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Sunday, 18 March 2018

Art Below: Stations of the Cross

Art Below is a London based public art enterprise, founded in 2006 by brothers Ben and Simon Moore. Their raison d'être is the use of billboard space in underground stations to display artworks in London and overseas. Their mission is to enrich the everyday life of the traveling public by giving fresh insight into the very latest in contemporary art whilst at the same time providing a platform for emerging and established talent.

It has become an annual feature of Art Below that every year in the run up to Easter they feature ‘Stations of the Cross’ in some form or another. This year they are exhibiting at St Stephen Walbrook from 16th – 23rd March with a show that features crucifixion themed work by 14 artists including Francis Bacon, Paul Benney, Ricardo Cinalli, Sebastian Horsley and Ben Eine.

Last year Art Below showcased crucifixion themed works by Francis Bacon on billboard space at Green Park and St Pauls tube station. Bacon often referenced the crucifixion in his art to embody life’s horror as he could not find a subject as valid to embrace all the nuances of human feelings and behaviours. In 2015 ‘Stations of the Cross’ at St Marylebone Parish Church included a life-size body cast of Pete Doherty nailed to a cross entitled ‘For Pete’s Sake’ which attracted media attention worldwide. Their first Stations of the Cross exhibition also took place at St Marylebone Parish Church and on billboard space across the London Underground. This show included work by artists Antony Micallef, Mat Collishaw, Polly Morgan, Paul Fryer and Bran Symondson.

All the 'Stations of the Cross' exhibitions have raised funds for The Missing Tom Fund. The exhibitions’ curator and participating artist Ben Moore, with the support of his family and the Missing People Charity, set up the Missing Tom Fund in 2013 to raise money for the search for his older brother Tom (b.1971) who has been missing since 2003 ( Ben Moore says: “Tom was very interested in religion and, as such, Stations of the Cross seems a natural fit for us. We hope that the project will offer further help in continuing our search for Tom.”

This year’s exhibition could almost be seen as a review of the series so far, featuring, as it does, many of the artists that have exhibited in previous years including Francis Bacon, Paul Benney, Ricardo Cinalli, Chris Clack, Sebastian Horsley, M C Llamas, Ben Moore and James Vaulkhard.

Paul Benney has become known for his depictions of stygian themes and dark nights of the soul. Rachel Campbell Johnston writes that his figures ‘some sense of our spiritual quest.’ This is because he ‘shows us our lives as they balance on that fragile boundary between the perfectly ordinary and the profoundly otherworldly,’ seeking ‘to capture that mystery which redeems us from the mundane.’ Joseph Clarke says that Benney’s work ‘could be seen to continue the strong tradition of ‘British Mysticism’ championed by the likes of Samuel Palmer and William Blake.’ Benny is contributing ‘Dying Slave: 13th Station’ to this exhibition. This image shows a cruciform figure above a whirlpool. Christ walked on water in his ministry but, figuratively, was sucked under the waters in death. For Christians, baptism (going under the waters and emerging) is a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection. In this piece, Benney can be understood as showing us the beginning of this redemptive process.

Sebastian Horsley contributes a film still of a performance from 2000, when he was nailed to a cross in the Filipino village of San Pedro Cutud in order to gain an insight into crucifixion for a series of paintings on the subject. In doing so, he passed out with pain and then fell from the cross, taking the nails with him when the straps holding his arms broke. But far from being euphoric or enlightened by the experience, he was dejected and wrote in his diary that God had punished him and had thrown him off the cross 'for impersonating his son'.

Argentinian artist Ricardo Cinalli, who lives in Spitalfields, creates spirited and passionate paintings that are baroque in their emotionalism and surrealist in their imaginative extravagance. Over a career spanning more than thirty years, he has become internationally renowned for his works on canvas and his huge pastel drawings created using a unique method of pastel and layers of tissue paper. In 2007, he was commissioned by Bishop Paglia and Fr. Fabio Leonardis to create a fresco in the Cathedral church of the Diocese of Terni-Narni-Amelia.

Each year, particular images, such as Anthony Micallef’s ‘Kill Your Idol’ and Nick Reynolds and Schoony ‘For Pete’s Sake’ have attracted significant media attention and generated debate about how the Church can explore the contemporary significance of Christ where people are at and in a language they can understand. This year, Ryan Callanan's ‘Stormtrooper Crucifixion’ may be viewed as being among the more controversial images shown in the exhibition.

Callanan (also known as RYCA) is a modern Pop Artist. Important to all Callanan’s work to date is the concept of the cross reference: taking one item out of its context and splicing it with another to create something that feels familiar but whose meaning is subtly shifted.This image raises similar questions to those which CS Lewis raised in his science fiction trilogy i.e. that, were other races to exist on other planets, would Christ be incarnated among those races in order to die for their salvation? Lewis’ view, which he sets out in the story running through the trilogy, is that Christ would do so. For Christians, Callanan's image can lead to a similar conclusion.

Chris Clack’s ‘Descent with Gerbera’ raises similar questions as it depicts the descent from the cross as set on the moon. As with Callanan, such juxtapositions are Christopher Clack’s stock-in-trade. Tyrannasaurus rex and crucifix, cemetery and prism, head formed by the moon, pieta with astronaut - these are just some of the disparate images brought together in his work. Such juxtapositions position us at a point of paradox, a liminal place where there are more questions than answers. In this work science and religion are juxtaposed, but are they opposed or reconciled within the image? Yuri Gagarin famously flew into space, but, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, “he didn't see any god there." Buzz Aldrin, by contrast, consumed the Holy Sacrament while on the surface of the moon. Who was right and who was wrong? Was Christ to be found on the moon and in what form? As we have reflected, similar questions were posed by C. S. Lewis in his sci-fi trilogy where the Fall was re-imagined and re-enacted on another planet.

Clack has said, “The 'Religious' is found in the least expected places.” What would be the impact, I wonder, were we more frequently to take religious images out of their religious context, as Clack has done, and trust them to raise their questions and reveal their meanings in other landscapes, cultures and worlds?

In their ‘Stations of the Cross’ exhibitions, Art Below show images designed to provoke thought from artists grappling with their response to the challenge and scandal of Christ's cross. For Christians, these images can be commended as images that can open ideas and minds to new reflections on the eternal significance of Christ's sacrifice.


Arvo Pärt - St. John Passion.

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