Religion vs. Secularism In Art and How Shahzia Sikander and Jim Shaw Turn Social Alienation Into Spiritual Engagement

2016-01-06-1452086537-1438824-EngagementAlienation.png

Left: Shahzia Sikander, detail from Hood's Red Rider #2, 1997, vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, tea on hand-prepared wassail paper. A Hindu goddess in the form of Durga or Kali incongruously wearing a burqa required of Afghani women in public. Right: Jim Shaw: Thrift store find depicting painting of Butterfly Jesus.

The voice or vision that has moved a community to make it their governing and identifying expression -- their mythos -- cannot be suppressed. (Think of the Hindu Mahabarata, the Mayan Popol Vuh, the Buddhist Tipitaka, the Hebrew Torah, the Christian New Testament, the Muslim Quran, the Chinese Tao, the Navajo Diné Bahaneʼ, the Egyptian Book of the Dead.) Even when genocide has nearly wiped out a population, whatever is beautiful about the communal narrative and its attendant iconography will survive to become disseminated and perpetuated somewhere else, at some other time, perhaps again and again. This is the history confronting the secular modernists who find that the tropes of religion will not be retired by a considerable percentage of the population no matter how much they are seemingly supplanted by science, reason, logic and abstract thought. It is a persistence that seculars should never forget, otherwise they will deceive themselves with the belief that the persistence of the religious is a matter of education (or lack of) when it is not. It is a matter of artistic beauty, something that the materialism and empiricism of modernity with all its science cannot sufficiently supply to a large percentage of the human race who crave transcendence.

Shahzia Sikander and Jim Shaw are two of the rare artists who have been assimilated into the contemporary secular art world despite that they betray it by fostering obsessions with the visual signage of religion and religious art. They manage to assimilate because -- and to use a science fiction analogy that Shaw might appreciate -- they appropriate and re-imagine their art as if their imagery inhabited two different dimensions, with one set of features shining brightly in one dimension and another completely different set of features, perhaps even oppositional to the first, brilliantly on display in a second dimension. More mundanely put, Sikander and Shaw are at the same time speaking two different languages: one to the secular audience literate in the subtle meanings of irony and criticism of the religious, and one to the religious audience literate in the signs and symbols largely lost to the modern secularists for their lack of emersion in the traditions of faith.

2016-01-06-1452089187-974893-HoodsRedRider2.png

Shahzia Sikander, Hood's Red Rider #2," 1997, vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, tea on hand-prepared wassail paper. A male figure in the center resembling the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahangir as a young man is in the company of two multiple-armed Hindu goddesses in the form of Durga or Kali, one flying and armed with deadly weapons while wearing a burqa required of Afghani women in public. The winged horse, Buraq, from heaven and with a woman's head, in the Quran flies Muhammad on his mi'rāj to heaven, is also reproduced as small, black emblems, as if a passport stamp approving our passage to the Muslim heaven.

To see this dual signification in their work, we need understand only one thing: There is no secular if there is no religious. To understand what the secular person and the secular society are, we must at the same time understand the religious person and society that the secular has diverged from. There is no secular sensibility and sociology without there being a religious mysterium and community that receives the criticism of the secular. For this reason the secular only has meaning in relationship to the religious, even when addressing the secular. For the secular zone enables the communities of different religions and ideologies to mingle for the purpose of all the mutual business required to sustain life. It is for such facility that the secular zone was invented by the more pragmatic religious. Only now Sikander and Shaw, without asking permission of either side, have made the secular zone a place to debate the pros and cons of religion's re-entry into the art of modernity.

Significant artists, like rousing social prophets, are rarely known for being polite and appropriate. Which makes it a curious trend that in the last half century the global art world has rather ubiquitously acquiesced to secularism in deference to the principles of modernism. Secularism has even conditioned art history. For where the origins of abstraction in art formerly were discussed and debated fervently throughout the first half of the 20th Century as a new mode of vitalizing spirituality, in recent decades the art world has come to downplay, if not in some art historical quarters and museums, to silently suppress the writings of Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Piet Modrian and Paul Klee because these and other artists of the early 20th Century advanced a new brand of spirituality that informed the emerging abstract art. Even fewer art-historical sources today admit the extent to which early modernist abstraction was informed by such Theosophical occultists (some will say charlatans) as Madame Blavatsky, Edouard Schuré, Jakob Böhme, Emmanuel Swedenborg and Rudolph Steiner, all of whom held sway over the direction that modernist art would take in the 20th Century.

2015-12-24-1450950691-7631662-InfluencesSikanderSmall.png

Historical sources for the imagery and animations of Shahzia Sikander. Clockwise: (1) Attributed to the Early Master at the Court of Mandi, The Gopis Pleading With Krishna to Return Their Clothes: folio from a Bhagavata Purana series. Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, ca. 1635-50, opaque watercolor on paper. (2) Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Siyer-i Nebi, from the manuscript, The Life of the Prophet, Istanbul, 1594. (3) James Ratray, Persian Woman in Afghanistan With Burqa Behind Her, lithograph, 1842. (4) Goddess Durga Fighting With Mahishasura (the buffalo demon), Guler School, India, ca. 1700-40. (5) A woman seen in a white burqa from the miniature painting, Rustam Saves Bizhan From the Well, from Firdawsi's Book of Kings by Ali b. Husayni Bahmani, Shiraz, Persia, 1330.

As history teaches us, all imposed social paradigms have their limits. That is they meet the resistance of another bordering paradigm incapable of assimilating it or being assimilated by it. It is at such a boundary that Shazia Sikander's and Jim Shaw's impolite, simultaneously religiously- and secularly-incorrect citations of religious art can be seen as reflective of the ruptures within the global secular paradigm that have grown more violent and consequential with the 21st Century. The problem for the religious is that the secular boundary creeps ever further within and subsuming the religious terrain, to the point that the most passionately engaged religious rise up as insurgents and terrorists intent on impeding the spread of secular democracy in an international brotherhood unlike any seen in recent centuries. In an attempt to reverse the erosion of religion, religious violence has disrupted trade treaties, military operations and occupations, not just in the Middle East and Asia, but increasingly on the American and European home fronts, where religious hardliners have targeted such domestic soft targets as planned parenthood centers (most recently by abortion opponent Robert Lewis Dear), federal buildings, (most implacably by the Branch Davidian sympathizer, Timothy McVeigh), and entertainment arenas (most insidiously by French and Danish Islamic State sympathizers).

In the US, a minority of artists and art professionals have been assimilating the artistic reflection of faith-based issues that have a political basis in the events of the day. As in the media, usually the most attention is paid by artists to the repressive and extremist religious who infringe the freedoms of inquiry and expression for other religious and seculars alike, whether through enacting legal restraints in the courts or the extremes of terrorism. Among the artists in the US to have in recent decades encountered the restrictions of religious politicians and social critics intent on suppressing religious and secular difference and diversity were the performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes, who in the late 1980s became known as the NEA Four for having their peer-approved grants from the US National Endowment for the Arts revoked by the NEA chairman because he found the work to be of low standards. Although religion was not named as a factor in the decision, with all four artists assimilating nudity, overt sexual references and particularly queer sexuality, the arguments against their work corollate with traditional religious moral codes.

2015-12-24-1450947571-6003645-ShawRushmore.png

Jim Shaw, The Deluge," 2014, acrylic on muslin. Shaw re-imagines actors Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the Hitchcock film classic, North By Northwest, given an assist in the scaling of Mount Rushmore by what can only be the distinctly feminine (and perhaps feminist?) hand of God. In the wake of the great flood, the new Adam and Eva, still joined at the hip, will re-enact the Bible according to Hollywood scriptwriters. The picture may seem all in jest, but Shaw is serious in suggesting that the popular imagination and the unconscious content of today's writers and artists is just as potent and as relative to us today as the ancient sources were to the populations of their day.

Religion was prominently at issue with government officials who found art by Andres Serrano, and Chris Offili, to be offensive to Christians. Serrano was denounced by Christian representatives in the US Congress for his photograph entitled, Piss Christ, for which he submerged a plastic cross with the crucified Christ in a clear container of urine. Offili was denounced by New York City mayor Giuliani for exhibiting a painting of the Virgin Mary made with elephant dung after he had visited Zimbabwe, where one local tradition attributes elephant dung with spiritual power. Other artists, such as Sarah Charlesworth, Marina Abramovic, and Jim Shaw -- began assimilating religious motifs and themes in their work in the 1980s and 1990s, thereby revitalizing the debate whether the sacred has a place in contemporary secular art, even in the cases in which the artist effects an anthropological distance, as did Charlesworth; resurrected regional spiritual folklore, as Abramovic did in the Balkans; or courted audience alienation and derision as did Shaw -- thereby bringing such iconography into the secular marketplace for art where such imagery lacks ideological support.

Set against the 21st-century debates over religious suppression of democratic values, the American Senate's withdrawal of funding in the 1980s and 1990s from artists perceived to have maligned religious imagery seems quaintly preferable to the persecution of artists in autocratic states abroad for enacting similar offenses (Saudia Arabia, Iran, Russia, China, North Korea). To some extent it is the alarming surge in religiously-motivated attacks on secular culture in the US and Europe in the last decade and a half that has vitalized the art of Shirin Neshat, Shazia Sikander, Yael Bartana, Wael Shawky, and others from the Middle East and South Asia who provide valuable glimpses of religious societies. This is much more than a matter of multicultural inclusion. It is a matter of filling a conceptual void in the secular citizen's understanding of what religious communities fear they will culturally lose with the spread of global secularism, and in the religious citizen's understanding of what the secular communities hope to achieve in their efforts to spread democratic reforms and regime change in nations known for their state-sponsored terror and guerrilla insurgencies.

2015-12-24-1450950436-6363725-Marriage.png

Wedding of the Ear, 2014, acrylic on muslin. DC superhero, The Flash, marries the Land O'Lakes Butter Maiden, yet another piece of mainstream mythopoetic aptitude developed over millennia of inventing and worshipping nature gods and contemporaneously invested in the marketing and advertising of corporate products.

As with the secular culture at large, secular art was initially produced as an alternative to, and concerted inattention to, religious art, or as posed by Shahzia Sikander, as a non-religious reflection, commentary, criticism and subversion of religious art and thought. Shaw more aggressively lampoons the irrational fringe religious thought and activity. Both artists desublimate religious motifs (which I explain below) while appropriating their iconographies and then conflating them in formally-recombinant and surrealistic pictorial compositions that in Sikander's art are stripped of their religious significations and in Shaw's art is made ironic and humorous in dreamlike scenarios. This is not to say that either artist disrespects religious art any more than they disrespect the secular art that they similarly appropriate, reconstitute and conflate. Sikander makes evident that she is deferential especially to the high artistic standards of Islamic, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist miniature painting of Arab, Indian and Persian civilizations. Shaw caricatures both the masterpieces of art history and the signage of contemporary popular art and mass media as much as he appropriates and cites historical esoteric symbolism and the kitsch signage of lowbrow religious art. As divergent as the two artists are, they share the choice to treat all images, secular and religious, as equal in their proclivity for issuing significations ranging from the sublime to the inane.

While both Sikander and Shaw are working religious imagery for its larger social implications, they are also interfacing with religious values they may or may not share. They intently mirror religious art and its arousal of sentiments, not merely imitate its formal features. Some viewers unfamiliar with the artists may mistake them to be religiously-informed. Other audiences might see them as defaming and mocking religious iconography. Still others might see their subjects to be not the traditional art of faiths as much as their devaluations as kitsch by the commercial enterprises that reduce such imagery with a capitalist disregard for its traditional and aesthetic values within the religious enclaves. In this last interpretation, it is not the religious society that is lampooned by Shaw or politicized by Sikander, it is the spiritual devaluation and commercialization of visual traditions by agencies that disseminate and profit off them as much as the politicians and groups that exploit religious imagery for their personal political aims.

2015-12-24-1450950920-8888337-Ohlson.png

Shaw's sources: The superhero-like religious art of Walter H. Ohlson from the 1960s had an enormous impact on Shaw's alienated spiritualism, and galleries and museums have recently begun showing it alongside his work, and other notable commercial releases and singular paintings Shaw has found in thrift shops. The installation shot is from Lost (in L.A.), held at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, December, 2012. The other popular art form to have overwhelmed Shaw are superhero comic books from the 1960s and 1970s. In terms of mainstream mythopoetics, superheroes are depositories for our dreams of gods in human form. The Flash seems to have been, after Superman, a favorite for Shaw.


Can the artists be held responsible for the global complexity and fear of difference that some audiences experience while viewing and interpreting their art? Hardly. Complexity and fear are brought to public viewings of art by the audience. Art that broaches the core issues of our existence always induces severe anxiety, as it should. It is the kind of anxiety that philosophers and later sociologists termed alienation. The point that Sikander and Shaw are making with their art of alienation is that to be unaware of the fear of difference that keeps the competing ideologies and faiths of civilization from joining together is to perpetuate conflict. Sikander and Shaw may not have answers to the question of how we can simplify global relations and alleviate the fear of difference.

That is beyond the rational expectation for art. But as do the most culturally relevant artists, Sikander and Shaw make the subject of alienation the catalyst for their own unique art of passionate engagements while illustrating their personal tropes for alleviating such anxiety. For Sikander the mitigation of alienation is a matter of aesthetically conflating the different cultural iconographies in new hybrid varieties that signify our common values and aims. For Shaw it is the relaxation of tensions through a humorous pictorial self-deprecation, even a lampoon, depicting the extent to which we distort, sometimes to the point of rendering obscene, our most crucial moral values. In extreme cases, by both taking our own righteousness too seriously and in not taking the values and righteousness of others apart from us seriously enough, a tragic imbalance can rapidly escalate into violence and religious fascism.

2015-12-24-1450939441-2563316-ChemicalChristmas.png

A Chemical Christmas to All! seems to be the message of Shahzia Sikander's scathing Oil and Gas Pipeline Christmas Tree and Jim Shaw's Angel of the Chemical Plant.

In the unthinkable but historically-common scenario of religious fascism imposed on and devastating our delusions, the stronger community overtakes and unleashes genocide upon the weaker and unprepared. While genocide isn''t addressed explicitly by Sikander and Shaw, both allude to such devastations with the visual warping, decomposition and recombination of recognizable signs and abstract gestures. Sikander reminds us of the childlike retreat into mythopoetic fantasies of godly deliverance in escape when, in her 3D animated film, Parallax, she deliquesces the image of a large assembly of the gopi followers of Krishna, first into a swarm of their hair liberated from their dematerializing bodies while segueing into particle swarms that fly high above the earth to form black singing spheres. The deliverance, whether spiritual or material, swiftly becomes a transcendentalist reincarnation scene of sorts when the black spheres chromatically camouflage with the world of matter beneath them, or as the entire film alludes, that segues with the matter-spirit continuum.

2015-12-24-1450946880-4589880-GopiSpinParallax.png

Shahzia Sikander. Left: Still from SpiNN, digital animation, 2003. Right: Gopi-Contagion, 2013, 3-channel digital animation with surround sound. What we see here are visual elements that discretely convey the religious tradition -- the gopis, female cow herders who are the devotees of the god Krishna -- breaking down until nothing is left but their scalps with hair now converging, then breaking down, as do the myths of the gods. All breaks down into particle systems that recombine as they expand to block out all vision, all imagery, as a collapse and reformulation in a new creation--that of the god as artist, the artist as god.

By contrast, Shaw in the giant backdrop painting, Capitol Viscera Appliances, comically depicts nuclear annihilation within a chewing-gum mushroom cloud. A cloud schematically punctuated with images of levitating consumer items that we may chose to allude to the modern industrial-materialistic religion by which all the matter, animals and people, all nature and culture, attains its "apotheosis" by sub-atomically decomposing after the nuclear holocaust to reconsolidate into the raw material by which we can then reincarnate into washing machines, television sets, consumerism without end. Shaw even when imaging the most dire and inhuman scenarios can be counted on to entertain us in punk Hollywood style.

Are Artists Prophets? Can An Art of Alienation Beget Engagement In Thought And Action?

As testament to the contention that from alienation ultimately arises passionate social and spiritual engagement, we need only consider that our knowledge of the great prophets of history -- those that founded or revised religious, social and political movements and traditions -- don't come down to us in accounts of men and women eager to embrace the faith or ideology that has been handed down to them. It comes, rather, in narratives describing persons of great disaffection with the faults of the faiths and social codes bequeathed them by earlier generations and upon which they extol all the vitriolic condemnation of radical reformers. We may look back on the prophets of the millennia with disparagement over their autocratic moralities and barbaric punishments. Of their criminal codes that would arguably sentence up to half the men reading this to years of incarceration and lashings; feasibly to half the women reading this sentence to honor killing by stoning.

2015-12-24-1450947199-4206509-TimesSquare.png

Shahzia Sikander's Gopi hair silhouettes from the 3D animation, Gopi-Contagion, realign as particle systems taking over Times Square in New York for the Midnight Moment, (three minutes before twelve a.m.) every night throughout October, 2015.

That such draconian legal codes not only still exist geopolitically, but clash with the secular codes of modern states, tells us that the international community still has much to do to ensure that the world's citizenry enjoy the freedoms of democracy. Yet the Western secular tendency to marginalize if not lock out art treating religious themes unfortunately also limits the venues available to those activist artists critical of the religious suppression of human rights. So long as museum collections, their appointed curators, and the commercial galleries beholden to art-collector museum trustees disallow issues of religion and spirituality for fear of their negative impact on the collection's market value and the museum's credentials, the suppression of religious activist art in the West mirrors the suppression of secular activist artists promoting democratic values in autocratic regimes. Amid such widespread and symmetrical suppression -- of the religious in secular cultural institutions, of the secular in traditional religious enclaves -- the notion of the artist-as-prophet doesn't seem quite as romantic or kitsch as it did in the days when an isolationist modernism was not global but Western, and when Western scholars and artists looked upon the "anachronistic" faiths and ideologies of other cultures as inconsistent with secularism but of value for being exotic in the manner of the subjects of Orientalist and Primitivist art, ca. 1750-1980.

A prophet, after all, is really no more than an agitated critic of received traditions, systems and beliefs, with the most significant prophets-as-artists producing visual models of enhanced perceptions and comprehensions of the world and of the social conditioning that encourages or discourages conformity with the status quo. The significant artist doesn't just issue engaging objects, pictures and ideas. S/he is a seer of new perceptual. conceptual and ideological models of life, nature and culture that are compelling enough to make us forget the models we've inherited to take up the new models that we invent to stimulate evolutionary growth in the future.

Despite coming from opposite sides of the world, Shahzia Sikander and Jim Shaw, defy stereotypes somewhat symmetrically: Shaw has the more religious sensibility; his obsession with faiths, however atheistic, is itself a religious symptom. Sikander is comparatively the more rational and theoretical in making the politics of culture and faith central to the evolution of art. Together they debunk the essentialist and Orientalist notion that women and Orientals are the more mystical, while men and Occidentals are the more rational. At the same time they pursue similar ends in surveying the simultaneous sameness and difference in the strategies of reflecting the cultures of faith before a primarily secular audience and market for contemporary cosmopolitan art. Both find the institutionalized religions of the past alienating yet are drawn passionately to the iconographies of the faiths that have shaped their respective cultures, including the radical fringes, as they are called by the more steeply established institutions.

2015-12-29-1451371553-588802-Parallax.png

Shahzia Sikander, Parallax, 2013, 3 channel, HD digital animation with surround sound, music by Du Yun. The gopi hair rises and particlizes into singing spheres, the spheres take on color against the terrain and water of the Strait of Hormuz, the site of conflict for control between the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and the Shia of Iran, as seen on the map with Sikander and the gopi-hair particlization superimposed.

Are Sikander and Shaw obsessed with religious imagery to the point of being religious themselves? They certainly have turned their lives over to the representation of religious representation, a creation devoted to the act of creation with as much at stake ideologically as in authentically religious art, albeit minus the proselytization. In this they do as the god makers do, as the mythopoetic urge compels them: they through their art recreate themselves as avatars of creation and its overflowing and ever-changing renewal. That is to say they acknowledge the truism that they evoke, mimic, become gods in their creative acts. Given that we know shamans of present-day neolithic tribal cultures are often artists, or what we moderns call artists for their manipulation and investment of form with meaning, there is considerable evidence that art taps the same emotional centers of the brain and body as do religion and mysticism. It seems that it may not be a coincidence that agnosticism and atheism have been on the rise at the same time that art became elevated as a modern spiritual focus, and among many of the same people. All of which suggests that much of the hold that religions have over the general populace can be attributed to the human obsession with the pictures, signs and symbols that the religions manipulate -- and which Sikander and Shaw consciously epitomize in their ironic mimicry of religious issuing and systemization of images.

Sikander was raised in Lahore, Pakistan, where she trained as a miniature painter at the National College of Art, then moved to the US where she became a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's genius grant and cited as one of Newsweek's "South Indians transforming the American Cultural Landscape". In October 2015 she screened her short animated film, Gopi-Contagion, synchronized across the digital billboards of Times Square as part of the public art series, Midnight Moment. Her film Parallax was also installed this year at Guggenheim Bibao and The Asia Society Hong Kong. Sikander's films are adaptations of her paintings in watercolor, gouache, and ink derived from Indo-Persian miniature paintings that she has studied over the years in India and Pakistan. Her entry into 3D animation allows her to morph the traditional motifs of miniature art into modernist compositions suggesting various molecular, biological and cosmological systems, and are accompanied by soundtracks collaborated with composers and poets. Religion and faith are not the central concerns as much as are the different political, social and historical narratives that institutionalized religion and other belief systems have historically informed.

2016-01-01-1451620810-4454373-CrownOfCreation.png

Crowns of Creation: the Creation/Destruction drive of gods or forces of nature realized by, (left) Shahzia Sikander in SpiNN, 2003, her digital animation effecting the dissolution of the image and its Muslim and Hindu power hierarchies, and Jim Shaw, Capitol Viscera Appliances, 2011, in which Death, the destroyer of worlds, manifests as a giant, sticky and stretched-out wad of bubble gum, like that on the bottom of your shoe as you walk, only taking out government and capitalism in one blow. Here the artists show off their godlike ability to recall whatever it is they, or anyone they appropriate, in scenes representing the cyclical and eternal creation and destruction, or at least its imagistic representation.

Shaw, who hails from Midland, Michigan, studied at Cal Arts and has shown for several years with Metro Pictures in NYC and Simon Lee in London before his recent exhibitions at The New Museum, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art propelled him into a top tier of collectibility. Born from a marriage of the Western artistic avant-garde to the popular entertainment, publishing and media industries, Shaw has sought to displace the seriousness of high modernism with a pictorial pop art exploiting the prolonged male-adolescent fixation with confrontation, particularly of the religious traditions that have failed to elevate the human race above the barbarism of war and persecution. But like the political comedian who can only survive amid the corruption of politicians, Shaw's cartoon lampoons cannot effect a true nihilism of religion without becoming what it is against -- an authoritarianism proscribing religion, the edification and ritualization of its unknowing surrealism as a vehicle of salvation. Shaw sees to it that his art never becomes what it disdains by refusing his imagery the option of growing up to assume authority.

Both artists play with shifts in visual scale from the small work on paper to the large-scale mural and theatrical backdrop, and for Sikander the cinemascope of animated projections, while independently specializing in keeping accounts of the historical iconographies of the cultures around them. Both artists have a penchant for observing religious cultures -- traditional and institutional for Sikander, fringe cults and heretical break aways for Shaw -- to mimic in their art how these traditions and cults express their newfound differences within the expansive democratic and relativistic society. This includes addressing the conflicts, sometimes deranged and violent, sometime politically assertive, that secular societies are struggling to contend with and ward off when dangerous. Both artists have also developed similar methods for layering the signage instrumental to the Muslim, Hindu, Parsi, Jain and Buddhist for Sikander -- the Christian, Jew and their Mormon, Theosophical, Masonic and Scientologist descendants for Shaw.

2015-12-26-1451131492-6223407-Delilah.png

Jim Shaw, Delilah, 2014, acrylic on muslin. Although painted before Islamic State obliterated the 3,000-year-old Citadel of Nimrud in Iraq, Shaw seems to have foreseen the path Islamic State was on. But with the Farah Fawcett mane draping his tank, the question to be answered is whether it is the US that is doing the shearing of strength or the one shorn.

In being intimate with both the secular and the religious representation, Sikander sees the opening of passages of communication and understanding between the two sides of the secular-religious divide to be a cultural challenge worth our passionate engagement. Shaw, on the other hand, sees the articulation of our alienation from traditional religions to be the catalyst for developing an individualistic aptitude for seeing in the most marginal, uncanny, even lunatic expressions bridging the mind-in-the-world with what we commonly call the spiritual or ineffable. What the two artists share is the choice to approach the iconography of faith from the vantage of the secular, where they perpetuate the cultural value os such imagery while soliciting a famously secular audience to summon the courage and patience to engage with faith-based iconography despite the pressures atheistic cultural authoritarianism. In the contemporary art world there is little question that there is at least a publicly-expressed bias in disfavor of religious referencing.

Sikander and Shaw respond to the disfavor of religious and seculars with two different strategies. Sikander surveys the visual history of the religious disparagement of women with the intent of turning around the aesthetic allure of their visual tropes to work as vitalizing vehicles for women's empowerment while simultaneously voiding their traditional disparagements of feminism. Shaw, by contrast, elaborates wryly-disparaging appropriations of dumbed-down religious iconography exploited by televangelists, churches, Hollywood and Wall Street for the economic windfalls such iconography bring at the same time that Shaw infiltrates these very devalued religious iconographies into the secular religion of high art. In effect both artists draw attention to the cultural double standards of seculars and religious who use such tropes to sedate their constituents, be they religious icons or secular art. That both religious and seculars find the other's tropes offensive validates the point that Sikander and Shaw are drawing our attention to. That iconography is commonly used to bolster the authoritarianism and bigotry that both religious and seculars espouse, while the images confer and reinforce power for those who expertly wield them.

2016-01-06-1452095595-1058756-BaraqSTigmata.png

The two artists share a predilection for appropriating a selection of sources, superimposing drawn figures, and mixing someone else's valuation of what is sacred and profane. Left: Shahzia Sikander, Ready to Leave, 1997, transparent and opaque watercolor, tea water, and graphite on marbled paper, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Right: Jim Shaw, detail with hand stigmata of the crucified Christ in the center, Mississippi River Mural, 2013, acrylic on muslin.

In a positive light, Sikander's multicultural iconography is intended to stimulate thought on how we negotiate our many differences when audiences for her art from different parts of the world convene in the same collective meeting place. It is of course the condition all internationally exhibiting artists face, but with the aim of recalling how our cultures and countries participated differently in an equation of colonizing and colonized peoples. What Sikander brings to this confrontation is a citation of the metaphysical, spiritual and religious motifs and iconographies of the Indo-Persian nobilities. Of course accompanying the history of nobility is the history of religious conflict as it is culturally conveyed variously in the arts of the last millennium. Among the signage to be found in such art is a reflection of the successions of conquests involving religious conversions and reorganizations of the social, ethnic and class strata predominantly among the Parsi, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist and Christian faithful, both invading and indigenous.

Sikander has acknowledged that she "wanted to get inside the miniature tradition", which means she had to climb inside the ideologies each miniature illuminated despite what she felt about it. While inside, Sikander takes the visual systems of male-dominated Muslim faith, then turns to Hinduism for its depictions of goddesses that are as cunning, versatile and powerful as male gods. But rather than merely statically appropriate their representations, Sikander formally conflates their visual, sexual, psychological and political attributes into newly conceived deities and heroes that are her singular contribution to the amelioration of religious relations, a kind of interfaith movement organized by one woman. Except that the majority of the religious she represents with historical and mythological motifs aren't so eager for settling their differences so succinctly or homogeneously however closely they cohabit the landscape. Of course if populations were to so easily be won over to consolidating their cross-cultural gains, artists would never qualify as prophets of what is to come.

If anyone doubts that making art contrary to the ideological system in power puts an artist or art professional at risk, this point may become clearer, as it was driven home for Sikander, when the Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi, who wrote this Huffington Post review of Sikander's Time Square midnight screenings, was himself the target of an assassination attempt that left him seriously wounded and his driver dead. In April 2015, another political victim, Sabeen Mahmud, the director of the Kirachi, Pakistan arts space, T2F [The Second Floor], and one of Pakistan's outspoken human rights advocates, was assassinated in 2015 shortly after she finished hosting an event about the thousands of "disappeared people" in conflict-torn Balochistan, a prominent resource center in which civilians and activists are believed to have been abducted by Pakistan's military. And in Saudia Arabia, the Palestinian artist, curator and poet, Ashraf Fayadh, has only recently been sentenced to death for alleged apostasy and atheism in his writing, though many observers believe he has been targeted "for posting a video showing the religious police lashing a man in public" in a country in which the art of cinema has been banned.

2015-12-24-1450949141-3586739-JesusButterfly.png

This untitled, trippy painting which Shaw has shown in several exhibitions is attributed to an unknown artist, a work Shaw claims he found in a thrift shop. But more than one person claiming to know Shaw believes that he made the painting, besides that the work seems to be undeniably in his style. Even if it is not his, Shaw's appropriation of the work makes us consider how appropriation art is not selected arbitrarily, but with an eye for self-parody. The Jesus Butterfly looks like something Shaw should have painted and if he is half the artist we believe him to be, he is likely very sorry he had not the vision to foresee making it.

Authoritarian conflict plays a prominent role in Sikander's animation video, Parallax, a three-channel animation video made from drawings and paintings that Sikander made during and after her combined overland travel and flights over the United Arab Emirates and other nations bordering the Strait of Hormuz that separates Iran from Saudia Arabia. Although the video depicts abstract terrain, topologies and maps of the region, Sikander sought to draw analogies between the countries competing for control of the region's oil and gas exports. Although the film doesn't generate imagery that is particularly religious or secular, the importance of the region to so many world nations reliant on its fuels generate issues that compound the conflicts for control, some of which grow out of the history of colonialism that is at its historical source a religious colonization.

The motif of conflict more specifically centers around the two superpowers, Iran and Saudia Arabia, to the extent that Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz several times in recent years, drawing such superpowers as Japan, India, China, South Korea and the US. Yet despite the economic and geopolitical prominence of the Strait, the perennial conflicts have as much to do with the 1400-year-old sectarian rift between the Shia and the Sunni over who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the Muslim community. While Saudi Arabia pledges protection to the Sunni majorities in several Arab countries, Persian Gulf monarchs are fearful that Iran will incite rebellions among Shia populations in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait after already providing support for the Shia in Lebanon and Iraq.

2015-12-24-1450948611-8034894-SpiNN4.png

Shahzia Sikander, SpiNN, 2003, digital animation, 6 min 38 sec., a film in which Sikander adds Christian and Chinese iconography to her Hindu and Muslim repertoire.

In Sikander's animation films, SpiNN and Parallax, the artist incongruently yet purposefully interjects Hindu gopis into a Muslim geopolitical and religious context defined by the miniature print of the Mughal palace. The mix is made absurd to the point of being exemplary of regional history of religious warfare. But the liquid dissolution of the gopis leaves only their black hair and scalps floating in air where they disassemble into particles within spherical fields that alter their geometric composition into singing spheres that mutate into color field paintings. This time Sikander has succeeded in reducing religion to being one more element in a composition seen as if from outer space, a perspective of the Strait altogether more serene than that afforded culturally.

A deeper look at Shaw's work betrays signs of late 20th-century consumer over-saturation blended with the theatrical overindulgences of Surrealism as were propagated by Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and the fllmmaker Luis Buñuel. Of course Shaw's most sustaining inheritance appears to come in the visual wit and allegories of René Magritte, and those popular cultural forms that assimilated the lessons of Surrealism. Shaw conflated surrealist processes and image-genres with the anarchical and populist art forms that came in vogue with the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, infusing their tropes with all the angst of alienation: cynicism, despondency, nihilism. Even though he aligns with the Pop Artists in shunning rigorous theorizing about art, he has participated in the desublimation school of Cal Arts artists that includes Mike Kelly, John Miller and Tony Oursler, who follow social philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

2015-12-24-1450945850-8943177-wrestlingWIthGd.png

Jim Shaw, Wrestling With God: Moses, acrylic on muslin, 2015.


The desublimation that Shaw practices was for social philosopher Herbert Marcuse the counter principle to Freud's 1908 Theory of Sublimation, by which the latter sought to explain the psychological mechanism of transforming pleasurable-yet-socially-unacceptable impulses, obsessions and ideals into socially acceptable actions and behaviors involving personal labor and high-minded thought. For Marcuse, it is Repressive Desublimation that is the modern Capitalist social mechanism elaborated to counter religion's Socialized Sublimation. Desublimation, according to Marcuse, and as Shaw literally depicts it, is the means by which Capitalism facilitates the maximum capitalization through profits -- a counter to Christian charity, though not necessarily an obstacle to it, and sometimes a supporter of faiths. Repressive Desublimation, however, stands in direct opposition to charity, and does so by valorizing the Pleasure Principle -- the chief challenge facing religions and disciplinarianism.

An artist interested in desublimation might be naturally critical of religion as one of the more repressive modes of sublimation building cultures and civilizations. Science and art, though evident 40,000 years ago, are newer systems of sublimation than religion. For many they have come to replace religion, yet are as sublimating if not more in being economically more productive. Shaw however has taken to representing the fringe faiths that counter if not oppose science. At the same time Shaw favors the perpetual adolescent pleasure principle that opposes sublimation but is not the repressive desublimation that Marcuse finds at work in high capitalist ventures. Shaw's desublimation intentionally slackens the culture of morality and ethics through his anarchical arts and entertainments, trends and diversions, what can be decidedly anathema to the artist who sees artistry only in esoteric or sublimated art forms. In practicing a style of bad-boy derision, Shaw appears to be simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by cultural traditions that have both become fossils and relics of art history. But he would also be amused by how desublimation provokes televangelism and religious terrorism alike, given that Shaw often renders their manic responses as the modern era's reconstituted holy pictures, the kind that Catholic Schools hand out to students with a range of imagery from High Renaissance painting of Christ and the saints reduced to kitsch distillations.

2015-12-24-1450948919-9714939-Pyramid.png

Jim Shaw, D'red Dwarf, B'lack Hole, 2010, acrylic on muslin. The Freemason's 18th-century Eye of Providence peers out at us not from the back of the American One Dollar Bill, but from the other dimensional realm within the black hole of a dwarf star. This explains why the bill has such a magnetic power to draw and enthrall humans, while Shaw confirms what we knew all along: that Mammon is the true faith shared by all.

Shaw's late work has crawled, climbed and flown closer to modeling the structures and psychical operations of religions, though if art can be called a religion of the individual, it can also be a hybrid summary-religion blended in the model of Theosophy, Scientology, Mormonism, Freemasory, Rosicrucianism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a variety of folk religion. Except that in place of local hybridizations of millennia-old nature myths and imperial legends, as do many extant faiths, Shaw distills the art of commercially-branded productions ranging from superhero comic books and scathing political cartoons (his most salient departure) to ad campaigns that alternately sell as disparate works of art and can be gathered together to form entire installations. What makes this religious is the devotion required by the artist to see such a project through, including a world (or in the adolescent jargon, a cosmic) view that is heretical in character. I don't mean the mimicry of heresy, as most critics excuse the work to be, but true devotion to art as post-religious spirituality. LIke the anthropologist or sociologist who goes native to become a part of the tribe that s/he studies, Shaw is showing signs of merging with the ecstatic characters he has for decades depicted. And why shouldn't he? Art hasn't merely grown out of spiritual and religious ritual, art has been the vehicle for religion, while retaining throughout the millennia all its transformative powers, be they cathartic, empowering or devotional to its subject.

Diplomacy isn't a concern of Shaw's given that derisive alienation from religion effects an arrest of sacred meanings for its dismemberment, and subsequently a reconstitution that is a condensation of visual signs -- the cramming of any number of fractured images into one reconstituted pictorial space. Yet Shaw's peers protect his career from claims to transcendence by marketing him as the adolescent that won't grow up. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Shaw shows all the signs of becoming as transcendental as Rothko and Gotlieb had in their abstractions, or as the mythopoetic artists as Matthew Barney, Mariko Mori and Marina Abromavic have become in their avatar performances and films. Like these artists, Shaw's sectarian universe centers around its heretical character. It also is worshipful to irony, the one enduring feature of the postmodernism that raged when Shaw as a young man devoted his labor to the art market. And yet it is as scathing as any Old Testament prophet, albeit humorously a la Jeremiah doing stand up at Comedy Central. Only the atheist who has never been privy to a Christian homily, Jewish derasha, Muslim dhutbah or Zen sutra, doesn't know that humor plays an important role in the cathartic traditions of faiths.

2015-12-24-1450954700-7477221-ConcubineBush.png

Jim Shaw, Left: Judges 19, acrylic on muslin. There are few works in which Shaw goes dead serious, or what registers as serious relative to his predominant absurdist and surrealist art. From the Old Testament, Shaw has selected Judges 19, to express that there is no judge who can protect women from the hatred of men, here the victim being the concubine whose husband hands her to men who rape and kill her. Her husband then dismembers her into twelve parts and sends one each to the twelve tribes of Benjamin. Right: Shaw is back to his acerbic self with The Burning Bush, 2014, devouring the former first lady of the same name. While we might question whether Barbara Bush isn't one of the women who should be protected from the hatred of men, we might remember that her husband declared war on and occupied a sovereign nation to the price of some 300,000 lives.

There are few works in which Shaw goes dead serious, or what registers as serious relative to his predominant absurdist, surrealist and sustained adolescent art. In his painting, Judges 19, 2014, Shaw settles on a book in which there is no judge to proclaim the law of the land and women are the greatest victims for it. Judges 19 is specifically about a man who has married an unfaithful concubine who has run away from him, but instead of having her face the honor killing of stoning, he goes to her father's house to which she has returned to reclaim his wife. On the route home the concubine is raped and killed by the Benjaminites without her husband intervening. Upon finding her ravaged body, the husband dismembers her into twelve parts and sends one part to each of the twelve tribes of Israel as a testament of the wickedness of the Benjaminites.

The solemnity and clarity with which Shaw has portrayed the Concubine conveys a new level of discernment for the artist as he heightened the moral and political point made in the biblical account of the concubine's dismemberment by painting her figure against the backdrop of the Israeli nation of the 8th Century BCE, with its 12 tribal states prominently outlined. But with historical stories only as good as the analogies they pose to the present, the Israeli map today has the same outline but not the same twelve states and borders for the reason that the Palestinians persist in not consenting to the Zionist agenda of restoring the biblical Israel. But those are the facts of the Israeli nation, when Shaw specializes in depicting the religious dreamer out of touch with reality for the vision s/he carries of a God-given heaven on earth. Israel -- in Shaw's analogy, and religiously interpreted as a prediction of the reclaimed Zion in Judges 19 -- is the concubine cut up by men.

2015-12-24-1450949489-5619915-Sikander.png

Shahzia Sikander, Veil 'n' Trail, 1997. What for seculars and cosmopolitan Muslims is a humorous, mini-compendium of Arab, Afghanistani, Persian, Pakistani and Indian sacred iconographies is less likely to be appreciated by local and conservative adherents to Islam.

Sikander and Shaw ultimately share an interest in the hybrid pictorial terrain of religiocentric surrealism governed by the part of the brain in which historical and contemporary imagery is broken down and reconstituted into quasi-surrealist yet religio-fetishistic visions that convey numerous readings of the ways in which media imagery and the interests of commercial and political entities issuing them warp morality and spirituality inherited from religious traditions. In contrast to the European Surrealist movement of the 1930s, Sikander and Shaw don't concern themselves so much with the erotic and fantastical dream contents. The erotic has a strong place in both artist's work, but it shares the pictorial space, and thereby is often canceled out by the signification of powerful institutions and traditions, many of which are religious. For Sikander and Shaw, the fetish is useful, given that it is the ordinary or hybrid object in the world which Freud held the unconscious mind converts into a psychological stand-in for the individual's desire for religiously-forbidden genitalia as a result of the religious suppression of wanton sexual desire. While the fetish can be openly displayed in public without its recognition as an erotic proxy, for the fetisher, it imparted strong, sexually-arousing associations which s/he could illicitly enjoy in the open without anyone knowing.

2015-12-24-1450954958-8402630-Duo.jpg

Shahzia Sikander. Left: Cholee Kay Pechay Kiya? Chunree Neechay Kiya? (What's Behind That Blouse? What's Underneath That Shawl?), 1997. Right: A Kali-like avatar wearing a burqa in Fleshy Weapons, 1997.

Of course the most important distinction in their work -- and in the work of many artists today -- is that the divide between the secular and the religious populations is being pronounced as the site of the most strategic negotiations today. Negotiations demanding every world citizen to reexamine whether and how his and her prejudice is either contributing to peace or to conflict. In so doing, Sikander and Shaw are indicating that the spiritual aptitude in all conscious beings is either the most potently expansive or the most dangerously suppressive aptitude that humankind possesses.

2016-01-06-1452078110-3732181-DontTreadOnMe.png

Jim Shaw, Untitiled, US Presidents,, 2006, acrylic on muslin. Arguably nationalism has become the modern religion in many industrialized countries. The snake the Benjamin Franklin chose for the symbol of the US symbol with its motto "Don't Tread On Me" reaches back to the earliest religions and their mythopoetic appropriations from nature.

For both Sikander and Shaw, dream is the medium they ultimately aspire to reproducing. And why shouldn't it be, given that dream is what the world's spiritual traditions held to be the evocative and propelling medium facilitating nightly communication between the individual on earth and the divine in heaven. As Freud observed that all people are artists in dreaming, artists have made their art the material and rational extension, sharing and interminable culmination of dreaming. For the prophet seer, art is dreaming manifested consciously by physical, material processes that layer, conflate and distort conscious meanings in the same way that the mind of the dreamer layers, conflates and distorts the dream. It's in tying all the processes together in their art that Sikander and Shaw mirror the processes of both conscious and unconscious enculturation -- the mediation of one's own upbringing within or around secular-religious systems that leave their marks on our lives. For Sikander and Shaw those marks have apparently been more potently visually impressed than ideologically, accounting for why Sikander and Shaw are critically appreciative of, perhaps even obsessive about, the art and aesthetics of faith systems -- yet also left feeling personally disaffected by religious ideological values, moral codes and their ritual enactments.

2015-12-26-1451134041-2499870-Utopia.png

Shazia Sikander, Utopia, 2003, watercolor, gouache and dry pigment on hand-prepared wassail paper. Gracing the American standard are houris, the Muslim version of angels, or beautiful companions in heaven awarded to the just. Often depicted as maidens, they can as well be male youth, depending on the amorous proclivities of the individual.

On 1/10/16 the author correctly attributed writer Raza Ahmad Rumi as a journalist. In the original post he was termed an art critic.

Listen to G. Roger Denson interviewed by Brainard Carey on Yale University Radio.

Read other posts by G. Roger Denson on Huffington Post in the archive.

Follow G. Roger Denson on facebook.