Jesus has always been the “it” guy in the art world. Master artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci dedicated their careers to creating beautiful, iconic paintings of Jesus from birth until death.
Although JC hasn’t made frequent appearances in contemporary art for many decades, artist Stephen J&M (Jesus and Mary) Palmer brought the man back to the forefront with a slight psychedelic edge. Sacrificial Love Society, a collection of Palmer’s works at the Carl Hammer Gallery, questions society’s fascination with religion while reinforcing the idea of iconography and what it means to society. What makes Palmer’s paintings unique is not their seemingly blasphemous quality, but rather their ability to resurrect traditional iconography while simultaneously recreating it.
After suffering from a spinal cord injury in the 1920s that left him bed ridden for the remainder of his life, Palmer began channeling his devotion to Christianity by painting religious imagery. During the last two decades of his life (Palmer died in 1965) he created nearly 400 hundred paintings of religious icons, like Jesus and the Virgin Mary, adorned with intricate tribal decorations.
After his death, all of Palmer’s works were left to his caregiver. The paintings went into a barn for many years. It was not until an estate sale in 2003 that this enormous collection of paintings was discovered. They were sold for pennies, but soon after Palmer was discovered by New York art collectors.
It is no surprise the New York elite saw potential in Palmer’s work. His juxtaposition of traditional religious iconography and vibrant, tribal-like borders give the paintings an edge that has been missing in the art world for some time. Palmer’s fascination with religious icons makes the paintings very accurate but in some ways his approach also makes them subversive.
Palmer draws from his predecessors for religious iconography, but he gives Jesus, Mary, and Joseph a makeover with loud, intricate, and psychedelic borders that surround the subjects of the paintings. The borders are hypnotic and seem to be a physical representation of an icon’s ability to entrance. In contrast to the universality of the religious symbols, the borders give the paintings a unique quality that suggests that religion can be personal. In one painting, Palmer writes about his own sins over an image of the sacred heart. Straight from the 1960s, these paintings are reminders of certain drug-induced imagery and the “free love” ethos of that decade. Needless to say, the presence of Jesus makes it difficult to enjoy the thought of days filled with acid and orgies.
The works in Sacrificial Love Society are like carefully contained chaos. The visceral, organic colors have the ability to consume the painting, but the power of the religious figures provides balance and harmony in the center of the work. Rather than fully praise or denounce Christianity, Palmer chooses to take elements from both to elicit a healthy amount of questioning.
Palmer’s work has reinvigorated the lost art of religious iconography. Throughout his career he defied the rules that have restricted the depiction of religious subjects, while still retaining iconography’s rich traditions. Jesus is a pretty powerful figure in his own right, but Stephen Palmer has given him the psychedelic advantage to return to the spotlight.