There is an air of reverence at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The space is hushed; lights are low and walls are often dark. Much of the collection has spiritual overtones, even though most of the artists were not overtly religious.
This makes “Wrestling the Angel: A Century of Artists Reckoning with Religion,” on view through Oct. 28, a natural for the Bechtler.
Numerous artists in this exhibition were associated with Dominican friar and artist Marie-Alain Couturier, who beginning in the 1930s campaigned heavily to bring modern art to the Catholic Church. Couturier sought to revive the tradition of the church supporting inventive artists, instead of the uninspired ones it had come to rely on. Believing better art would attract younger, more dynamic people, he eventually persuaded the Catholic Church to commission work by artists regardless of their religious affiliation. Among those included here are Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Alfred Manessier, Georges Rouault and Jean Bazaine.
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Dramatically arrayed on a dark wall is Rouault’s complete “Miserere” portfolio, the artist’s reaction to the depredations of World War I. In these 58 prints, Rouault fused the spiritual and earthbound, combining images of everyday Parisians — the middle class, laborers, prostitutes and more — and the Crucifixion. (This is only the third time the portfolio has been displayed in its entirety in the United States.)
“Wrestling the Angel” – curated by the recently departed Jennifer Sudul Edwards – includes two works by Niki de Saint Phalle: “Vive moi,” one of the celebratory Nana sculptures for which she is best known, and “Cathédrale,” an earlier, more confrontational work. “Cathédrale” is from one of Saint Phalle’s shooting performances: She created whitewashed assemblages embedded with pigment-filled bags, then, along with friends, shot at them, bursting the bags and splattering the works with pigment. She saw “Cathédrale,”which is constructed from toys, as an attack not on spirituality and faith, but on religious oppression.
All but 26 of the works in “Wrestling the Angel” are from the permanent collection, so there are many Bechtler stalwarts, among them Jean Tinguely, Sam Francis, Hansjürg Brunner (I can never get enough of “The Black Spider”), Antoni Tàpies and Joan Miró.
But many works are by artists with Carolinas connections. Some are famous; most are not. While it is always great when Charlotte museums recognize the region’s artists, here it extends well beyond a gesture of support and goodwill—this inclusiveness brings the show greater depth and nuance, addressing contemporary issues and adding diverse voices.
Romare Bearden is represented here by a print and a collage, both titled “The Annunciation,” and another print titled “The Baptism” that incorporate references to African traditions that survived under slavery, and beyond.
Nearby is “Itzamna,” Julio Gonzalez’s knitted Mayan headdress, part of his effort to recreate aspects of a culture obliterated by Spanish colonizers.
Gina Gilmour’s “Break Your Guns,” a salvaged Madonna statue with a halo of neon text, is a tender but urgent response to escalating gun violence.
Alan Michael Parker’s “A Partial List of Our Demands” is a biting, funny poem about God, convenience and personal gain.
Also on view are Jim Nicholson’s prints inspired by a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, a psychedelic experience, and the yearning for a posthumous reconciliation with his father; Tom Thoune’s pop-culture reliquaries; and Linda Foard Roberts’ photographs of artifacts (a broken wing, a Bible, a pile of ashes); as well as work by Herb Jackson, Cristina Córdova, Maja Godlewska and Elizabeth Alexander.
You can seldom get out of the Bechtler without encountering a Warhol or three. Andy Warhol celebrated the idea that pop and religious icons served similar purposes. This show helps bring home that point by juxtaposing a small photo of the Byzantine Catholic church Warhol attended as a child and one of his Marilyn Monroe silkscreens. In his obsessive creating of Marilyn images after her death, he was making the case for her secular sainthood.
Stacy Lynn Wadell (another North Carolinian) employs a related strategy. In “Mike Brown’s Battle of Normandy,” she has covered Brown’s graduation photo from Normandy High School with gold leaf, replacing the media’s initial depiction of him as someone who brought about his own death at the hands of police with an exalted, dignified image.
“Wrestling the Angel” is an invitation to be contemplative. Instead of engaging viewers with infotainment, it employs quieter strategies. Books on related topics are casually placed on benches, inviting people to read and linger. There are binders with large-print versions of the wall text, in both English and Spanish. Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an,” which is illustrated with contemporary scenes, is displayed in an open case, allowing visitors to page through it.
This show is not one to be rushed through, lest the viewer miss the full impact of works such as Elizabeth Turk’s “Poppyfields,” a set of small bronze crucifixes on poles that conflates the death of Jesus and the loss of life in war.
There is a mood of sadness, introspection and tenderness in “Wrestling the Angel.” Slow down; stay with this show.
Wrestling the Angel
Through Oct. 28 at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art; 420 S. Tryon St.; bechtler.org; 704-353-9200. On Oct. 11, an interdenominational panel of Charlotte faith leaders will talk about the exhibition 6:30-8 p.m. Included: Imam John Ederer, Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede, Minister de’Angelo Dia, Rev. Glencie Rhedrick and Dr. Eric Hoenes Del Pinal, with moderator Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison. Tickets $10 (free for students with ID).
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.