Portraying the Divine

Special to The Times

Half a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Los Angeles artist John Baldessari was trying to come up with an idea for a show of contemporary art. He asked a colleague and former student, Meg Cranston, for help. She came up with the phrase: 100 Artists See God.

“Newspapers, magazines, television and radio were full of stories about God at the time, and books about God were on the bestseller list,” the two wrote in the catalog for an exhibit they organized. “God was everywhere. Artists were uncharacteristically silent.”

The show, “100 Artists See God,” opened recently at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, where it runs through June 27 before moving to the Laguna Art Museum from July 24 to Oct. 2.


Religion and art have something of a paradoxical relationship. Both the Bible and the Koran enjoin the making of graven images of God. Yet the history of art, until relatively recently, is largely the history of religious art.

How, then, might contemporary artists respond to the challenge of seeing God?

“We imagined a group of 100 artists standing in a field having a simultaneous revelation,” the curators write. “We pictured them all with thought-bubbles over their heads imagining how to put their vision into an artwork.”

Baldessari and Cranston asked artists, mostly friends or people whose work they admired, many from Los Angeles, to submit representations of the divine.

The show was organized under the auspices of Independent Curators International, a nonprofit organization in New York that assembles exhibits and finds galleries to display them.

While the Contemporary Jewish Museum would not seem an obvious venue given the Second Commandment’s prohibition against graven images, the show has been popular there.

“Teachers have really embraced the show. The students are really engaged. Kids aren’t worried about boundaries, and this show raises important questions,” said Constance Wolf, director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, formerly known as the Jewish Museum of San Francisco.


“We didn’t feel there was anything in the show that violated the Second Commandment; we weren’t interested in having artists attack that tradition,” she added.

Wolf explains that the museum, which expects to move from its storefront gallery near the Embarcadero to a new home in the Yerba Buena complex in 2007, is a cultural institution, not a religious one, although exploring Judaism in its many dimensions is obviously part of its mission.

“I was really interested in having a Jewish museum present this,” she added. “I thought we could create a forum for dialogue.”

How artists have attempted to express spirituality without violating the Judaic and Islamic traditions will be the subject of a panel discussion at the museum April 28 at 7 p.m.

Many of the works are devoid of any overt religious symbolism. Only a few of them were made after 2002, when the show was put together.

The artists range from the well-known, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Bruce Nauman, to the relatively obscure. The art includes abstract paintings, photos of pets, Jeremy Deller’s bumper sticker “God Less America” and Jim Shaw’s drawing of Snoopy dancing across a velvet painting of the Last Supper.


“We really wanted to do a show that was daring and challenging for the artists,” Cranston said. “Very seldom do contemporary artists look at God. It’s too loaded. With the rise of the Christian right, many artists are afraid of the topic. We thought we’d be turned down more than we were. Most artists responded with laughter. They thought it was a jolly experiment.”

The curators divided the works into 16 categories of how the artists see God -- such as architect, everywhere, in the flesh, as light, love, mother, tyrant, word and others. In the category of miracle worker, Christopher Williams photographed dishwater filled with plates.

“The topic God is so vast that it can be everything and nothing,” said Baldessari. “It’s a tough one to get your head around. Meg and I had a joke hoping that everyone didn’t say ‘God is dog spelled backward.’ ”

There are, one might note, several pictures of dogs, not to mention Scott Grieger’s warning sign (acrylic on canvas): “Beware of God.”

Others, such as Jen Liu, depict God as the organizing principle behind geodesic domes and the atomic structure of the universe (“Dawn of the Alpha Genesis,” a still photo from a video work).

A few artists actually make use of traditional religious symbols. One of the more overt images of the divine is Ed Ruscha’s pastel drawing, “Miracle #67,” in which spears of light pierce a gray sky. “I can’t think of God without thinking of shafts of light,” he writes in his artist statement, “and I can’t see shafts of light without thinking of God.”


Sam Durant presents a photograph of a graffiti-scarred building behind a chain-link fence, which, once you notice the slight cross protruding from the roof, turns out to be a church designed by a well-known architect (“R.M. Schindler Church”).

Political overtones are rare. An exception is Catherine Opie, who photographed an anti-gay demonstration in which the protesters held up banners citing Bible verses condemning homosexuality (“They See God, I See Hate”).

More common are depictions of the divine as an inscrutable potency. Tony Oursler, for instance, projects a talking face onto a mannequin head (“DOGOD”), mumbling vague foretellings of doom (“You will burn”). “He is loving,” Oursler writes. “He is also cruel, randomly dispensing disease, violence and poverty. He is always mysterious, and it is up to the viewer to understand his motivations.”

The Rev. Ethan Acres writes in his statement that his father was a Southern Baptist preacher who awakened in him a desire to turn an art gallery into a sort of church. His Mylar print “W.W.J.D?” harkens back to a Photoshop version of a Spanish baroque painting: A bloody Christlike figure is crucified on a beam of light above an ecstatic, ersatz St. Francis kneeling in front of a suburban church.

“I will lead you out of the dark valley and into the light of grace and joy,” Acres writes. “Beat down the devil, my lambs, and help me put the FUN back in FUNDAMENTALISM!”


The Contemporary Jewish Museum, 121 Steuart St., San Francisco. $5 adults, $4 students and seniors. Information: (415) 591-8800 or