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Commissioned Works Don't Soar to New Cathedral's Heights

The works of art commissioned for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels don't begin to approach the pungent complexity of what the building's celebrated Spanish architect has attempted. José Rafael Moneo's cathedral design creates a powerful experience for a visitor; the lackluster art mostly just describes it.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles hired Father Richard S. Vosko, a priest and educator in Albany, N.Y., as art consultant to the project, with a $6-million budget for the first phase. Three major commissions dominate his cathedral program.

Vosko took his first cue from Moneo, who employs an abstract building vocabulary. Moneo's magnificent design could be described as a narrative of transformation. A visitor goes on a spiritual voyage. Powerful intangibles of space, light and interval are manipulated to create drama, amplitude, serenity.

The path begins with the mundane beauties of the street outside and arrives at a dynamic, radiant space within the cathedral. At journey's end, an enormous concrete cross thrusts into the church interior, visually projected through a translucent membrane of glowing alabaster. The cross is at once symbolic and structural.

The three art commissions denote this voyage. A plaza fountain and waterfall by painter and installation artist Lita Albuquerque (in collaboration with architect Robert Kramer) indicate a spiritual presence outside the church. Sculptor Robert Graham's enormous bronze doors mark the dramatic start of the pilgrimage. Painter John Nava's gathering of tapestry saints in the nave shows what happens at its completion.

But the difference between Moneo's design and the artists' is the difference between the physical embodiment of abstract ideas and a textual representation of them. The art reflects the stylistic pluralism of international art. But it also clings to a failed idea in 1980s multiculturalism—one that reduces art's subject to a simplistic description of audience diversity.

Albuquerque's project is incomplete, but it is currently composed of a flat, disk-shaped fountain, which stands waist-high and seems to hover in space before a waterfall cascading down a wall. You can put your fingers in the tabletop water, in subtle anticipation of the baptismal motif celebrated inside the cathedral on Nava's biggest tapestry.

The scheme is uncomfortably similar to Maya Lin's 1989 design for the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. The stone's color is different, but the pleasant composition is the same. It could almost have been ordered from a catalog—which isn't what one wants from a major commission.

In place of Lin's listing of key events in the civil rights movement, across which sheets of water flow, Albuquerque's circular marble table is etched with the phrase, "I shall give you living water," in the 37 languages of L.A.'s Catholic parishioners.

This dull type of by-the-numbers, demographic representation continues in Graham's doors, which create a protective impression of fortress. Through sheer mass, entrance into the cathedral is marked with a sense of great occasion.

Nested within them is a pair of smaller, user-friendly doors, decorated with 40 obscure pre-Christian symbols, as well as 15 castings of historical images of the Virgin Mary, as represented in the New World. Their Spanish Colonial sources range from the elaborate Cuzco School in Peru to a simple Mexican ex voto (a devotional painting on tin).

High above, standing on a golden plinth before a curved golden wall, a figurative sculpture represents Our Lady of the Angels—the newest New World Mary. Larger than life, she's dressed in a Japanese-style robe, arms open in a gesture of welcome. The style is a graceful blend of focused realism and idealization. Mary's a forceful Everywoman, which emphasizes her humanity, but she's monumental too.

The design's most compelling feature is a cone-shaped cut made through the curved wall behind her. Looking up, you see the lower portion of the cone as a projection that becomes the crescent moon beneath Mary's feet—a common symbol of her divinity. The cone's angle continues in diagonal lines cut into the huge bronze doors. This pattern is a graphic signifier of radiance, but it's too flimsy to overcome the austere massiveness of all that dark bronze.

The upper portion of the cone cuts through the golden wall behind Mary, forming her halo. The mystical ring of light is created by vivid blue sky. Graham has daringly borrowed this idea from no less than Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," where Jesus' head is framed with a painted "halo" of sky. But Graham makes the concept real, not an illusion, reinventing a stale spiritual symbol through ephemeral natural beauty. The effect is magical.

Inside, Nava's tapestries are reticent in the extreme. Woven in Belgium, their pale, dappled tonalities—taken from photographs of Jerusalem stone—create a coy illusion of fresco. They defer so much to Moneo's architectural environment that you almost wonder why they're present.

The figures, most dressed in historical garb, are obviously contemporary men, women and children, drawn from various ethnicities and all walks of life. (They also include what must surely be the only representation of sneakers and Birkenstock-style sandals in the long history of tapestry art. And no, Jennifer Jones does not play St. Bernadette.) Symbolic role-playing, which casts living people as historical dignitaries, was common in Old Master art—and among some modern artists, such as Diego Rivera. The saintly procession describes the highest potential for your own voyage through the cathedral by depicting it in a pastiche on the surrounding walls.

Behind the altar, seven tapestry panels attempt to relocate the journey's end back in the everyday world. Their abstract pattern, which is difficult to see unless you're up close, merges with a street map of downtown L.A.—the Thomas Bros. guide to salvation.

There's something almost Victorian at work in the cathedral's art program—Mary as a fresh-faced girl, who's just stepped off Venice Beach and pulled her hair back into a braid; a procession of saints who range from John the Baptist in lion skins to the kid on your street who's a skateboard fanatic. The art smuggles allegory back into Moneo's modern architecture, from which it had been banished.

This is where Vosko's program gets shallow, departing drastically from Moneo's complex lead. Nava's multiethnic processional, Graham's multi-paneled New World doors and Albuquerque's fountain of 37 languages simply aspire to document the Catholic community in all its manifold variety.

But art is never great simply because it represents community. Instead, art is great when it creates community—when it acts as a galvanizing force, bringing the infinite diversity of human beings together in a cross-cultural act of astonishment and love. Passage through Moneo's carefully articulated spaces physically embodies spiritual mysteries associated with life, death and transcendence. With the exception of Graham's evocative halo, which works much like Moneo's concrete cross piercing an alabaster membrane, the art is stuck in allegorical representations of them.

The result is self-defeating. If you already believe, the art is superficial. If you don't, there isn't much to see.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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