Dylan Mortimer is both an artist and an active Christian pastor, but just where one identity begins and the other ends is difficult to tell. He mixes Christian iconography with pop culture to create glitter-covered relief sculptures, more reminiscent of neon casino signs than church altarpieces. This combination of sincere Christian faith and materialist Pop art style may be an unusual, even contradictory combination, but it is uniquely honest to Mortimer’s personal sense of both art and ministry.
Mortimer graduated with a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2002 and received an MFA from the School of the Visual Arts in 2006. The reception of his work at these institutions was very different. At KCAI, his fellow students were mostly from the interior of the country; they grew up in Christian households, either thoroughly devout or just nominally religious, while his peers at SVA had mostly been raised as atheists.
The art world across America is predominately secular, but people come to it with different experiences. In the Midwest, Mortimer perceives what he calls “post-Christian wounding,” an emotional pain of having had and lost faith. In the Midwest, speaking publicly about religion is difficult; it is discussed delicately, if at all. Mortimer describes this as a tendency to warn people, and in his undergraduate and graduate work, he even incorporated fluorescent safety vests and other literal warning signs. For East Coast peers, this sensitivity seemed strangely cautious, humorously too polite.
But things are different in the Midwest. When Mortimer returned to Kansas City as an artist/pastor, he stopped being cautious and became outspoken in his work. From the perspective of art history, the closest comparisons to his glitzy sculptures are the works of Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, but in Kansas City, the most obvious comparison is to the iconic, neon picket sign of the Westboro Baptist Church.
The Westboro Baptist Church is a Christian sect located in Topeka, notorious for protesting at military funerals across the country. Their bold neon signs display messages like “God Hates Fags.” The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the church as a hate group and a cult. For many people in the region, the Westboro Baptist Church is terrifying, not only for its homophobic, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic teachings, but also because of the sense that members have more allegiance to their church than they do to their community or country. They aren’t afraid to say that they are going to heaven while you are going to hell, and they certainly don’t trade in the apologetic, Midwestern nicety of speaking cautiously about religion.
When Mortimer returned to Kansas City, he took a different approach to ministry when he joined the River City Church as a pastor. River City is a nebulous and rather private church; it doesn’t have a fixed place of worship and meets instead in the homes of its congregants. They eschew any firm definitions of denomination. While River City Church keeps a fairly low public profile, its members do regular community work and have even begun funding a local grant for artists called the Gift of Faith Award, which is given to artists of any religious or non-religious background.
River City Church definitely fits into the Midwestern model of speaking quietly and carefully about matters of faith. This makes Mortimer’s life as a public artist and a religious artist a bit unusual. Considering the Pop art style of his work, it isn’t uncommon for first-time viewers to assume that he is an atheist or that he is mocking religious faith; conversely they might associate him with the outspoken rhetoric of groups like the Westboro Baptists.
God Hooks My Ass Up! (2009), part of Mortimer’s 2009 Charlotte Street Foundation Award Show (possibly Kansas City’s most prestigious art award), is a large, wall-mounted sculpture made of cardboard, light bulbs, and glitter. The title, written in a gothicizing script, is surrounded by a halo of light bulbs and abstract shapes reminiscent of dollar bills. Vulgar and direct, this verbal and visual language has more in common with hip-hop and pop culture than with traditional Christianity.
Mortimer cites neon casino signs and bling as inspirations for this series. He uses modern-day vernacular to express his faith, not unlike previous rebels such as Martin Luther, who demanded that Mass be read in German and not Latin. This attention-grabbing style fits the history of Christian art, which for much of the last 1,000 years used shock and awe as a primary strategy. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches employed expensive materials like gold leaf, marble, and stained glass to create otherworldly sacred spaces filled with wondrous visions far removed from ordinary life. But things have changed dramatically. Today, fantastic images are everywhere. Reflective plastic and metal are common finishes for inexpensive consumer products. Gold and marble no longer inspire reverence. Two of the most important tools of shock and aweradiance and scale–have reached their limits in the blinding white light of the computer screen and the essentially infinite height of skyscrapers and orbital satellites. No matter how much we profess to love fine art, in this world so oversaturated with media, painting and sculpture will never exert the same spell-binding power they once did.
If casino signage and bling seem odd vehicles to convey Mortimer’s religious intentions, Pop art is even more so. Warhol and his artistic descendants, like Koons, are openly nihilistic, eschewing any deeper meaning in their work while reveling in its banality and the emptiness of the semiotic sign: “What you see is what you get,” as Warhol notoriously said. While Mortimer’s glitter and LEDs appear similar in their effects to stained glass and gold leaf, their associations are completely different–glitter and flashing lights are signs of artificiality and cheapness. By turning to these ubiquitous, ordinary materials, Mortimer is not trying to translate the glorious wonder of the almighty into contemporary terms; instead, he is displaying the pathetic baseness of the material world, and in that sense, he and Warhol have a lot in common.
This world, no matter how debased, cannot be dismissed– not even with the promise of a better life in the spiritual world. Many artists today, religious and secular, feel a sense of responsibility about the current state of things and are compelled to do something about the suffering of the world. Only the innocently naive or coolly cynical can wholeheartedly indulge in grotesque displays of wealth and excess.
Though Mortimer employs cheap materials, his work still requires labor and money. When confronted with the blunt assertion that the effort he puts into his sculptures could be better directed toward practical charity and ministry, he mentions a contentious story from the Bible. In Mark 14, a woman anoints Jesus’s feet with an expensive perfume, an act that angers some of the disciples, who believe that the perfume should have been sold and the money used to help the poor. Jesus replies, “Leave her alone, Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.” Theologians have long debated the meaning of this passage. Given the Christian belief in an afterlife, one could interpret it as cruel, that what matters is not the inevitability of suffering and death but the celebration of the divine and life after death.
Mortimer interprets the teaching differently. He puts effort into his charity, but sees art as a necessary extension of his ministry, not as wasteful excess. In Matthew 5, Jesus says to his followers, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” In this parable, spreading the message of forgiveness and life after death and alleviating suffering are one in the same task. To a secular mind, this seems an excuse for aggrandizing one’s religion, and surely in the history of Christian art, there is plenty of excessive aggrandizing. But isn’t this sense of self-importance a necessary prerequisite for every artist, religious or secular? When artists make an installation, a painting, or a sculpture, they are not solving global warming, not ending war, and not feeding the hungry (though they may be calling attention to those issues). Instead, artists make the (egotistical) proclamation that their art is important, that they have something necessary to say.
Preparations for Mortimer’s recent exhibition, “Regeneration,” came at a pivotal moment in his artistic career and personal life. “Regeneration” was a large show, a mid-career retrospective, but it was also potentially Mortimer’s last. Living 36 years with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder of the lungs, he has surpassed the average life expectancy for a CF patient, and with his lungs beginning to fail, he was listed for a transplant.
“Regeneration,” at Haw Contemporary in Kansas City, along with Mortimer’s previous exhibition, “Cure,” at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, was the first time that he went public about his lifelong fight against cystic fibrosis. Maintaining his signature style of glitter- covered reliefs, he mixed a set of new, surprisingly personal symbols–brachial trees, mucus, and Air Jordan sneakers (with their patented air-pumping technology working much like a lung)–into his established language of halos, arrows, and thorny crowns. While Mortimer didn’t hide his condition from friends and family, he says that he never wanted to be considered a “sick artist.” In this way, his previous bodies of work seem decidedly impersonal, their religious and Pop art messages acting as a shield against the personal reality of illness. Any ideology, religious or not, has the effect of minimizing a person’s life in favor of a bigger picture, whether the revolution or the kingdom of heaven. The big picture outlives your individual life; by becoming part of it, you attain immortality.
Mortimer’s artistic change was partially precipitated by the worsening of his illness. But he cites another reason for going public. As a minister, he had become accustomed to praying over people in the hospital, but as more and more of his religious community learned about his illness, it was others who came to his hospital bed to pray for him. Initially, Mortimer was uncomfortable with this role reversal. But seeing the bravery of his fellow CF patients in the respiratory ward, most of them young children who will not live to be 36, he felt it was finally time to bring his illness into his artwork.
In addition to changing his imagery, Mortimer also began collaborating with research firms and hospitals, sharing his story and work with doctors and scientists researching CF, while the scientists explained their cutting-edge research and hopes for a cure. Shortly after his exhibition opened, a pair of lungs became available; the transplant surgery was successful. During a lengthy rehabilitation, Mortimer continues to make sculpture, and new symbols have emerged, including the scar he now bears on his chest.
The choice of “Regeneration” as the title for his most recent exhibition relates to Mortimer’s desire for more than just a cure, for more than just a pair of new lungs. “Regeneration” is a desire to be reborn and transformed. For anyone who has experienced such close proximity to death, it is hard not to emerge on the other side as a changed person. In the story of the gospels, Jesus doesn’t just avoid death; he passes through it, regenerated and transcendent. To understand the story of Jesus as a singular man overcoming death misses the bigger picture, just like reading Mortimer’s “Regeneration” as a purely personal story of sickness is missing the bigger picture. In the end, these stories are meant to act as metaphors for the illness of the world and a proclamation of hope for and faith in a universal and transcendental cure. Neil Thrun is a writer based in Kansas City.
Watch these video on Dylan Mortimer