It's dusk at Calvary, and Jesus, covered in red sores, gazes down from his cross upon the figure of a bearded monk. Atop the crucifix, in the same place where traditional Christian paintings display the Latin shorthand for "Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews," the artist, William Hart McNichols, has inserted another message: "AIDS leper, drug user, homosexual."
In the wake of the recent controversy sparked by a milk chocolate sculpture of Jesus that was to be shown at a New York gallery during Holy Week, and another statue in Chicago portraying Christ as Senator Obama of Illinois with a toothy grin and neon halo, a new book featuring Mr. McNichols's "St. Francis 'Neath the Bitter Tree" and a related exhibit beginning this weekend in New Mexico are set to escalate the national debate over religious imagery even further. Both projects will showcase images of Jesus so challenging that several of the 18 artists involved have been the targets of hate mail, violence, and death threats.
"Who Do You Say That I Am? Visions of Christ, Gender, and Justice" opens Friday at the JHS Gallery in Taos, N.M., and will serve as the launch for the book "Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More" (AndroGyne Press, $38.95).
Although the book's author, Kittredge Cherry, acknowledged that religious people may view some of the pieces in it as blasphemous, she said her own view is that the art "respects the teachings of Jesus and frees the minds of viewers."
"I did not include artists whose aim is to destroy faith or attack the church," Ms. Cherry, an art historian and former minister for the Metropolitan Community Churches, told The New York Sun. "The images in the book are shockingly new, but all the artists created their images with the intention of coming closer to truth and love as expressed by Christ."
"For example," she added, "Alex Donis shows Jesus kissing a Hindu god, but his purpose was not to desecrate any divinity" but to illustrate the teaching "Love thine enemy." "This artwork was destroyed by vandals when it was displayed in San Francisco in 1997," she added.
Other pieces on display at the gallery or included in the book are Sandra Yagi's "The Family," which portrays the Virgin Mary and her husband, Joseph, kneeling before a two-headed baby Jesus; Edwina Sandy's "Christa," a bronze sculpture of the crucifixion that reimagines Christ as a woman, and Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin's "Ecce Homo" series, which depicts Jesus among contemporary homosexuals and transvestites — a set of pictures that so displeased Pope John Paul II that, in 1998, he canceled a planned meeting with a Swedish archbishop.
The show's curator, Jodi Simmons, said the artists' work simply "reflects the very interesting intersection of faith and politics which we find ourselves living in today. Many of the issues these artists are examining are the very same ones I, and I think a lot of folks, have been thinking about."
"I am an American Christian, and I am trying to live my faith in the early 21st century," she added. "All the art in our exhibit was made by people who are trying to perceive and tell the story of Christ today."
Of her own painting "Jesus of the People" — a piece portraying Jesus as a black woman, which is featured in the exhibit and on the cover of "Art That Dares" — painter Janet McKenzie said, "It wasn't designed to shake people up and be Earth-shattering." But in 1999, when the work won the National Catholic Reporter's competition for a new image of Jesus, the painting received such an intense backlash that it was placed under Plexiglas with a guard posted nearby.
"My work comes from the heart," she said. "There is no agenda except to make my work as inclusive as possible." For Ms. McKenzie, who identifies herself as spiritual but not religious, being inclusive in her Christian-themed paintings means showing images of "underprivileged people, dark people, women, lesbians, and gays."
The director of communications for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Celina Baca Radigan, said she did not know whether local church authorities were planning to make a statement in response to the exhibit or the book. "This is the first time I'm hearing about it," Ms. Radigan told the Sun.
However, William Donohue, the president of a New York-based religious rights group, the Catholic League, suggested that the event and book were part of a "celebration of Christian-bashing."
"Here we have another example of dysfunctional people claiming victim status," Mr. Donohue told the Sun. "What is particularly disturbing about this is that the atmosphere in this country is very receptive to Christian-bashing. … No one would celebrate blasphemy against Muslims. You're not even allowed to show a depiction of Muhammad in a Danish cartoon."
Mindful of the potentially hostile reaction to the exhibit, the gallery plans to post a sign on the door announcing that the show is "for mature audiences," Ms. Cherry said, and Bill Carpenter, the national director for Soulforce, a nonviolent resistance organization, will attend the opening and deliver a lecture to the artists and staff of the gallery about how to respond if a confrontation occurs.
"There is no getting around it," Ms. Cherry said. "Some people will be offended, just as some people were offended by Jesus himself when he walked the Earth."