The intersection between religion and the arts in today’s seemingly secular society has shifted dramatically from its pedagogical past, and Vanderbilt Divinity School seeks to explore this through their grant-funded program “Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture.”
As a result of this initiative, an exhibition recently opened titled Meet the Fergusons, a series of paintings by Nashvillian Samuel L. Dunson, the first artist to be formally commissioned by the Divinity School. The show’s subject matter may appear to focus exclusively on issues of race in America and specifically the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Less explicitly, however, a Christian narrative is present in a few of the works.
Dunson identifies as an African American, Christian man, yet his paintings do not proselytize overtly religious themes. Rather, the artist chooses an aesthetic more commonly associated with comics. By juxtaposing serious subject matter with satirical imagery, the art offsets confrontation and simultaneously engages a wider audience while avoiding the label “angry black man.” Take for example, “Slice of Heaven.” The scene actually depicts purgatory with a cartoonish policeman ecstatically holding baby Jesus who wears a cardboard box with a puppy face (the puppy referring to Walter Scott’s family statement, “shot down like a dog”). In the background the viewer sees a burning building, one that is not from the riots but the building in which Eric Garner was shot and killed. Religion is also present in the abstract sense when the exhibition’s curator Dave Perkins pronounces the paintings a “prophetic gift.”
On a personal level, Dunson created these works as a way to grapple with his own fear and anger by searching for a resolution through examining the cause and effect. These works do not reflect the news media’s inflammatory representation of the events as two opposing diatribes, for Dunson acknowledges the rights and wrongs of both sides. One work in particular, “The Collateral Damage of a Two-Sided Story,” reflects Dunson’s familial concerns by posing a portrait of Michael Brown beside his own teenage son. Cartoon speech bubbles “POW” act as semaphores signifying gunshot wounds. According to Dunson, this work received criticism for painting Brown’s skin darker than that of his son, and he responds: “There was no choice on color, but the idea of life, and there is blood flowing through my son. That blood is red, so on one side I based the portrait as being much more red, or a family palette of reds, whereas, if we look at the idea of death, it’s cold, so blues and greens were a palette I chose for the other side.”
Symbols imbued with multi-faceted meanings are everywhere in Meet the Fergusons. In a work that references René Magritte’s “The Son of Man,” Dunson depicts a well-dressed black man with a cloud for a head. Such imagery can refer to white noise, reaching for the clouds, identity, or the blindness of sticking your head in the clouds. Another painting, “Tête-à-Tête,” includes two skeletons confronting one another with bullseyes or targets placed on their chests. Here Dunson is playing with the conflict of butting heads versus the alternative heart-to-heart. Meanwhile the hands of both skeletons rest in their pockets, perhaps concealing weapons or crossed fingers. The artist intentionally leaves his work open to interpretation, and in doing so conveys that there is no definitive answer.
Exhibition info: located in the Divinity School Gallery, Room G-20. Sept 17 – Nov 12, 2015
Gallery hours: Monday 11:00am-1:00pm; Tuesday 9:00-11:00am; Wednesday 11:00am-1:00pm, or by appointment
Reviewed by Millie Fullmer