Monthly Archives: August 2017

Homeless Jesus. The Aesthetics of Kitsch.

Several weeks ago my wife and I had the pleasure of attending a wedding at Holy Cross Cathedral in Vancouver. After the ceremony, as we were exiting the foyer, along with others in attendance, we were confronted by an almost life size bronze statue of a person, covered in a blanket, lying on a bronze park bench. His bodily features were hidden except for two feet, each with a lacerated wound, protruding beyond the lower edge of the blanket. The statue, known as Homeless Jesus by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, was placed on a narrow landing, directly in front to the main doors, several steps below the cathedral entrance and several steps leading up from the sidewalk below.

‘Homeless Jesus’ is a cast bronze sculpture depicting a man covered in a blanket sleeping on a park bench, each of his feet showing evidence of a deep gash. It is one of several such statues that have been placed at various locations throughout the world, usually near a church or cathedral. Its placement has been rejected at locations such as St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York and the London’s Westminster borough. It was installed in front of Holy Rosary cathedral in 2017.

The controversial statue is also available in various sizes including the convenient resin stone cast table top model at 5 x 9 ¾ inches and the handy travel size model also resin stone cast at 2 ¼ x 4 ¾ inches, each is adorned with a realistic bronze finish.

According to the staff at Holy Rosary Cathedral, the cathedral has been under siege by panhandlers and police have been called to an incident at least once a day, on a weekly basis. “We have people coming in here and they’re in another world and they’re either doped up or drunk up or else they’re in some psychological impairment.” said Father Dion. The situation has become so bad that women who enter the cathedral are in the habit of tightly holding onto their purses during mass.

In 2008 Darcy Jones 43, a crack addict and homeless person of some 20 years, attacked 81 year old parishioner Dr. Peter Collins, inside the cathedral foyer, after the two men were seen leaving together. Dr. Collins had been giving Jones $5 a day for several days. As the elderly man reached for his wallet to give Jones money, Jones pushed Dr. Collins to the ground, grabbed his wallet, removed $40, gave the wallet back to Dr. Collins as he lay on the ground and absconded down the street.The incident was recorded on video by one of the cathedral’s security cameras.

In 2013 Schmalz’s statue of Jesus entitled ‘Whatsoever You Do’, was stolen from outside the Church of Stephen-in-the-Fields in downtown Toronto and later returned with a ‘sorry’ note. Perhaps the thief had an epiphany when he realized that the statue was not made of bronze but resin and consequently did not have any value on the scrap metal market.
The resin sculpture was going to be converted to bronze once the artist and the church raised enough money.

The problem I have with Schmalz’s statue is that is a poser, akin to washing your hands with gloves on. It is desperately pretending to be something that it is not, it is kitsch: as Roger Scruton has observed ‘expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious, when in fact he feels nothing at all’.

As Scruton has also noted, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera made a famous observation. “Kitsch,” he wrote, “causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” Kitsch, in other words, is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this – it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, “Look at me feeling this – how nice I am and how lovable.”

Schmalz corrupts moral truth to deceive the viewer into thinking that he feels fake feelings of pity, righteous indignation and schmaltz, feelings I would more correctly describe as the triumvirate or the holy trinity of schmaltz (pun intended). Some viewers may be conned into feeling sorrow and compassion caused by the sufferings and misfortunes of others, (There but for the Grace of God, go I.) while others may be conned into feeling anger at the plight of the homeless without feelings of guilt, while others may be duped into feelings of exaggerated sentimentalism.

What makes ‘Homeless Jesus’ especially troublesome is that it intentionally inveigles the viewer by conflating Christian imagery with the demi monde of popular culture to venerate bupkis. It is a placebo, a bland simulacrum worthy only of contempt.

The Recalcitrant Rembrandt.

Unknown Portrait. Oil on canvas. 
48 x 37 cms.

As most art historians will tell you historic paintings often take on a life of their own. They exist over time, are hesitant about revealing their true age, have distinct personalities, are nomadic and sometimes deliberately mask their origins and the nature of their true character and identity.

This perception I think could be applied to the two paintings illustrated, one perhaps has a more respectable art historical pedigree than the other but both are essentially the same image of an old bearded man wearing a cap.

My client told me that he had inherited the painting on the upper right from a recently deceased German relative and that he remembers seeing the painting as a child. Au verso of the painting in cursive script are the words Rembrandt Orig. 1631 and the remains of a label. He did not know anything else about it and wished to have it appraised for fair market value.

Bust of a Man with a Cap. Oil on oak
 48 x 37 cms.  Attributed to Jan Lievens.

The painting on the lower right, formerly known as Rembrandt’s Father or Rembrandt’s Brother was acquired from the E. Habich, Kassel Collection in 1891 by the Gemaldergalerie, Kassel, Germany. It was previously consigned to auction from the Freiherr von Friesen Collection and sold at the March 26 – March 27 1885 Heberle Keulen (Moore’s Art Gallery) auction to Edward Habich, Kassel. It is dated after 1630, thought to have been painted by Rembrandt and was listed and illustrated as Rembrandt’s Father (Br 78) on page 70 of Rembrandt Paintings by A. Bredius and H. Gerson. (1971)

In 1986 the painting was re-assessed and attributed to a contemporary of Rembrandt’s named Jan Lievens (1607 – 1674), the re-assessment was partially based on the fact that ‘The author of the painting seems to have worked from a number of early Rembrandt etchings, which date from the 1630’s’.

My intent here is to avoid traditional methods of art historical inquiry to suggest a plausible socio-political identity of the unknown painting, although I allude to a methodology of comparative connoisseurship only to contextualize my theoretical approach. I want to frame these images as descriptors in terms of a socio-political determined character and context, that is, to make ideological connections between the known and unknown as signifiers of citizens and denizens.

Guy Standing has remarked that the denizen as distinct from the citizen does not have full citizenship but has the status of a ‘resident alien’. Denizens may be considered nomadic, circulatory and without the rights and privileges associated with full citizenship and this concept according to Standing is useful ‘in delineating what people can and cannot do in society’. Denizens are expected to behave as good citizens and are susceptible to expulsion if they do not demonstrate the behaviour associative of the citizen.

The painting attributed to Jan Lievens appears to demonstrate all the attributes required to establish permanent and prolonged art historical residency. It has a traceable pedigree, is recognized by society as a cultural artefact and is imbued by the state with respectability and civility. It reflects its social status as a full citizen member of society. In contrast the unknown painting is of unknown origin, undocumented, without verifiable provenance and of dubious lineage. Its status as a denizen tends to confirm suspicions of fraud and subversiveness.

Claude Breeze: Hope and Despair in Vancouver.

Claude Breeze standing beside Museum Piece: Genetic Problem Prototype No. 5 1-6 on the deck attached to his home, 12640 Old Yale Road, North Surrey, B.C., c 1969-1970.

In an abstract entry numbered 4909 from Art and Architecture in Canada: A Bibliography and Guide to the Literature to 1981. by Loren Lerner and Mary Williamson the authors summarize an article by Barry Lord entitled From the ‘Deck’ at North Surrey: Landscape and Figure in the Art of Claude Breeze which appeared in Artscanada no 24 (Aug-Sep 1971). Their comments include the following “The universality of his work derives its authenticity and power from the artist’s direct experience of the Canadian West Coast and from what is described as a peculiar combination of hope and despair in Vancouver”

In his article Lord, when commenting on the supeficiality of the tourist ads that conflate the natural splendor around Vancouver with tourism, observes “It is the glory and the shame of the city that almost everywhere in its streets you can lift up your eyes and behold not the hills but precisely the conflict between a magnificient natural setting and the human effects on its gross exploitation”.

Lord’s article surveys Breeze’s artistic output from 1962 -1971 for an exhibition entitled Claude Breeze 10 Years which was held at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Sept. 29 – Oct. 24th 1971. Most of the work referenced Breeze’s signature compositions which featured the figure in the landscape, however the only sculptural piece included was that shown above.

Within the conxext of the anthropocene, Breeze’s paintings speak to the health and sustainability of the landscape as an important determinant for human survivability
and his contorted and somewhat tortured figures personify an ecological and empahatic relationship with their environment. His use of a sculptural medium is, essentially to represent human heads suggestive of human life long since expired, encased in vitrines resting on plinths. They are remaniscent of a museum exhibit curiosity, designed to elicit similar revulsion one might endure on seeing jars of formaldahide containing specimens of deformed or maladaptive humans.

Perhaps the sculpture references future human sustainability, attainable only within the artificially constructed environment of the vitrine, divorced from the natural environment.
Lord’s insightful article frames the imagery in the exhibition in terms of a conflict between the natural environment and the constructed environment but does not offer any solutions to the conumdrum.

Contemporary writers such as Suzi Gablik most recently in her book The Reenchantment of Art has suggested that ‘we need to disolve the dispassionate partriarical consciousness, which has become increasingly maladaptive to the natural and communal world’. She further observes that a ‘remythologizing of consciousness through art and ritual is one way that our culture can regain a sense of enchantment’.

Perhaps we need to take her advice, that is to re-enchant our understanding of the natural world as a necessity for long term sustainablity and survivability.That is to re-mythologise the idea of the magnificient machine, called Earth whose workings we do not completely understand and perhaps never should in order to guarantee our survival. Would it not make our world a more exciting place to live in if we did not understand all its extraordinary functionality?
But wait a minute, are there not traditional First Nations and other indiginous myths which speak to the relationship between human survivability and the natural world?