California’s Religious Awakening


California has a reputation for starting trends, and the state gets special credit for its contributions in religion at one local exhibition. “Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, traces the uninhibited history of religions, cults and spiritual beliefs that took root here during the past century. Religion is only one of many themes in the show, which focuses on art and culture. But spiritual references offer a lesson in how California artists relate to the sacred.

Spanish mission churches, handcrafts from Utopian colonies, Hindu-inspired abstract landscapes and “Zen” seascapes, Chicano-power shrines, sacred rocks, customized convertibles and muscleman portraits that mirror car and body cults remind one religion historian of the state’s unique story. “The most interesting thing about religion in California is that it’s so imaginative,” says Philip Goff, a professor of American religion at Indiana-Purdue University who specializes in Southern California. “Religious imagination is much stronger here than anywhere else.”

Even cliche images in the LACMA galleries prove to be more complex than they first appear. Turn-of-the-century landscapes that portrayed California as the Garden of Eden gave real-estate developers big ideas. Such untouched visions of nature as William Wendt’s “Malibu Coast (Paradise Cove),” painted around 1897, and Maurice Braun’s “Moonrise Over San Diego Bay” of 1915, supported the salesmen’s claims that this was heaven. Posters and postcards actually advertised the state that way. “To link the boosterism of Los Angeles with Eden was very evocative,” says Goff. “It implied that a move from the dirt and grime of the East could lead you to a paradise of Biblical proportion.”


Both painters and photographers in the early 20th century saw the Spanish mission churches as remnants of an innocent past. A sunny painting of “Mission San Juan Capistrano” (1916) by Channel P. Townsley and a moody photo of “Santa Barbara Mission” by W. Edwin Gledhill from about 1920 romanticize a less attractive reality. “Artists saw religious simplicity in the missions,” says Roberto Lint Sagarena, a professor of religious history at Caltech in Pasadena. For these artists, he says, quaint portraits of the missions were a comforting flashback, a relief from the industrialization that was cranking up around them. The unfair treatment of the Native Americans who worked the missions is not hinted at in this art.

Lint Sagarena says that Midwestern Protestants, particularly Methodists, were among the first to restore the neglected churches, starting in the late 1800s. Portraits of the missions capture the restorers’ sentiments. “Most of the art from that era shows a Protestant nostalgia for old-fashioned Catholicism,” Lint Sagarena says.

The same nostalgia for simple faith led Frederic Penney to create the watercolor “Madonna of Chavez Ravine” in about 1932. A Mexican American mother plays with her newborn, both of them crowned by halos. Chinese immigrants received a similar treatment. “Chinese New Year Celebration, San Francisco” is a bright, festive scene painted by Henry Nappenbach from 1904, which does not hint at the hard labor and inadequate living conditions social historians have documented.

“The artist doesn’t portray people as everyday and ordinary, but abstracts them,” Sheri Bernstein, a LACMA exhibition associate who helped organize the show, says of Penney’s work. “It’s a staged, not a realistic scene. There’s been a long-standing interest in non-Anglo cultures among Anglo artists. Often these ethnic cultures are portrayed as being more spiritual, but it can be problematic when one culture romanticizes another.”

Show-biz religion got its start here early. “Apparition Over Los Angeles” (1932), an oil by Barse Miller, is a satire that depicts Aimee Semple McPherson hovering over the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel she founded in Los Angeles.

Flamboyant and constantly plagued by lawsuits and accusations of financial misdealings, McPherson was on the front page of the New York Times on average four times a week in the 1920s. “She was as popular as Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh,” says Goff.


While she attracted thousands of followers through her dramatic sermons and faith healings, California intellectuals and artists took to the more esoteric Theosophy movement. A blend of Hindu and other Eastern philosophies, it inspired Utopian communities, among them Point Loma, in San Diego, which was led by Katherine Tingley and was made up of artists and craftsmen. Reginald Machell built a throne for Tingley in about 1910. Other furnishings were decorated with Arcadian gardens.

From then on, a widening assortment of metaphysical essences permeated the state. Visionary filmmaker Oskar Fischinger made “Radio Dynamics” in the early ‘40s; a silent film meant as a meditation aid, it shows Buddhist mandalas resembling human eyes flickering on the screen.

In 1951, a group of San Francisco artists first exhibited their abstract expressions under the name Dynaton, based on the Greek term for “the possible.” One member of the group, Gordon Onslow Ford, 88, still lives near San Francisco. “We started as surrealists in Paris,” says Ford. Later, he added his interest in Asian art and philosophy. “I studied Zen for years, and Chinese calligraphy,” he recalls.

Through the ‘60s, Wallace Berman used Jewish mysticism in his constructions. A large rock covered with Hebrew letters, “Topanga Seed,” (1969) is included in the LACMA show. Berman also put his personal vision into words, “Art is Love is God.”

Other artists mixed politics and religion in their work. After the Watts Riots of 1965, John Outterbridge built a communion table, with a chalice and plate. “The streets were alive with the Civil Rights movement,” says Outterbridge, who remembers being sent to the back of the bus as a young man. “I wanted to say, instead of opposing each other, let’s elevate the fact that we are all, simply, human.” He assembled his altar in 1968 and named the work, “Together Let Us Break Bread,” after an African American spiritual.

Chicano artist Gilbert “Magu” Sanchez Lujan built an altar, “Tribute to Mesoamerica,” in 1974, as a cultural expression of the Chicano experience. On a pyramid base, Lujan placed photos of loved ones and votive candles as well as hot sauce, a sombrero and other emblems of Mexican American culture.

“Chicanos are Indians,” he says. “Aztec, Maya, all the Pan-Indian religions and cultures relate to the Chicano experience. I’m not so much religious as spiritual. In my work, art, culture, religion, the spiritual get intertwined.”

An absence of religion marks art and culture of the ‘70s. Looking back, the muscleman portraits and custom convertibles on view at LACMA mirror the era. “Cults go outside mainstream religion and society, usually to challenge the institutions,” says Goff. In the midst of such self-absorption, however, several major California artists--including painter Sam Francis and light-and-space artist Robert Irwin--alluded to Zen-like harmony with nature in their work.

Closer to the millennium, the state’s contorted reputation as both paradise and sin city led artists to portray spiritual extremes; Eden and the Apocalypse. Joel Sternfeld’s photograph “After a Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California, 1979” shows a car caught in a landslide and a single house standing on solid ground. A movie poster for the ‘90s film, “Volcano,” declares: “The Coast Is Toast.”

“I think of it as mythic,” says Howard Fox, LACMA curator of modern and contemporary art. “From the beginning of the century, language about California has been Biblical. It went from, ‘the land of milk and honey,’ and Eden references to a sudden, deserved destruction.”

And even plague. Photographer Albert Winn, who has AIDS, used his own body for “Akedah,” which shows his naked arm, bandaged from blood transfusions and bound by tefillin, a ritual object worn by traditional Jews during prayer. The title is a Hebrew term that refers to the sacrificial binding of Isaac by Abraham.

At the time he made the photograph, he was part of a medical experiment. “I wanted to transform the experience,” he says. “I was sacrificing myself, in a way, by volunteering for the experiment. I began to wonder if an angel would intercede and a solution would come along.”

Such boldly personal expressions of religious faith fit the California profile.