It is characteristic of our cultural moment that sincerity often sits uneasy in our stomachs. We’ve heard all the lines before. We know them from a million b-list movies we can’t quite recall, but which form a background of white noise to everything we take in today. Anything that remotely resembles the budget passions of daytime television specials is rejected as cliché, the thoughtcrime whose name itself can no longer be pronounced for fear of falling into it. Art has this situation particularly rough, contending as it does with the additional legacy of modernism, an epoch that was nothing if not sincere. Contemporary artists who wish to emote something through this pea soup of the soul have had to come up with ingenious devices to disarm the cynicism of the viewer. A classic example is David Byrne of the Talking Heads, who invented a persona for himself that no listener would ever be in danger of taking seriously. By making such relentless fun of himself on stage, Byrne was doing his cynical listeners’ work for them, freeing them up to enjoy his music and, dare I say, feel what he was feeling. It’s a Lacanian move: the obstacle makes possible that which it apparently prohibits.
A different, though analogous device is employed in The Bona Breviary of the Fabulosa Innocents, artist Erich Erving’s first solo show at Shoestring Studio in Brooklyn. Erving came to some notoriety last February when his Polari translation of the evensong prayer was sung by the student priests of Westcott House at Cambridge University. Sounding for all the world like a nonsense mixture of word substitutions, Cockney slang, and latinate knock-offs, Polari is a code language that was developed by British gay men in the 1950s, and which formed a vital part of that community’s identity for decades. Westcott House came under intense media and institutional criticism for their use of Erving’s translation during service, prompting the college principal to apologize and call the decision “hugely regrettable.” What critics missed in all the uproar, and what the current show makes plain, is that Erving’s work is not at all an attack on Christianity, but a very genuine expression of the artist’s faith.
The show is set up as a series of art objects developed “on the way to” its centerpiece and namesake: a book of prayers translated into Polari, bound in soft plaid fabric, and alternating ornate blackletter text with etchings of deceased male pornstars in the guise of the saints with whom they share their birth names. The imagery is as tender as it is sexual. Saint Nicholas looks pensively at the viewer, his meaningful expression contrasted with the absent-minded way he pulls down his briefs to reveal a semi-erect penis. A felled Saint Paul stares at us with intense, blind eyes, legs spread wide as a horse bucks in the background. The paper that the etchings are printed on is palpable and pulpy, the depression of the plate creating a soft gray haze that contrasts with the pure white bodies of the saints and the flat gold of their halos or divine attributes. Surrounding the book on all sides are transitional pieces in other media, including woodblock, fibers, silkscreen, and a record player spinning Erving’s version of the evensong (as performed by Yale Divinity School rather than Westcott, captured regrettably on iPhone) with a Polari schema of the Holy Trinity printed directly on the vinyl.
Self-appointed defenders of the public decency will find much penis imagery to object to. Throughout its manifestations in etching, woodblock, and stitched fabric, the penis remains the least modelled portion of the body in the show, typically traced in delicate outline and not much else. This flatness makes it a sort of icon, an attribute of divinity just like the keys of St. Peter or the coins of Saint Nicholas. The only divine figure not endowed with sainthood is the large woodblock print of Adam, amply compensated for his missing halo with woolly pubic hair and torso cut beautifully into the wood, calling to mind the beasts with which Adam lived in harmony in Eden.
The overall effect of the show is a deeply contemplative one. The racy imagery does nothing to detract from the serenity and reverential quality of its iconography. In fact, one is tempted to call this raciness a precondition for the show’s sincerity. It is difficult to picture a more successful show of contemporary sacred art. The postmodern pastiche that one imagines by those words would likely be met with an impotent shrug on the part of non-religious viewers, and with fabricated enthusiasm on the part of “hip” conservatives trying to affirm their relevance to contemporary life. By setting up the difficult contrast between explicit homoeroticism and stark religious iconography mediated by a deep and human tenderness, Erving keeps our minds just a little too busy to put up our cynical defenses. The result of the show is as simple as it is unfashionable: it moves us.