Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art

Inspired by a series of articles written by Joseph Masheck for Artforum on the high incidence of iconicity and cruciformality in abstract art of the late ’70s, this show, entitled “Cruciformed: Images of the Cross Since 1980,” followed these trends into the post-Modern ’80s. Curator David S. Rubin included numerous works that elaborate the formalist esthetic (the transcendental implications of which Masheck investigated), proving by judicious selection that even seemingly neutral or contentless crosses by contemporary artists such as Keith Milow, Jackie Winsor, and Harvey Quaytman have moral, humanitarian, and tragic implications.

The emblematic force of the cross as a symbol has opened it to extensive manipulation by recent artists whose concerns center on the intertextuality achieved through appropriation and montage. Particularly important to a significant number of the works in this show (there were 50 pieces by 34 artists and three artist-teams) is the metaphor of the Latin cross as a surrogate for the human—especially male body. Although Magdalena Abakanowicz feminizes her drawings of torsos hung on a cross matrix by the addition of swollen pregnant bellies, and Tom Stanton substitutes a nude Saint Theresa for Christ, most of the artists who chose to elaborate the body metaphor evoked male physicality and sexual energies, often implying a link between phallic power and violence. Inspired by a Romanian Orthodox priest arrested for his beliefs, Mel Chin (a Chinese-American) created a headboard with prison bars and positioned steel spikes to rip the cheap mattress ticking exactly where the wound from the lance and the stigmata tore the flesh of Christ. Contributing to the discourse on violence and repression, Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, in Double Cross #21, 1987, enframed a bullet within a cruciform cookie cutter, ironically enshrining it as a religious relic against the backdrop of a battered TV featuring the Iran Contra hearings.

Jorge Tacla and Luis Cruz Azaceta’s overt critiques of South American militarism are less successful, based on a jarring cartoonish style and the insistent feverish pitch of the rhetoric. Self-consciously theatrical without being strident, two works by Joel-Peter Witkin and Jean-Marc Prouveur confronted the viewer in a combative way due partially to their enormous size. Witkin included four bizarre “antiqued” photographs, using them to flank each arm of an ornate cross on which hangs a life-size Christ figure made of plaster and photo paper. Witkin’s suggestion cited in the catalogue, that pictures of a hermaphrodite, female dwarf, and a partially nude couple in S&M gear represent spiritual need, physical pain, and confused love, barely seems to scratch the surface of his literal and figurative reframing of the martyrdom of Christ in erotic terms. Potentially even more blasphemous was Prouveur’s 1986 photomontage, Moralism. The artist is one of numerous contributors to this show who have admitted an inability to reconcile their current lifestyles and beliefs with strict Catholic upbringings. Juxtaposing the estheticized figure of a nude black male with a gently rotting Christ figure, tombstones of British and Russian World War II soldiers, and an explicit example of homosexual grafitti, Prouveur set up a web of associations implying that, in his martyrdom, Christ, the quintessential “Other,” speaks to the needs of those whose true identities are unacceptable to society.

One of a number of works in the exhibition in which parts or fluids of the human body are fetishized, Andres Serrano’s Milk Cross of 1987—a Cibachrome of milk (with its implications of Marian purity) poured into a cruciform Plexiglas container set in a field of blood—alludes to the danger posed to the world’s blood supply by the scourge of AIDS. A similar work by the team Ridgway Bennett, entitled Reactive Armor, 1990, presents a cruciform surface onto which the artists’ own semen, mixed with wax and resin, was dripped and spattered in ejaculatory Abstract Expressionist patterns. These artists further complicate the level of meaning by iconizing a common slang word for ejaculate, referring slyly to its accepted meaning, “combined with or including.”

Numerous other artists in “Cruciformed” metaphorize Christ in pop-culture icons (e.g., Elvis, “The King”) or use the cross as a jumping-off point to evoke or manipulate previous art. The strongest works, however, are those that do not merely re-present predetermined associations, but rather inflect the cross and Christ’s crucifixion with contemporary implications. And, as Serrano put it, the majority of works do “raise the ante” in strategic and stimulating ways.

Ellen G. Landau