Arts News: New Book Looks at the Spiritual in Contemporary Art

The book marks an impressive cap to curator Leesa K. Fanning’s 20 years at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

For decades the subject of spirituality and/or religion in contemporary art has either been denied or repressed. The academy, art museums and galleries have dealt openly with sexuality and sexism, politics, racism, identity, the environment and effects of globalism, but God has been taboo. As a prominent art critic once said, “If you bring up the topic of spirituality in contemporary art, everyone assumes you have a double-digit IQ.”

And more than one artist has confided that promoting notions of the spiritual in their work is akin to career suicide.

Leesa K. Fanning’s book “Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art” offers a corrective to the dominant art world agendas. The profusely illustrated 312-page tome marks an impressive cap to Fanning’s 20 years at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, most recently as curator of contemporary art.

Fanning, along with six other scholars, addresses the presence of the sacred in painting, sculpture, performance, videos and photography by artists around the world. The book is a global roundup of major artists not afraid to openly embrace concepts of God, deities, reincarnation, shamanism, the afterlife and the presence of a soul in their all-encompassing artwork.

Each writer analyzes the work of a handful of artists in depth. In her essay “Engaging the Spiritual in Abstract Art” Fanning writes, “In the Western art world, during the twentieth century, abstract art has represented two divergent sensibilities: the spiritual and that which celebrated science, technology, the machine age, and industrial revolution.” What links the artists she writes about is “a move toward transcendence — the dissolution of the ego, the ‘I.’”

Fanning analyzes the esoteric, beatific art of Wolfgang Laib in depth, along with that of James Lee Byars, Martin Puryear, Agnes Martin, Anish Kapoor, Natvar Bhavsar and Shirazeh Houshiary. Unlike the first five artists mentioned, Bhavsar and Houshiary are not as well known, and one of the notable features of this book is that the work of a number of less familiar artists is presented in a revelatory manner.

In “Unearthing the Underground River of the Spiritual,” Eleanor Heartney looks at the Judeo-Christian tradition in contemporary art. In her 2004 book, “Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art,” Heartney brilliantly clarified how the “incarnational consciousness” of artists raised in Catholicism helped bring the topic of the body back to the forefront of artmaking. In this new essay, she also examines how the Jewish tenet of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) can account for references to nature in the art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Steven Handel and other artists of Jewish origin.

The relatively new art of social practice is the subject of Mary Jane Jacob’s essay, “The Art of Being in the World,” in which she writes about the social dimensions of works by artists including Ling Mingwei, Marina Abramovic and Wolfgang Laib.

For decades, following such treatises as Freud’s 1913 “Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics” and his “The Future of an Illusion,” many in the Western world subscribed to the famed psychologist’s tenet that belief in religion or spirituality was merely psychological consolation, and that art from non-western and tribal cultures was little more than ethnographic material made by people who possessed the psychological life of children.

The remaining four essays put such racist beliefs to shame. Karen Kramer, Stephen Gilchrist, Karen E. Milbourne and Ladan Akbarnia deal, respectively, with the art of First Nations peoples and American Indians, Australian Aboriginals, Africans and Sufis. Each writer offers abundant elucidation on how issues of faith are richly intertwined with the artists’ personal, political and cultural concerns. Their resultant creations are profoundly moving.

Gilchrist’s “The Presence and Promise of the Ancestors, Spirituality in Australian Aboriginal Art” is one of the most informative essays ever written on the complex making of art that deals with the “Dreaming.” But then, all the contributions in this book make one wonder what else has been left out of so many other artistic theses.

“Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art,” by Leesa K. Fanning, with contributions by Ladan Akbarnia, Stephen Gilchrist, Eleanor Heartney, Mary Jane Jacob, Karen Kramer and Karen E. Milbourne, was published in July 2018 by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The book is distributed by Yale University Press; price $65.

About The Author: Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.


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