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It was the Thanksgiving weekend and the streets outside were quiet with just the rustling of fallen leaves. On this chilly afternoon, I walked into Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts—a striking, dark orange building in a line of other quirkily appealing independent businesses, cafés and galleries on Queen Street West in Toronto . A curious atmosphere to explore an art show expressing ideas on religion in our society. This was the exhibition statement from Holier Than Thou:

“The eighteenth century brought us Enlightenment, and with new developments in the Western world, established systems of faith were forced to adapt as various new secular movements gained momentum.  At the dawning of the twenty-first century, religious fervour is once again palpable, especially in political discourse and in war: wreaking havoc, spreading hate and causing pain and suffering. Holier Than Thou is an exhibition that discusses the negative aspects of organized belief systems which are often premised on exclusivity, preference and privilege, and contrasts them with the serenity and hopeful power of the basic tenets of spirituality such as the power of nature, meditation, and the beauty of the human body.”

Inside the gallery, I met Holly Wheatcroft, one of the four artists behind the show. She heartily guided me through the making of the exhibit, providing me with a context around the approach of each of the four artists and how all the works came together to serve the purpose of the show.

The idea was conceived by painter Peter Barelkowski, a Poland native now based in Toronto. Joseph Muscat, born in Malta and currently chair of the Propeller Centre, is a mixed media artist whose tar paper-photographic collages in this exhibit used a wide range of symbols to refer to political, Biblical and environmental issues. The third artist, Keijo Tapanainen originates from Finland and is a digital artist who also created collage compositions from mixed media and photographic images for the exhibit. And Wheatcroft, a Toronto artist, was the sculptor in the quartet. Her works were based around the axis mundi, the communication medium between the heavens and the Earth.

To implement a balance in commentary, two artists focused on the religious and two on the spiritual. Barelkowski’s and Muscat’s works were critiques of religion as organized institutions and of their influence on society through history, while Wheatcroft’s and Tapanainen’s works aimed to convey spiritually elevating messages of the good, peaceful and beautiful.

Each artist also had different approaches in the delivery of their ideas, as Wheatcroft explained. Barelkowski’s commentary is angry and emotionally provocative. There was an unsettling effect reflected in many of his paintings which seemed to show a crowd of mostly faceless people submitting themselves to or looking up to an ostensibly larger-than-life and godlike figure. Other paintings were dark, saddening portrayals of violence. As is described in the exhibition advertisement, “Adapting a visual language of grotesque and satire, Barelkowski effectively confronts the rationalism of historical perspective with the absurdity of political and religious powers that repeatedly throws humanity into the haunting dance macabre of war and annihilation.”

In contrast to Barelkowski’s intensity, Muscat approached his critiques with a humorous playfulness. His vivid mixed media pieces were a discussion of religion with witty plays on religious symbols and customs, “balancing the Sacred with the Profane,” as described in the ad. For instance, the medieval Christian Church’s practice of selling indulgences was teased in a work wherein six indulgences were shown contained in a sardine box, suggesting possibly a bulk sale in a tongue-in-cheek statement.

In the spiritual arena, Wheatcroft and Tapanainen explored the power of positive and peaceful thinking and the beauty of the human body. Wheatcroft’s creations were built specifically around the theme of the axis mundi. In religious mythology, the axis mundi is the communication pole between the heavens and the Earth and Wheatcroft’s objects represented this communication medium. She was discussing personal spirituality and one’s sense of stability and identity through interactive sculptures. Many sculptures referenced religious concepts and into them, Wheatcroft weaved transcendent messages of hope, personal strength and goodness. A work called “Speaking in Tongues,” she explained, references the Biblical idea of when one is possessed with speaking tongues, they’re able to speak in many difference languages, thus equipped to spread the word of God. Through a non-religious interpretation, however, this piece can also convey the idea of spreading universal messages of hope and goodness. Tapanainen’s art focused on the human form and the divinity of it. He seemed to have the most neutral approach in that there weren’t any direct references to the religious, but mostly portrayals of human figures in abstract contexts.

The show was meant to provide a platform to talk about and contemplate the significance of religion through history and in contemporary society. There were critiques and confrontations of the wicked side of religious impact, but on the whole, as Wheatcroft said, the show was subdued in appreciation of the sensitivity associated with this topic. The balance of religion and private spirituality also added a wholistic edge to this discussion. And as with any art, while there were identifiably different approaches taken by all artists, all the works were of course open to various interpretations.

The meaning of religion in society is always a hot topic of conversation, but discussing it through non-verbal and artistic media gives way to different perceptions and emotions that are important to explore and providing that opportunity made this show quite enjoyable. It would, however, also be pretty interesting to see a more stirring—not attacking, but less restrained—version of this show.

To see other works by these artists, please visit their respective websites:

image: Mithila Majithia