Madonna and Child: The image has inspired artists for centuries. However, when painter Mark Bryan offered his own slightly twisted interpretation as part of a recent Steynberg Gallery exhibition of his work, one audience member just couldn’t take the joke.
The painting, titled “Debby and Child,” features a character Bryan calls “Big Baby” suckling at the breast of a Madonna-like figure. Clad in a brown suit and licking his lips, the grin on Big Baby’s face can be described as nothing short of shit-eating.
The offended patron was so upset by the depiction that he threw his coffee across the room and berated gallery owner Peter Steynberg in front of a stupefied crowd.
“I actually felt a little guilty about (that) one, but it was just so much fun to do,” Bryan said.
But compared to the rest of his religious paintings, “Debby and Child” comes across as fairly benign. His diverse body of work features churches morphed into tanks marauding across serene landscapes; innocent bunnies captivated by a false, fire-breathing prophet; and sheep leaping to their deaths after buying dogma in the form of phony angel wings.
So why did the Madonna painting cause such a commotion?
“There are things that are in the visual vocabulary of western culture; it’s like they’re icons,” Bryan said. “Everybody knows them and has seen them, so when you poke fun at them, you’re sort of poking fun at those institutions . and people understand it right away.”
The visceral reaction evoked by the parody of religious iconography is likely a result of the inability, in western culture, to separate the subject of a work of art from the art itself.
“Religious art, over time, has shaped how we see things,” said religious studies professor Stephen Lloyd-Moffett. “It’s very hard in the West to think of God without thinking of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.”
According to Lloyd-Moffett, history’s most commonly reproduced piece of art is a 19th-century painting of Jesus.
“That, for all effects and purposes, becomes Jesus for Americans, even if it bears no resemblance to what we think Jesus actually looked like,” he explained. “There’s something powerful in society about religion. So when you combine religion and art, it can go either way.”
It is the power of expression inherent in that combination that makes religious symbolism such appetizing fare for artists like Bryan.
As a child, he was raised as a liberal member of the Unitarian Church. However, he added that as he ages, his faith in any religion diminishes.
However, this doesn’t mean Bryan labels himself an atheist. He believes there are things science will never be able to explain, but he does view religion in a skeptical light.
“There are all these different religions, and they all feel like they have the ultimate message or the ultimate description of what reality is. They obviously can’t all be right,” he said. “Wars are based on people’s disputes over religion and competing descriptions of what’s real. If you accept a certain doctrine and there’s another group that has a different doctrine, you almost feel you have to kill them because they can’t possibly be right. If (people) feel that what they’re doing is God’s will, then they’re capable of anything. They can go and strap a bomb on themselves and blow up a hundred people because that’s what God wanted.”
Much of Bryan’s heavier work portrays religion as a fascistic entity, destroying culture, free thought and anything else in its path on its quest for power and superiority.
In one painting, a cavalry of torch-wielding, dunce cap-wearing baboons tears down a grassy hillside, leading the way for a battalion of chapel-tank hybrids that fire indiscriminately ahead. The piece is called “Kingdom Come,” referencing an excerpt from “The Lord’s Prayer,” which reads, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
“It’s kind of like the mob that went after the Frankenstein monster, but they’re after the unbelievers, and they’re willing to enforce it with power and war,” he said.
The interconnection of faith, power and violence makes it difficult for Bryan to delineate between religion and politics in his work. In fact, the two subjects are combined under a single subsection in his online gallery.
“Look at all the stuff that’s going on right now . it’s not a blatant war between Muslims and Christians, but it’s there,” he said. “They certainly think we’re fighting a holy war against them and some in (our) military, I think, think that way, too. It’s all wrapped in the politics of the whole area and of war; you can’t separate them.”
The painting “The Liberator,” exemplifies this bond. It utilizes the church-tank motif again; however, this time monkeys do not lead the charge. Instead, an equally apelike George W. Bush rides high atop his Panzer-steeple as it rolls away from a demolished town, trudging soldiers and stealth bombers in tow.
Ultimately, it seems the real target of Bryan’s satirical attacks and religious parody isn’t spiritualism but fundamentalism. It’s about the evil mankind commits in the name of a higher power. His work does not ridicule faith but calls into question the dogma institutions package with that faith in order to subjugate and subdue followers into compliance with things they know to be wrong.
“The whole story of heaven and hell, if that isn’t propaganda, I don’t know what is,” he said. “If you don’t believe in what we want you believe, and you don’t behave like we want you to behave, you’re going to suffer for eternity. . It’s a fear-based way of controlling people.”
“Like the sheep, they’ll buy the wings.” And we all know what happened to the sheep.