God Hooks My Ass
Up!, 2009. Cardboard, paint, glitter, and lights, 61 x 90 in.
Dylan Mortimer is both an artist and an
active Christian pastor, but just where one
identity begins and the other ends is difficult
to tell. He mixes Christian iconography
with pop culture to create glitter-covered
relief sculptures, more reminiscent of neon
casino signs than church altarpieces. This
combination of sincere Christian faith and
materialist Pop art style may be an unusual,
even contradictory combination, but it
is uniquely honest to Mortimer's personal
sense of both art and ministry.
Mortimer graduated with a BFA from
the Kansas City Art Institute in 2002 and
received an MFA from the School of the
Visual Arts in 2006. The reception of his work
at these institutions was very different. At
KCAI, his fellow students were mostly from
the interior of the country; they grew up in
Christian households, either thoroughly
devout or just nominally religious, while
his peers at SVA had mostly been raised as
The art world across America is predominately
secular, but people come to it with
different experiences. In the Midwest, Mortimer
perceives what he calls "post-Christian
wounding," an emotional pain of having
had and lost faith. In the Midwest, speaking
publicly about religion is difficult; it
is discussed delicately, if at all. Mortimer
describes this as a tendency to warn people,
and in his undergraduate and graduate work,
he even incorporated fluorescent safety
vests and other literal warning signs. For
East Coast peers, this sensitivity seemed
strangely cautious, humorously too polite.
The God Particle Weeps Too, 2015. Corrugated plastic, foam,
paint, and glitter, 96 x 47 in.
But things are different in the Midwest.
When Mortimer returned to Kansas City as
an artist/pastor, he stopped being cautious
and became outspoken in his work. From
the perspective of art history, the closest
comparisons to his glitzy sculptures are the
works of Pop artists like Andy Warhol and
Jeff Koons, but in Kansas City, the most obvious
comparison is to the iconic, neon picket
sign of the Westboro Baptist Church.
The Westboro Baptist Church is a Christian
sect located in Topeka, notorious for
protesting at military funerals across the
country. Their bold neon signs display messages
like "God Hates Fags." The Southern
Poverty Law Center describes the church as
a hate group and a cult. For many people
in the region, the Westboro Baptist Church is terrifying,
not only for its homophobic, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic
teachings, but also because of the sense that
members have more allegiance to their church than
they do to their community or country. They aren't
afraid to say that they are going to heaven while you
are going to hell, and they certainly don't trade in the
apologetic, Midwestern nicety of speaking cautiously
When Mortimer returned to Kansas City, he took a
different approach to ministry when he joined the River
City Church as a pastor. River City is a nebulous and
rather private church; it doesn't have a fixed place of
worship and meets instead in the homes of its congregants.
They eschew any firm definitions of denomination.
While River City Church keeps a fairly low public
profile, its members do regular community work and
have even begun funding a local grant for artists called
the Gift of Faith Award, which is given to artists of any
religious or non-religious background.
River City Church definitely fits into the Midwestern
model of speaking quietly and carefully about matters
of faith. This makes Mortimer's life as a public artist and
a religious artist a bit unusual. Considering the Pop art
style of his work, it isn't uncommon for first-time viewers
to assume that he is an atheist or that he is mocking
religious faith; conversely they might associate him
with the outspoken rhetoric of groups like the Westboro
God Hooks My Ass Up! (2009), part of Mortimer's
2009 Charlotte Street Foundation Award Show (possibly
Kansas City's most prestigious art award), is a large,
wall-mounted sculpture made of cardboard, light bulbs,
and glitter. The title, written in a gothicizing script, is
surrounded by a halo of light bulbs and abstract shapes
reminiscent of dollar bills. Vulgar and direct, this verbal
and visual language has more in common with hip-hop
and pop culture than with traditional Christianity.
Can't Knock the Hustle, 2009. Painted wood and lights, 90 x 90 in.
Mortimer cites neon casino signs and bling as inspirations
for this series. He uses modern-day vernacular to
express his faith, not unlike previous rebels such as Martin
Luther, who demanded that Mass be read in German
and not Latin. This attention-grabbing style fits the history
of Christian art, which for much of the last 1,000
years used shock and awe as a primary strategy. Both
the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches
employed expensive materials like gold leaf, marble,
and stained glass to create otherworldly sacred spaces
filled with wondrous visions far removed from ordinary
life. But things have changed dramatically. Today,
fantastic images are everywhere. Reflective plastic and
metal are common finishes for inexpensive consumer
products. Gold and marble no longer inspire reverence.
Two of the most important tools of shock and aweradiance and scale--have reached their limits in the
blinding white light of the computer screen and the
essentially infinite height of skyscrapers and orbital
satellites. No matter how much we profess to love fine
art, in this world so oversaturated with media, painting
and sculpture will never exert the same spell-binding
power they once did.
If casino signage and bling seem odd vehicles to
convey Mortimer's religious intentions, Pop art is
even more so. Warhol and his artistic descendants,
like Koons, are openly nihilistic, eschewing any
deeper meaning in their work while reveling in its
banality and the emptiness of the semiotic sign:
"What you see is what you get," as Warhol notoriously
said. While Mortimer's glitter and LEDs appear
similar in their effects to stained glass and gold leaf,
their associations are completely different--glitter
and flashing lights are signs of artificiality and cheapness.
By turning to these ubiquitous, ordinary materials,
Mortimer is not trying to translate the glorious
wonder of the almighty into contemporary terms;
instead, he is displaying the pathetic baseness of the
material world, and in that sense, he and Warhol have
a lot in common.
The Meek, 2014. PVC, lights, and motion sensors, 103 x 103 x 5 in.
This world, no matter how debased, cannot be dismissed--
not even with the promise of a better life
in the spiritual world. Many artists today, religious and
secular, feel a sense of responsibility about the current
state of things and are compelled to do something
about the suffering of the world. Only the innocently
naive or coolly cynical can wholeheartedly indulge
in grotesque displays of wealth and excess.
Though Mortimer employs cheap materials, his
work still requires labor and money. When confronted
with the blunt assertion that the effort he puts into
his sculptures could be better directed toward practical
charity and ministry, he mentions a contentious story
from the Bible. In Mark 14, a woman anoints Jesus's
feet with an expensive perfume, an act that angers
some of the disciples, who believe that the perfume
should have been sold and the money used to help
the poor. Jesus replies, "Leave her alone, Why are you
bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me.
The poor you will always have with you, and you can
help them any time you want. But you will not always
have me." Theologians have long debated the meaning
of this passage. Given the Christian belief in an afterlife,
one could interpret it as cruel, that what matters
is not the inevitability of suffering and death but the celebration
of the divine and life after death.
Mortimer interprets the teaching differently. He puts effort into
his charity, but sees art as a necessary extension of his ministry, not
as wasteful excess. In Matthew 5, Jesus says to his followers, "You
are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.
Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead
they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house."
In this parable, spreading the message of forgiveness and life after
death and alleviating suffering are one in the same task. To a secular
mind, this seems an excuse for aggrandizing one's religion,
and surely in the history of Christian art, there is plenty of excessive
aggrandizing. But isn't this sense of self-importance a necessary
prerequisite for every artist, religious or secular? When artists
make an installation, a painting, or a sculpture, they are not solving
global warming, not ending war, and not feeding the hungry
(though they may be calling attention to those issues). Instead,
artists make the (egotistical) proclamation that their art is important,
that they have something necessary to say.
Preparations for Mortimer's recent exhibition, "Regeneration,"
came at a pivotal moment in his artistic career and personal life.
"Regeneration" was a large show, a mid-career retrospective, but
it was also potentially Mortimer's last. Living 36 years with cystic
fibrosis, a genetic disorder of the lungs, he has surpassed the average
life expectancy for a CF patient, and with his lungs beginning
to fail, he was listed for a transplant.
"Regeneration," at Haw Contemporary in Kansas City, along with
Mortimer's previous exhibition, "Cure," at the Leedy-Voulkos Art
Center, was the first time that he went public about his lifelong
fight against cystic fibrosis. Maintaining his signature style of glitter-
covered reliefs, he mixed a set of new, surprisingly personal
symbols--brachial trees, mucus, and Air Jordan sneakers (with their
patented air-pumping technology working much like a lung)--into
his established language of halos, arrows, and thorny crowns.
While Mortimer didn't hide his condition from friends and family,
he says that he never wanted to be considered a "sick artist." In this
way, his previous bodies of work seem decidedly impersonal, their
religious and Pop art messages acting as a shield against the personal
reality of illness. Any ideology, religious or not, has the effect
of minimizing a person's life in favor of a bigger picture, whether
the revolution or the kingdom of heaven. The big picture outlives
your individual life; by becoming part of it, you attain immortality.
The One in Front of the Gun, 2015. Corrugated plastic, foam,
paint, and glitter, 48 x 65 in.
Mortimer's artistic change was partially precipitated by the worsening
of his illness. But he cites another reason for going public.
As a minister, he had become accustomed to praying over people
in the hospital, but as more and more of his religious community
learned about his illness, it was others who came to his hospital
bed to pray for him. Initially, Mortimer was uncomfortable with this
role reversal. But seeing the bravery of his fellow CF patients in the
respiratory ward, most of them young children who will not live to
be 36, he felt it was finally time to bring his illness into his artwork.
In addition to changing his imagery, Mortimer also began collaborating
with research firms and hospitals, sharing his story and
work with doctors and scientists researching CF, while the scientists
explained their cutting-edge research and hopes for a cure. Shortly
after his exhibition opened, a pair of lungs became available; the
transplant surgery was successful. During a lengthy rehabilitation,
Mortimer continues to make sculpture, and new symbols have
emerged, including the scar he now bears on his chest.
The choice of "Regeneration" as the title for his most recent
exhibition relates to Mortimer's desire for more than just a cure,
for more than just a pair of new lungs. "Regeneration" is a desire
to be reborn and transformed. For anyone who has experienced
such close proximity to death, it is hard not to emerge on the
other side as a changed person. In the story of the gospels, Jesus
doesn't just avoid death; he passes through it, regenerated and
transcendent. To understand the story of Jesus as a singular man
overcoming death misses the bigger picture, just like reading
Mortimer's "Regeneration" as a purely personal story of sickness
is missing the bigger picture. In the end, these stories are meant
to act as metaphors for the illness of the world and a proclamation
of hope for and faith in a universal and transcendental cure.
Neil Thrun is a writer based in Kansas City.