In Lauren Grossman's studio are a paperback King James Bible, dozens of crucified Christ sculptures, and wax molds for nudie candles with nipple wicks. These candles have financed Grossman's obsession—making art about religion—for 10 years.
"It's my, like, embarrassing sideline," she said, pointing to one of the thousands of bawdy candles she has made to be shipped off and sold in stores. "Because I'll tell you—the Jesus stuff doesn't sell."
Grossman, 45, is basically in a pew by herself. She's an established Seattle artist who has been making sculpture from biblical imagery since 1989. Among her latest pieces are shiny chrome-plated lambs as hollow as Easter chocolates, and a seven-foot cactus on wheels that shoots flames fueled by an attached propane tank. The burning bush, like many of the new pieces, is made of cast iron shaped into letters that form words and verses from the Bible. When she describes these pieces in artist statements, she is deliberately evasive. She is neither a Christian nor a practicing Jew. The work itself is kitschy, but also reverent in an odd way, both sacred and secular. Reactions to it are all over the place.
Believers see her as one of them. "Yours in Christ," people write to her in guest books at galleries. A Calvinist college in Michigan was set to buy a large work; only installation complications stopped it. A Christian group in Eugene, Oregon, is the latest interested party.
Then there are the finger-waggers, who come from all directions. Once, at a show in Grand Rapids, a group of Christians were offended by a sculpture that encouraged viewers to stick fingers into suede holes in Christ's torso. A lapsed Catholic artist told Grossman that, because Grossman wasn't Catholic, she had no right to use symbolism that smacked of Roman Catholicism. A Jewish museum wanted to collect a burning bush by Grossman until the museum discovered she also made crucifixions and developed an allergy to her whole catalog.
Secularist collectors sidestep what's in front of them. One bought a crucified Christ for a series on the human body, and others, commonly, "just think it has a nice dick," Grossman said. She said the typical response is tepid, religiously speaking, probably because conservative Christians who might object aren't going to art galleries. Maybe the work shows the dusty receptacle Christian iconography has become—or demonstrates that modern, urban America has no idea how to talk about religion unless somebody starts by shouting, which Grossman refuses to do.
Her position in the art community is comfortable. She used to show at William Traver and Esther Claypool Galleries, is at Howard House now, and was recently one of 10 mid-career artists to win $25,000 from the Flintridge Foundation. But her art begs the question: What is her position in religious circles?
It's an ongoing dilemma for her. She insists that she doesn't make religious art, but instead makes art about religion. Yet she also says she doesn't want to be a religious tourist. Questions about her own faith inevitably come. Her answers leave a sketchy impression, perhaps predictably for a half-Jewish, half-Presbyterian byproduct of the '60s. She is a self-described "solid agnostic," but also says, "My god is older than Christianity. I would not say I believe in intelligent design, but I would say there's something organizational out there."
As a student of scripture, she is infuriated by its abuses at the hands of right-wing fundamentalists. But she finds herself editing raw satire out of her art during the long process of making it. "Maybe if I was working in a faster medium, I'd do more of that," she said. "But it takes a really long time to make a sculptural joke."
To find a place between heresy and devotion that's not an observation tower, she tries to let go a little, to see what will happen. She wants the work to get away from her. At an opening in 1995 at Cornish College, a life-size Christ she'd made to reenact the entry into Jerusalem ran off its pulley system and smashed into a wall. She laughed. It's not every day that Christ jumps the tracks in an art firstname.lastname@example.org