Joe Johnson opens the church doors and finds no people 


Megachurches are the cathedrals of tomorrow, malls where the masses shop for God, singing along to carefully orchestrated rock hymnals filled with heavily amplified messages, leaving the congregation spiritually electrified by light shows. Who wouldn't be moved by a multimedia sermon complete with video-projected thunderbolts and live satellite broadcasts from God's chosen representatives on earth?

Strip away the sound and fury, the biblical texts, and the thousands of worshippers, and you're left with the technology that makes it all happen: computers, keyboards, projectors, and soundboards, all spewing their electronic guts like a convict in a confessional. Photographer Joe Johnson chooses to document them in Mega Churches, a photographic exhibition that is bright and sometimes beautiful but ultimately soulless.

Johnson has an MFA in Photography from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. He's an assistant professor of art at the University of Missouri. Mega Churches is his first solo show in the Southeast. In previous exhibitions, Johnson has shown his taste for photographing landscapes (Local Weather, Kansas) and buildings (City Pictures). One notable past project took him to an abandoned old theater in Pittsfield, Mass. He photographed backdrops, murals, rows of seats, and the ropes and pulleys that controlled the curtains — an antiquated precursor to his current study.

To call a megachurch big would be like calling Taylor Swift overexposed — a massive understatement. It's hard to imagine the scale of these places without entering one and walking through the study rooms, food courts, foyers, and auditoriums. To count as a megachurch, a house of worship has to have a minimum of 2,000 faithful attending weekend services. But Johnson elects not to show those people, so there's rarely a sense of scale in his work. Only his shots of seats and pulpits lend real grandeur to his locations. "Seating, Raleigh NC" and "Seating, Temperance MI" are carefully composed. "Plasma Pulpit 2, Munster IN" is spectacular, with giant green screens in the center and Greco-Roman doors and columns in the background.

By displaying the mechanics of faith, Johnson invites us to marvel at the lengths ministers go to commune with God and wonder whether all the bells and whistles distract from true spirituality. Since God is omnipresent, maybe we're supposed to "see" Him on the stages and control booths of these churches. They may be quiet, but they're not dull; the artist chooses colorful images — "Bolt, Fort Wayne IN" has a blue and red-lit camera in the foreground with fake lightning behind. Some of the angles are so tight that they become abstract pattern studies: "Lobby, Fort Wayne IN" homes in on a carpet or wallpaper pattern. In "Amp Cover, Wilson NC," a wire and a small power socket cover are the only sign of technology — everything else is covered with bright red carpeting. Other shots are pointless, such as "Tissue Box, St. Louis MO," in which a box of Kleenex sits on a seat arm. Is it waiting for weeping parishioners or snotty ones? We'll never know.

Although this exhibition is devoid of human subjects, it has plenty of warm hues and pleasing arrangements. Many of the pieces are split into thirds, including "Neon Dove, Monroe OH" with a dove sign at the top, a clock in the middle, and a Yamaha keyboard at the bottom. Johnson has a good eye for detail and theatrical elements. But his approach to the subject matter isn't powerful enough to carry an entire show.

It's hard to believe that this is in the same gallery that brought us Caleb Weintraub's cabbage-patch punks in Pop Goes the Apocalypse, the kinky Geigeresque blown glass lingerie of Boris Shpeizman, or the street-smart art of Sheepman, and Sean StarWars. Mega Churches is so tame that it could go in any gallery in town.

There are some bright spots in the exhibition, but no crackling edge, no inspiration, and no sharp point. We're not saying that every Redux show has to shock or carry an obvious message, but this is a contemporary art center that needs to present new ideas, not a languid photo essay.


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