Local artists chew over the role of women in religion 

Forbidden Fruit

Imagine if the status of an entire gender — more than half the human race — was decided by one bite into a piece of fruit.

Imagine the predicament when this scapegoated gender turns out to be the child-bearing wellspring of humanity's biological future.

In the often-conflicted dialogue between men and women, this is more than just the awkward state of things. It's the place where religion, politics, and culture meet and confront our ideas of the female in society. It's the risky terrain whose dominant geological formations consist of banana peels, thin ice, and a looming cliff edge.

And it is fruitful ground for an artist willing to brush up against long-held notions.

She Shall Be Called Woman, an art show to be displayed at the Circular Congregational Church, looks directly down the barrel of these issues and, through the work of seven local artists, offers fresh interpretations of iconic biblical themes: Eden, the Fall of Man, the Crucifixion.

The show's organizers admit all this is likely to raise a few eyebrows. How could it not?

Even a quick thumb through the pages of an art history book leaves you wondering — who are all these women?

For more than 2,000 years artists have given us visions of real and surreal femininity. Mystical madonnas, flirty seductresses, warrior princesses, cavorting naiads rising from the waters of the collective unconscious. These images and their variants make each new rendering of a female on canvas evoke, like a conditioned response in the viewer, all the allusions (and innuendoes) of those previous works. It's a dicey situation.

Fletcher Crossman, one of the artists in the show, recalls how diligently he worked to exclude any sexual or objectifying elements from his painting of a woman hanging on a cross, "The Apple Thief."

"I still got people saying there was a sexual element in the painting," he says.

All too often, perhaps, we see what we have been taught to see. And those 2,000 years of artfully displayed, trashy, or idealized females have taught us well.

Crossman's work, a loosely cruciform grouping of four separate canvases, depicts a contemporary woman, fully clothed in jeans and boots, suspended from chains below the words, "Apple Thief." Almost smeared away in the background is the gray suggestion of the cross at her back. It's among the largest works the artist has completed to date. Initial studies for the painting featured a traditionally depicted Crucifixion. But this image provoked visceral reactions to the inherent violence of the scene: the nails and blood and a hanging female figure were deemed too disturbing. The shock of the image felt at cross-purposes to the artist's intentions.

"I had visited religious leaders. Christian, Jewish, Muslim. I asked if there could be women in real leadership roles — positions of authority — in their faiths," says Crossman. He got lengthy responses but no straightforward answers. His painting seems like a personal evocation of that muddled space-in-between in which women of faith are apt to find themselves.

The show's curator, Junius Wright, says the goal of assembling these contemporary visions of women in iconic religious settings is to prompt discussion.

In a high school class Wright teaches, the topic is the female protagonist in various media. This show, he says, brings those classroom conversations to a broader audience within the context of religious faith. He had another context in mind, too — of where he wanted to place the show: in a house of worship.

Wright found welcome support for this from Bert Keller, pastor of the Circular Congregational Church.

"It's not just a beautiful space," says Wright. He also sees the unusual venue as part of the conversation, highlighting an important theme that emerged when artists Julie Jacobson, Sharon Lacey, Max Miller, Lisa Shimko, Carl Turner, and Virginia Derryberry were invited to take up Wright and Crossman's challenge.

The works they created range from the whimsical to the abstract.

Virginia Derryberry's "Fall" is a striking image of an Eden populated by a trinity. Julie Jacobson's "The Dance of Disentanglement" looks like an unfolding narrative caught at the moment of maximum complexity. In Lisa Shimko's piece, "Tree of Knowledge ... or the World Tree," a tree stands alone, its branches and roots linking the upper world and the underworld.

The show's paintings seem intentionally designed to stand well away from the classical traditions of sacred iconography. The biblical themes they interpret speak in a contemporary visual language. Unlike the religious works we normally find in museums, it's easy to picture any one of these paintings displayed in a living room. And somehow, imagining that living room wall brings these religious questions, literally, home.


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