpretation Thereof.”
The exhibit has been running for several months and will remain at the museum until next March. After several false starts, I finally got down to have a look at the display last week.
Most of the work, I found, was impressionistic to a degree. It featured the distortions and personal impressions of the artist. And most of it had a carefully developed plan behind it. The artwork had been imagined and carried out with the precision of a talk at general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Justin Wheatley’s geometric “Tree of Life” and the clockworks rendering of the Salt Lake Temple by Nick Stephens seemed to shout the word “Mormon.” They are tidy work that’s obviously the result of much thought, prayer and effort. It is clean and clear, bright and beautiful.
Justin Wheatley's "The Man, the Tree, the Rod, and the Words of Strangers and Friends" is featured in the BYU Museum of Art's "The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture" exhibition. The piece is an interpretation of Lehi's dream in the Book of Mormon. | Justin Wheatley
In other words, apart from pieces by Alexandra Hraefn Morris and Casey Jex Smith, you won’t see a lot of “rawness” in the BYU exhibit, no muddy moments where an impassioned artist goes a bit bonkers with paint and a palette knife or randomly dribbles pigment on a paper.
Discipline is the prevailing virtue of the day, along with a sense of design and well-wrought execution.
As I left the exhibit, in fact, I thought how I may have been wrong. Many of the paintings there were indeed representational in a way; not representative of the world, but representative of the way many minds and hearts function when flooded with Latter-day Saint light.