Art Review Archives:
May 28 - September 1, 2003
In an all-new body of work, Dick Detzner presents ten tabloids of Biblical proportions: exhortations of the Old and New Testaments, filtered through the catchy, attention-grabbing format of popular magazine covers. Humorous and controversial, Detzner's Scripture-based periodicals present twofold satire: on the one hand, a criticism of some of the more questionable doctrine of the Holy Writ; on the other, a lampooning of the magazine industry and its culture of easy wisdom.
The original artwork, done in oil on canvas, accurately captures the magazine-cover feel: an image with graphic 'punch' and consumer appeal. Detzner then manipulates the images in print, adding titles, ersatz edition numbers, and catchy feature coverlines. Moolah depicts a wealthy businessman in a 'stick-'em-up' position against a stained-glass window, with a stern "God's Threat: Your Money or Your Life (Exodus 30:11-15)". A prim, slightly knowing Blessed Virgin on the cover of Mary, the Mother of God promises to reveal all on the secrets of "What to Tell Your Husband When God Knocks You Up (Matthew 1:19-25)" (with a helpful "Quiz: How to know when it's really Him"). Stoning Today ("for those who know God meant what He said"), with its breezy cover of a pair of tow-headed tots hauling sharp-edged field stones (the actual stoning is tastefully discreet in the distance) has a piece of advice for "When your son sasses you... (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)". And Weaponry Weekly No. 87 gets right to the point: a macho cover of Isaac-style ritual sacrifice (still within the bounds of newsstand taste) for what to do "When Your Neighbor's Religion is WRONG! (1 Kings 18:40)".
The most controversial cover is also the one most likely to be seen as a cheap shot: Holy Cuisine, whose 'April 2003' edition features "Jesus: The Other White Meat (John 6:53-57)". Where the other quotations capture socially questionable doctrine, this one seems to garner only the laugh-value of taking one of the more mystic aspects of Christianity as a literal statement. Detzner's stated intent with these images is not to belittle faith, nor to 'debunk' Scripture: "My main target is dogma, and the uncritical acceptance, and even abuse of, religious doctrine," he declares in his artist's statement. "Those religious groups that use the Bible to discriminate against women, and gays, and people of other religions, have no authority when that same Bible endorses slavery, and stoning, and gang rape." His feature slugs are taken from actual chapter and verse, which is posted on the gallery wall next to the art. Stoning Today's "When your son sasses you..." has its origins in a piece of Old Testament judiciousness:
The contemporary settings -- baggy-blue-jeaned teen in Slavery, the victim's Henley shirt in Weaponry Weekly, the blue jeans (again) and ultra-modern wrist watch in A Woman's Lot -- underscore the cultural gulf between the ancient Israelites and modern-day America, between the tribal mores that generated much of the Old Testament's stern decrees, and the post-Enlightenment society of tee-shirts and cell phones. By stirring up realizations of the inapplicability of these Biblical texts to contemporary times, Detzner heightens an awareness that other usage of the Holy Writ may be just as inapplicable.
It Is Written is also a satire on another area of 'the word' we rarely question: the culture of popular magazines, with their endless parade of slick cover images and tabloid promises. The efficacy of It Is Written is based, in part, on the fact that its coverlines are accurate parodies of those seen on newsstands every day: promises posed as advice and authority, and prepared to exploit every human fear, desire, concupiscence and need in the interest of selling subscriptions. From Rolling Stone to Cosmopolitan, Oprah to Good Housekeeping, and in those feeding a new crop of specialty interests, yoga, massage, New Age, parenting, you name it, the publishing industry, like its cognate, the advertising industry, mines human needs and fears for profit. Nothing, or almost nothing, is sacred in this media blitz; and the very fact that the sacred is the featured topic in It Is Written highlights the emptiness of having even faith vulnerable to such commercial usage. 'Tips' such as "When fertility fails... use a slave girl (Genesis 30:1-13)", "Fashion Tips: Cover your head... (1 Corinthians 11:3-15) and get rid of your jewelry! (1 Timothy 2:9-11)" or "How Laban and Leah 'tricked' Jacob (Genesis 29:15-30)" reflect the fact that topics are boiled down into slangy, popular phraseology intended to hook the consumer; appealing as well to our tendency to lend credence to things seen in print, even within the pages of popular magazines. 'Thinner Thighs in Thirty Days'? 'Better Sex - Tonight'? It is written... so it must be true.
Detzner is adept at melding images of the sacred and the consumer-driven in pursuit of social commentary. His 1998 series Corporate Sacrilege suggested that pop culture and corporate icons have supplanted religious faith. In St. Snugglebear the cuddly teddybear, fabric softener mascot, stood in for St. Sebastian in arrow-pierced sanctity (shoebutton eyes eerily composed). The Last Pancake Breakfast re-created da Vinci's The Last Supper with popular breakfast characters including Tony the Tiger and the Trix Rabbit. Whether you laugh, or get hot under the collar, there is a truth to his point: the cartoon characters are more familiar to many, both adults and children, than the Biblical persons they represent... and ultimately, their true purpose is to put an appealing personal face on what is, when all is said and done, a consumer product.
With It Is Written (so it must be true) Detzner provokes an examination of unquestioned belief. As the title suggests, it is an appraisal of our acceptance of both the Word, and the word: the literal doctrine of the Bible, and the 'thinner thighs in thirty days' promises and their ilk, splashed across a sea of magazine covers in endless monthly variations. A criticism to be leveled at It Is Written (so it must be true) is not at the concept so much as the artist's own self-contradiction of intent. On the one hand, he supports a sorting and sifting: "Religions need to be examined to see which parts are worthy of respect, and which parts aren't." On the other hand, he criticizes people who "pick and choose and still say it's authoritative truth." You can't have it both ways. Ultimately, the message comes through on its own: think about what you are believing -- in the messages of faith, as in those of the everyday world.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: Dick Detzner is quoted from his artist's statement and from an interview, "Questioning Christianity," in The Summer Northwestern, Thursday, July 24, 2003. Detzner's work was also reviewed by ArtScope.net as part of the group exhibition Chicago Art Scene 2000 (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/ArtSceneChgo0501-2.shtml).
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