Barbarian art mocks religion

Lyle Aston Harris, “Untitled,” 2008, part of Beasts of Revelations.

In Lyle Harris' untitled photo, a woman stands in the foreground of a crowd of unidentified black villagers. She holds a mobile phone with an image of Jesus on the screen and the message: missed calls. However facetious Harris' intention, the image rebounds with an unruly innuendo: Perhaps it is we who missed the calls. A cautionary message, really.

Is religion the new pornography? DC Moore Gallery, pitching its group exhibition of “American (ir)religiosity” in the exhibition Beasts of Revelation, hopes so.

Censorship battles over sexually explicit imagery have been won. That old X-rated thrill is gone. Nowadays, organs and orifices are as transgressive as your parish bulletin. Only demon blasphemy has enough life left to pinch-hit for beaver shots and bull whips—or so the gallery wants to think.

On one level, Beasts of Revelation is a standard publicity caper, the kind that banks on the Catholic League to rise to the bait. Nothing boosts box office like a picket line of retired Knights of Columbus at the gallery door. Moreover, this is an election year, as civic minds at DC Moore remind us. The gallery is primed for Nov. 6 with latter-day riffs on Christian iconography, stand-ins for the social conservatism identified with a Republican candidacy. To underscore the point, two LDS-raised artists are showcased for their upbringing, not talent.

But where is the sacrilege?

The trumpeted irreverence comes gilded as a testament to “Christianity’s insidious aquifer of metaphorical power.” (Insidious /adj/ 1. cunning, deceitful 2. deleterious.) Downwind of Andres Serrano, Chris Ofili, and a thriving Broadway lampoon of Mormonism, DC Moore’s claim that religion is a taboo subject in the art world is risible. Here, promotional blather about religion diverts attention from the crucial question: Is the art any good?

Some of it is, much is not. Even so, Rosary Society matrons will have a hard time finding offense. This is an unexceptional summertime porridge of appropriations and approximations of traditional iconography. Several pieces achieve a seriousness that is no less real for being unintended. The only insidious item on show is the press release.

Roger Brown’s “The Beast Rising From the Sea” (1983), the keynote piece, holds its ground as a modern version of an ancient motif. The seven-headed symbol for Satan and his wiles has warned against mistaken conceptions of God—i.e., against idolatry— since The Book of Revelation was written early in the common era.

Chris Hammerlein follows Brown with a ceramic Whore of Babylon astride a suitably grotesque version of the Beast. The sculpture accompanies a suite of sketchy illustrations of the Passion. Hammerlein’s line is weak, yet several of the compositions do justice to the emotional tenor of the Stations of the Cross.

Robert Smithson’s expressionist drawing “Christ Carrying the Cross” (1960) is a glad surprise. A bent, bloody, striped figure, rendered in red-purple ink, evokes the lethal brutality of a Roman scourging. It recalls Lovis Corinth’s “The Red Christ” (1922) and reveals how far Smithson traveled to become himself.

Kay Rosen’s stylish stained-glass design using the letters of the name Jesus would be welcome in rectories anywhere. By contrast, Dana Frankfort’s graphic and semantic nullity, “TSIRHC” (2011)—Christ spelled backward— suggests a high schooler trying to be cool. Carrie Mayer’s portrait drawing “Head” (1999) is eligible for inclusion on the assumption that a generic Haight Ashbury melancholic, ’60s vintage, is a ringer for a 1st-century Palestinian Jew. It is a popular cliché, a secular parallel to the products of Sulpician piety.

Erika Rothenberg’s signboard announcing parish activities in moveable letters is a delicious send-up of typical church notice boards. Social service (“Tues: Eating Disorders; Wed: Abusive Spouse; Sat: Soup Kitchen”) takes precedence over prayer; the social gospel trumps the Synoptics more often than not. Janine Antoni’s photo of a woman cradling her own leg in the attitude of a madonna and child is a pitch-perfect image of amour propre. Meant to burlesque a conventional composition, “Coddle” (1999) rises in spite of itself to a sharp comment on narcissism. The Spirit blows where it will.

Art is both the work of hands—craft—and an act of mind. Joyce Kozloff’s “JEEZ” (2012) runs a deficit either way. Its inane gigantism and crude execution is the apotheosis of every adolescent, aimless or resentful thread elsewhere in the ensemble. Unequal to the grandeur of the inheritance it cannibalizes, Kozloff’s altarpiece, an anarchy of fragments and fribbles, tries an end-run around creative debility. Enamored as we are of the idea that art is a civilizing force, we forget that barbarians, too, have their art.

Beasts of Revelation Through Aug. 3. DC Moore Gallery, 535 W. 22 St., 212-247-2111, dcmooregallery.com.