What Does Spiritual Diversity Mean in Contemporary Art?

For decades, United States government officials, media pundits, and art institutions have promoted anti-China propaganda that stokes Sinophobic fears of a communist takeover. Among this country’s charges against China is religious persecution, reflecting the longstanding atheism of the Communist Party. Because of this, President Xi Jinping reportedly developed measures to embrace the faiths that predate the party, although his government continues to violently subjugate the Uyghur Muslim minority in the country.

Within this context, the Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University is reconsidering the meaning of spiritual diversity in contemporary art. Named after the autobiography of Yeh founder Paul KT Sih, From Confucius to Christ takes Sih’s belief that communist China would eventually reach Christian enlightenment as a point of departure. Artists from around the world touch on notions of wisdom and insecurity in Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity.

Installed in a narrow corridor at the gallery entrance, Lu Zhang’s painting “Who Left the Light On for Me?” (2021) presents a simple domestic scene in shades of olive green. A window-stained yellow projects sunlight into the empty room, yet a long shadow across the sofa hints at a phantom presence. The artist portrays her own grandparents’ living room after their death, encing a Taoist tradition to preserve the residence of the recently referral for when their spirits return.

Lu Zhang, “Who Left the Light On for Me?” (2021) (photo Billy Anania/Hyperallergic)
Brittany Adeline King, “Tau Cross” (2022) (image courtesy Yeh Art Gallery)

This personal tribute is accompanied by a smaller painted collage by St. John’s alumna Brittany Adeline King. An amalgam of the Tau and Latin cross, made entirely from the braids of the artist’s hair, spans the entire composition. At right, a photograph of King as a child, with her father, grounds sacred traditions in the near present. Between Zhang’s and King’s works, a mirror against the wall offers the viewer a somber point for self-reflection.

A second, wider room in the gallery hosts larger-scale paintings and installations. Nepali artist Asha Dangol portrays the Hindu goddess Kali standing atop a man’s body, wielding a knife, gun, and sickle in her many arms. At the center, Wu Jian’an’s breathtaking “Nirvana of the White Ape” (2014) portraying a paradise scene adapted from the Ming dynasty-era novel The Battle of Wits Between Sun and Pang. Rendered with technicolor wax on wood, this garden of earthly delights is utopian and psychedelic, showing colorful bodies in ecstasy among warped trees, and the title character laid out on a tiger pelt.

Asha Dangol, “Shakti” (2009) (photo Billy Anania/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of From Confucius to Christ at Yeh Art Gallery (image courtesy Yeh Art Gallery)

Popular Chinese literature from that era, such as Journey to the West, promoted a bridge between the Eastern and Western hemispheres, even while European orientalists projected Christian fundamentalism on underdeveloped countries. Joseph Liatela’s sublime homage to Joan of Arc roots this tendency in Europe’s own religious persecution. An enormous burnt stake stands in for the martyred gender-variant icon, who was canonized. At its base, a set of drinking glasses filled with ocean water correlates with the number of trans people murdered in the United States so far this year, partially due to Christian nationalism.

In a series of window vitrines outside the gallery, Hallie McNeill shows how capitalism depletes faith. The sculptural installations that comprise Your Best Life (2022) display calendars, to-do lists, and storefront racks with hanging crosses and dollar signs, all of which are ceramic, positioning enlightenment within the confines of consumer choices. The items bring to mind the negative connotations of “labor” and “organizing” as solitary chores. Evoking spiritual bankruptcy, McNeill’s work reveals that bridging hemispheric gaps should lead us away from individualistic responsibility, and instead revitalize our faith in each other.

Hallie McNeill, “Your Best Life,” detail (2022) (image courtesy Yeh Art Gallery)

From Confucius to Christ Continues at Yeh Art Gallery (8000 Utopia Parkway, Jamaica, Queens) through July 14. The exhibition was curated by gallery director Owen Duffy.

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