Art: Wednesday, May 1, 2003
Not a Prayer

Anitra Blayton helps raise awareness for a troubled church but forgets about art.


Art and religion are old pals — Michelangelo might have been just another broken-down no-name if the Catholic church hadn’t forced him to paint saints. But contemporary art and religion, especially western religions, are bitter enemies. Sects of Christianity make for the biggest, juiciest, and, for the talentless, easiest targets. Any starving artist can just drop a crucifix in urine, take a picture of it, and then hang that picture in a gallery — and become an overnight sensation.

Unless that crucifix had been acquired from the local black Baptist church. Then, he’d be a bunch of unmentionable, hideous things. The simple fact is: Can’t no one, least of all some scraggly artist, attack African-American Christians (even other African-American Christians). These believers are insulated from art world rebuke on two fronts: They’re black (minority), and lots of them are Democrats (republic of the minority). Go a step further and say that these people are also victims of a sort, of slavery and of segregation, and another layer of insulation forms on top.

Only a sad, deranged, embittered, cowardly soul could look on artwork consciously born of the African-American diaspora and not feel empathy. These works are made of tears and blood. The “right” or justifiable thing for an art critic to do when faced with such “art” is look away — it would be hard for the critic to achieve a modestly “objective” point of view, understanding that an objective perspective matters more than a subjective one, which is murky and dubious and which typically promotes unmitigated ambivalence. Years of slogging through galleries have taught me that no work of art or exhibit can be discarded — or applauded — until it is seen. The message shouldn’t matter: If the art is “true” enough, then it’s worthy of contemplation, admiration, critical estimation.

The potentially paradoxical exhibit that brings all this to mind is at Four Walls. Dialog: Historic Allen Project, by Anitra Blayton with help from Rob Reid IV and David Wharton, is the culmination of a few informal conversations among Blayton and other members of the Historic Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Fort Worth’s oldest black congregation. People are talking now about the church because it’s reportedly in trouble. Attendance is dwindling and the church building is falling apart. Some A.M.E. members, then, are rightfully concerned about the future. These folks, according to Blayton’s artist’s statement, have numerated a few ways to kick revitalization into gear: Some members say they want a school in the empty parking lot behind the church, some want a daycare facility for the elderly across the street with a walkabout garden, some want an elevator at the northwest entrance, and some say they want a visitor’s bureau next door to the church.

Dialog finds esteemed Fort Worth artist Blayton making these ideas tangible though still amorphous. Photographs of the church, models of proposed new structures, and installation pieces made from found objects make up the exhibit. The result, from a pragmatic standpoint, is inspirational: It’s heartening to know that there are passionate people like Blayton et al. around, who will still work toward bettering their communities. The troubling thing here is that aesthetics, unfortunately, have been sacrificed at the altar. A diaper-changing station is a diaper-changing station is a diaper-changing station: not sure how exhibiting one, as Blayton’s done here, would qualify as conceptual art, the concept is so ... artificial.

The piece most likely to attract viewers would have to be Reid’s tableau of maquettes, especially his model of the church’s school/conference facility, designed by Blayton. “The Seed,” as Blayton calls it, is a bit larger than the chapel, a Gothic structure that tops out at about two stories and seats 1,350. Blayton’s architectural vision is truly something to behold. It’s impossible to tell whether this construct, with its mix of biomorphic and geometric shapes, is a thumbed nose to the surrounding urban-but-green landscape or a warbled paean to it. And if this monster has been assembled of “Afrocentric” forms, as claimed by Blayton, then 99 percent of the people who would dare confront this hulk wouldn’t be able to identify the references. What “The Seed” looks like is a futuristic barn designed by the postmodernist firm Architectronica attached to a hut with a chunk taken out of it. The hole — cucumber-shaped, stretching over the doorway from the southeast to the northwest corner of the building — appears to be the building’s only source of natural light. We can all probably agree that giving kids less reason to daydream is a good thing, but a barely lit box? That’s cruel.

Would Four Walls have exhibited a white suburban church’s artistic plea for survival? Probably not: Most art lovers, especially most local art patrons — who largely are white and who all seem to share a perverse, almost anthropological fascination with all things African-American — would get nothing out of such an exhibit. These art appreciators, following a disturbing trend in the art world, merely want their inclusionary, lefty feelings validated, nothing more. They want to see art that makes them feel good for feeling bad about, say, slavery or segregation. And while the type of art like that in Dialog may inspire a person to fire off a check to the local A.M.E. church, it’s also likely that this type of art will keep many people sedated. (And it could very well turn some people off, it’s so self-involved.) These art appreciators can say they showed their support for black America by going to the local exhibit on a floundering black church. They’ll then likely ask: What more can we be expected to do?

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