IF THEY ARE HONEST, most art historians will cop to a youthful encounter that launched them into studying art professionally. The experiences that got me started were both religious and artistic. Preparing for confirmation as a Lutheran teen, I was struck by the heroic illustrations of Martin Luther in our class materials. I thrilled to the image of him defiantly nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of his Wittenberg church; another depicted him in a stalwart pose brandishing his translation of the Bible—the reformer as theological Justice Leaguer. In high school, my interest in art history flowered, and I was delighted to learn that Luther had befriended Lucas Cranach, an artist who promoted the German Reformation. And when I discovered the work of Albrecht Dürer, Cranach’s contemporary, my heart warmed to discover his interest in Luther’s ideas and his participation in lively dinner gatherings of humanist scholars in Nuremberg. Indeed, the first “work of art” I collected, at age seventeen, was a silkscreen reproduction of Dürer’s woodcut The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Such were the gateway encounters that would inspire me to study the art, culture, and religious ideas of the amazing sixteenth century—the high Renaissance and its transition to the Baroque.
In Rome as a college student in the 1970s I took a wrong turn down Via del Plebecito and ran smack into a magnificent church: Il Gesù. Dimly remembering it from one of my art history courses, I took a peek inside. A towering basilica with a wide nave, Il Gesù was completed in 1580, becoming the mother church of a then-new men’s religious order, the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. I was overpowered by the array of murals and theatrically Catholic sculpture decorating the interior. Art historians often cite the Gesù as a cultural turning point, the moment when the Renaissance became the Baroque.
So, who were these Jesuits who produced such a magnificent edifice? I began finding out in the 1980s, when my southern California church became a sanctuary for war refugees from Central America. Through our activism I met Father Michael Kennedy, SJ, who sheltered and advocated for the refugees, and shortly thereafter, Father Gregory Boyle, SJ, who ministered to Mexican American gang members in east Los Angeles. In 1989 I was outraged when armed raiders (later found to be part of an elite army battalion) broke into El Salvador’s University of Central America, murdering six Jesuits for their advocacy on behalf of the country’s poor. Later that year I was hired to oversee the art gallery at the Jesuit Loyola Marymount University and was introduced to the novel social justice icons then being created by William Hart McNichols, SJ. My journey with Jesuits had begun.
At the center of the Society of Jesus is the remarkable life of its founder, Íñigo López de Loyola, known since 1622 as Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Born in the northern Basque region at the Loyola family castle, the pre-convert Ignatius was a womanizing, romantic militarist tagged with an arrest for brawling. In his thirtieth year, in a battle against French forces, his leg was broken by a ricocheting cannon ball. Bedridden during a long recuperation, he sought relief from boredom by requesting books that idealized knightly valor, epics like El Cid and the Song of Roland. But alas, these were not available. At hand were narratives of the saints and Jesus: The Golden Legend and Ludolph of Saxony’s Vita Christi. Initially averse to these pious tomes, Ignatius found himself gripped by the Vita Christi, especially its literary devices that project the reader into gospel scenes alongside Jesus. Eventually, Ignatius was overcome by a strong desire to become like the saints and serve God. He foreswore his martial ambitions and embarked on a lifelong course to realize his divine calling.
In the ensuing years, Ignatius attracted six other men who were inspired by his singular vision, and in 1534, they bound themselves to a communal vow of poverty and chastity. (In that same year Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was published.) This original company eventually sought to become a religious order, and the Society of Jesus was officially approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. The Jesuits represented a radical break from existing religious orders that were cloistered and observed the Holy Offices (six daily community prayer periods). Ignatius, in contrast, conceived of the Jesuits as men sent out to the world, contemplatives in action.
To sustain Jesuits in their extroverted and occasionally solitary service, Ignatius devised a radically immersive and formational thirty-day retreat—the Spiritual Exercises—and a set of guidelines to govern Jesuit life, the Constitutions. If one had to summarize the Jesuit mission, one might choose this passage from the “Principle and Foundation” section from the first week of the Spiritual Exercises (in a contemporary reading by David Fleming, SJ):
God who loves us creates us and wants to share life with us forever. Our love response takes shape in our praise and honor and service of the God of our life…. [Therefore] our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.
Thus undergirded, the Jesuit goes out into the world, keenly attuned to finding God in all people, places, and events.
In recent years, Jesuits have enjoyed increased visibility. James Martin, SJ, regularly appeared on the old Stephen Colbert Show as a commentator and “unofficial chaplain.” Martin’s thoughtful and warmly accessible books on the saints, the Society of Jesus, and Jesus himself (Jesus: A Pilgrimage) have been bestsellers. Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, SJ, the Vatican astronomer, has published numerous scholarly and popular books. And then there is the remarkable—and sometimes controversial—Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former nightclub bouncer and chemical technologist who entered the Society of Jesus in 1958 and was elected to the papacy in 2013 as Francis I, the first Jesuit pope.
Within a few decades of the founding of the Society of Jesus, the arts became integral to its mission. Il Gesù was not only architecturally innovative; its decorative program was spectacular—including gesturing automatons to enhance the painting and sculpture. “By the late sixteenth century, the Jesuits became the most prolific patrons and producers of arts in the world,” notes historian John O’Malley, SJ. “By building new churches, they became involved with architecture and the visual arts. By building schools, they became involved in theater, music, and dance. Through the missions in places like Spanish America, they used music as a tool to help spread the Gospel.” In the 1986 film The Mission, set in colonial Paraguay, the Jesuits suffer several fatal rebuffs from the indigenous Guaraní, who are finally captivated by Father Gabriel’s (Jeremy Irons) sonorous oboe playing in a forest clearing. This time the tribe’s warriors spare his life and accept him, and he teaches the Guaraní western choral music. Other converted tribes learned from Jesuit instructors to sculpt and paint devotional art.
In setting out to write an essay on contemporary Jesuit artists, I selected three men with different modes of expressions: Don Doll in photography and photojournalism; Arturo Araujo in printmaking, mixed media, ceramics, and architectural installations; and Trung Pham in painting and sculpture. The trio also embodies the international scope of the Society of Jesus in our era.
The Wisconsin-born Don Doll came of age in the years leading up to the tumultuous reforms of the Catholic Church announced in 1959 by Pope John XXIII and hammered out by the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and ’65. As a senior at Milwaukee’s Jesuit Marquette High School, he attended a mid-year retreat during which a charismatic Jesuit asked the boys to consider the order. Doll hesitated, instead enrolling at Notre Dame with the goals of majoring in chemical engineering and getting a pilot’s license in the fall. But after attending an end-of-summer farewell celebration for a friend who had decided to join the Jesuits, Doll later that evening felt a strong call to join the Society, too. The next day he conferred with a Jesuit priest he was close to at Marquette and made his decision, entering the novitiate shortly thereafter.
Doll recalls receiving a stellar formational education during this time. Typically, newly minted Jesuits were parceled out to Catholic high schools as teachers; not Doll. His superior asked him what he thought about going to the Saint Francis Mission, Spring Creek, on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Taken aback, Doll replied that he “could probably make the best of it.”
Indian reservations in 1962, the year Doll arrived at Saint Francis, were among the poorest communities in the US. They were isolated and beset with hopelessness and alcoholism, not to mention the grim legacy of broken federal treaties. But during these years, some Brulé Sioux began to rediscover the hidden values that had made them a proud and vibrant people prior to their removal to reservations. The later 1960s would see the rise of “Red Power” and the activism of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
At the mission, Doll taught at the high school, coached athletic teams, and served as “dorm father.” Pressed by his superior to make photographs for Saint Francis’s publications, Doll taught himself photography—largely with cast-off cameras. Frustrated yet intrigued by the medium, he enrolled in a summer photojournalism course at Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1964. With training, Doll’s photographic pursuit became a calling, a vocation within his religious vocation. He was transferred from Rosebud in 1965 to continue his Jesuit formation, eventually arriving at Omaha’s Creighton University to teach photojournalism. Throughout his career, Doll has visited the reservation, nurturing old friendships and making new connections among the Sioux.
In 1974, he secured a leave of absence from Creighton, returning to Rosebud to serve as the parish priest and photograph the Spring Creek community, documenting contemporary reservation life as a trusted friend of the community. His model in this endeavor was W. Eugene Smith’s classic 1951 Life magazine photo essay “Spanish Village.” Doll’s body of work from this sojourn is remarkable for its candor, warmth, and first-hand view of Sioux society, a world that non-Indian Americans had not seen. His photograph of Gordon Swift Hawk astride his motorcycle (with “red power” emblazoned on the gas tank), resolutely gazing across the prairie, delivers a motorized paradigm of the horse-mounted Indian. Confident in his Spring Creek work, Doll shopped portfolios to first-rank photographic organizations, sparking the interest of Cornell Capa at New York’s International Center for Photography. This led to a traveling exhibition of the Spring Creek series that went to more than thirty institutions, and a large-format catalogue, Crying for a Vision: A Rosebud Sioux Trilogy.
The critical acclaim of Doll’s Rosebud photographs encouraged him to seek out similar opportunities among more remote native populations. Tracing the extensive Jesuit mission and parish network in Alaska, in 1980 Doll connected with a Yup’ik Eskimo village in Toksook Bay, just south of the Arctic Circle, that still relies on subsistence fishing (salmon, herring, and halibut), hunting (seal, walrus, and the occasional whale), and gathering (tundra berries). Again doing double duty as parish priest (at Saint Peter the Fisherman) and documentarian, Doll obtained entry to virtually all aspects of Yup’ik life. In 1984 his photographs, along with an essay by Brad Reynolds, SJ, appeared in National Geographic.
In 1987 Doll obtained a leave of absence from Creighton to return to Alaska—this time to the tiny remote fishing settlement of Kaltag on the banks of the Yukon River, where the Athapascans eke out a living under extreme conditions. Local Jesuits were successful in helping the tribe organize a fishermen’s association to quintuple the price they received for salmon roe, a delicacy in Japan. Doll found conditions similar to those in Spring Creek: alcoholism and difficulties in reconciling Athapascan culture to life outside their community, especially among the young. Organizing events like proms and visits to towns helped coming-of-age youth adapt to life beyond Kaltag. His photographs of the community appeared National Geographic in 1990.
For nearly twenty years, Doll had built a reputation on his gritty black and white photography of Native American life under challenging natural, economic, and social circumstances. He switched gears for a comprehensive project he began in the early 1990s. Since his early work at the Rosebud Sioux reservation, alongside the suffering and privation, he had also noticed a positive shift in Indian life. Through conscious efforts to reengage with their spirituality and traditions, a rejuvenated pride in Native American identity began to emerge—along with a new generation of leaders. These leaders were able to launch self-help initiatives to deal with alcoholism and addiction and to encourage tribal entrepreneurship. To honor these new advocates and role models, Doll set out to interview and photograph more than sixty Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Sioux across the upper plains. The portraits present each subject with a clear and reverent eye, and are made more powerful by the introduction of color and new lighting techniques. They are collected in the 1994 book Vision Quests: Men, Women, and Sacred Sites of the Sioux Nation (Crown).
Asked if his creative process is informed by his priesthood, Doll says, “It has everything to do with it. I cannot help but photograph from the life of faith that I have grown into as a priest.” He also says that each day of photography is preceded by prayer the night before, so that he may “look upon and photograph people with some part of the empathy and understanding God has for them.”
Arturo Araujo was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, in 1967 and attended Jesuit primary and secondary schools. At age seven, he keenly sensed in himself an innate and kinetic responsiveness to the arts, especially dance, and he eventually undertook training in rhythmic movement. Araujo performed with various troupes until physical stresses took their toll on his body, and he was forced to abandon dance in the late 1990s. He then turned more fully to the visual arts, which he had been exploring concurrently.
Araujo says his artistic call and his religious vocation have always been intertwined. In his late teens, he discerned through prayer that it was God’s will for him to join the Society of Jesus, and he entered the novitiate in 1987 after high school graduation. Upon conclusion of his philosophical and theological studies, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1999, whereupon he became director of the campus ministry at Colegio Berchmans, a Jesuit K-12 school in Cali, Colombia.
It was a troubled time for Cali and Colombia. The FARC guerrillas continued their savage war against the state. In Cali, money laundering by drug cartels distorted the civic economy, and the ensuing US-supported war on drug trafficking led to more violence. National homicide rates hovered around 75 per 100,000 people. (The US rate was 4.9 in the same period.) Araujo was not untouched by Colombia’s bloodshed. On a single day, ten members of his family, caught between extorting guerrillas and pro-government vigilantes, were massacred in their village. Numb with pain and reduced to silence, Araujo reflects on the incident: “When you are living in situations with certainties of violence, the only support you will find is a silent God.” Struggling toward inner peace and reconciliation, he began “to give pardon to the assassins. As I did that, the presence of God grew stronger.”
The loss temporarily incapacitated him creatively, but Araujo believed that the “power of art would give me back the possibility of articulation.” Determined to develop his art in a more tranquil environment, he came to the United States in 2000 to reside at the Jesuit community at Seattle University. There he enrolled in the studio art program and soon proved a precocious student. No visual medium was beyond his interest, from traditional to digital. Nor was Araujo averse to combining multiple modes in a single work.
Among his early works in Seattle were four neo-medieval illuminated Gospels for the university’s chapel. Jointly titled The Gospel of Light, they present the scripture readings for Advent in black calligraphy, their margins decorated with relief ornamentation and botanical imagery in liquid gold and various clays. During this same period, he produced a series of monochromatic nature-themed embossings and rubbings entitled Fall. As a Jesuit, Araujo has been trained to look for God in all things, and he has long found solace and inspiration in the natural realm. The Fall images were inspired in part by the ubiquitous maple trees of the Pacific Northwest, with their distinctive fan-scallop leaves that drop every autumn. Composed in rectilinear patterns, Araujo’s rubbed impressions of the leaves evoke x-ray apparitions. In the dark border areas, the viewer discerns faint cursive writing, palimpsests of run-together and layered words—textual culture framing nature.
Encouraged by his work at Seattle University, Araujo pursued further studies across town in 2006, enrolling at Cornish College of the Arts, where he majored in painting and printmaking, earning a BFA. While still a student at Cornish, he learned that Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane had issued a request for proposals for their new Chapel of the Three Companions (these are Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, and Pierre Favre—the first Jesuits). One end of the chapel would reveal the outdoors through an expanse of glass. Araujo submitted a wide charcoal drawing of swirling and teeming biomorphic forms—abstractions of creative forces shaping the natural world. He explained his design as an “experiential insight” derived from the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, where the retreatant moves from an interior state of chaos to order. Over a period of three years, Araujo oversaw the etching of his designs on both sides of large glass panels. This allowed the imagery to appear to shift throughout the day as the traveling sun struck the bi-level composition at different angles, creating a luminous crystalline effect [see previous page].
Attentiveness, or mindfulness, has long been a discipline in many spiritual traditions. For Araujo, this has meant a cultivated waiting, being present to unfolding events. In a statement for his BFA exhibition, he wrote: “In a few instances in my life, the transformations appeared…and brought sense, meaning, and light to everything. The experience of waiting opened multiple human experiences, sometimes dark and painful; sometimes peaceful and joyful.” In his BFA exhibition, titled Waiting, his use of multiple media was on full display, especially in a monumental installation, Too Fragile for Winter Winds, a series of elongated color woodcuts of tree forms that hung from ceiling to floor. Another work, a horizontal painted triptych, portrays coiling, surging, and thrusting natural forms that evoke the early biomorphic surrealist works of Chilean painter Roberto Matta.
Certain of his desire to teach art in a Catholic university, Araujo applied to a number of the top MFA programs in the US and to his delight was accepted at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Of special attraction to him was its strong lithography program; he would later discover the specialized ceramics courses taught by Kathryne Cyman, a disciple of Japanese living treasure Manji Inoue.
The program proved demanding, and his ambitious graduate exhibition would put him to the test. A multi-faceted series titled Germinal, it comprised four components: accordion-fold graphic books (Sinking); monumental mixed-media prints; a tea ceremony installation of more than fifty ceramic cups; and Flying Seeds, an arrangement of twenty six-foot banners combining woodcut, lithography, and digital imagery. The great scope of the work threatened to overwhelm him. Neither was he prepared for the anti-clericalism that greeted him as a priest, nor the uneasiness of some in the art department with his use of Christian imagery.
Recognizing his need to deal with two crises, Araujo underwent psychotherapy for the isolating effects of stress. He also adapted his imagery to a more universal spirituality, which he now believes proved beneficial, widening his artistic vocabulary and the viewer’s perceptions. This is certainly borne out by the completed Germinal, a work that envelops the viewer in an enchanted environment.
Immediately after receiving his MFA in 2011, Araujo was hired for a tenure-track position at the Jesuit University of San Francisco, where he teaches today. Within a year he was working on another major commission, the transformation of a ten by twelve-foot campus storage closet into an interfaith meditation room. As at Gonzaga Prep, he designed engraved front windows—this time a tree of life with upwardly arcing branches that overlay the real eucalyptus trees glimpsed in the courtyard outside. The project also tested his newfound ceramic skills; he fabricated decorative tiles and twenty-one clay bells symbolizing different spiritual and cultural traditions. Araujo told me he found inspiration in a fifteenth-century mosque in Edirne, Turkey, in which ornamental tiling depicts symbols from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity. As I was writing this essay in the summer of 2017, Araujo was on sabbatical in Central America, researching pre-Columbian ceramics for future projects in clay.
Trung Pham was born in 1974, an auspicious year in his native South Vietnam. His family was Catholic. Pham’s father was a figurative painter on silk and taught art at a Saigon high school. In 1975 the Pham household was upended when the North Vietnamese Army swept into Saigon in the wake of the departure of US forces. His father was sent to a communist reeducation camp for the next seven years, while the young Pham was raised by his mother and grandmother. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration negotiated the departure of a number of Vietnamese from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The Phams participated in this political immigration, settling in the growing Vietnamese community of Westminster, California, in 1990.
Pham was sixteen. Despite his own best aspirations, he found the transition to American life difficult. He felt marginalized from mainstream society. Learning English and adapting to American culture were stressful, and he could not shake the spiritual questions at the core of his being: Who was God? Where was God in the midst of the suffering his family and his people had endured? What meaning could his life have in the US? Like many immigrants, he suppressed his anxiety and trauma to focus on the future. Pham majored in chemical engineering at UCLA and hoped to become a doctor. During breaks from school, he practiced drawing and molded sculptures.
During this time, a Vietnamese Jesuit at his parish encouraged him to consider the Society of Jesus. Would he be willing to do a trial sojourn at the Jesuit Novitiate of the Three Companions in nearby Culver City? He would. On his first night there, after settling into bed, Pham awoke to realize that he had reached “a now or never moment.” A powerful feeling of hope overcame him; he had a strong sense that his inner conflicts would be resolved and a fulfilling life awaited him if he answered the call to become a Jesuit.
Once on the Jesuit track, Pham entered an undergraduate academic art program at Loyola University in Chicago, where he also studied philosophy. He wanted to pursue graduate work in art but was rejected by numerous programs. He was about to give up when he received an acceptance from the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York. Pham saw this as a grace. The abundant visual culture of Manhattan stimulated his work, and he was awarded an MFA in 2006.
Among his first post-Pratt works was a series of stylized, melancholic drawings and paintings treating the intimate and tranquil relationship between mother and child. The works engaged Marian themes, as well as recalling the tender care given Pham by his mother and grandmother while his father was in prison. His ongoing Mother project honors those Vietnamese women who lived through the war and the refugee years that followed. Pham says, “Although they endured various traumatic experiences and suffered tremendous losses, their devotion to their children never wavered—pouring out their love and making sacrifices to open up possibility and hope for the next generation.”
Pham credits the Spiritual Exercises with beginning to heal his traumas from Vietnam and his sense of marginality in American culture. Most Jesuits make this thirty-day retreat annually, but the Spiritual Exercises are by no means reserved for Jesuits only; laypeople who can commit to the time undergo them, too, either on retreat or in versions modified for everyday life. The exercises are divided into four weeks. The first week lays the foundation, candidly reckoning with human sin and working toward the goal of desiring only those things that induce us to “praise, reverence, and serve God.” In the second week, the retreatant is guided toward a contemplative encounter with Jesus, an evaluation of “states of life,” and a decision to join “the company of Jesus” in the work of reconciliation and healing. The third week is intensely focused on Christ’s passion, from the Last Supper to his death. Central to the fourth week is union with Christ and a concluding contemplation of the love of God. Astute spiritual directors will permit retreatants to find paths best suited to their personalities and gifts. In Pham’s case, this has meant encouraging him to pray via his art making.
Most Jesuits study theology after their philosophical education. Pham enrolled at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, where after four years he received his master of divinity and licentiate of sacred theology, with an emphasis in theological aesthetics. Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–88, a Jesuit up to 1950) was arguably the twentieth century’s foremost advocate of theological aesthetics, a discipline Image readers may have encountered through Jeremy Begbie, William Dyrness, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, among others. Briefly, theological aesthetics examines the relationship of God, faith, and theology to human perception (the imagination and sensation), beauty, and the arts. It can explore profound questions: what does a theological understanding of beauty imply for the arts of our time? And in correlation with the Spiritual Exercises, what role does the imagination play in theological method?
Since graduating from Berkeley in 2012, Pham has incorporated theological aesthetics into the classroom at Seattle University, and into his painting. His work at this time became more symbolic and abstract, in no small part due to his sojourn in New York, where he studied the paintings of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Joan Mitchell in the city’s museums. The coarseness of Pham’s technique seems to me a response to Mitchell, but it also is his subjective rendition of “extreme beauty” as articulated by theologian Josef Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). The notion is ironic in light of western secular understandings of beauty, for Ratzinger exhorts us to see in the torture, crucifixion, and death of Jesus the love of God displayed at its most potent: “in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love [for humankind] that goes ‘to the very end.’” To put it another way, God’s sacrificial, saving love in Christ has been stretched out even to redeem that which is ugly and abused. There can be no room for prettiness or sentimental loveliness in Ratzinger’s formulation. The same stringent understanding is forcefully declared by Balthasar: “[God’s beauty] embraces the most abysmal ugliness of sin and hell by virtue of the condescension of divine love, which has brought even sin and hell into that divine art for which there is no human analogue.”
In light of his understanding of Ratzinger, Pham has been developing four series of elemental abstract paintings based on the four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises: Crack, Wound, Rupture, and Wonder. These are dark and brooding works. In Crack Pham creates atmospheric fields of monochromatic colors that are disrupted by a single bright contrasting horizontal fissure. This could indicate the sharp cut of a sin, or by contrast, the opening where divine light breaks through. As such, they invest Barnett Newman’s purist and epic linearity—his trademark vertical “zip”—with a raw, slashing sense of violation of the human body.
Pham’s capacity to find extreme beauty in physical injury is evidenced in his Wound series, in which he strives to “depict beauty in vulnerability and brokenness” through work that “enfolds the grotesque, deformed, contorted look of wounds,” as he writes in an artist’s statement. Although the first impression is of “their ruptured and punctured appearance, the beauty of their tenderness and fragility emerges upon deeper contemplation”. In Wound 14, a nasty tapered gash is delicately highlighted with gold, as if to ennoble the wounds Jesus received during his crucifixion: redemptive suffering.
Having modeled the figure since adolescence, Pham has also been able to produce fairly traditional bronze sculptures as religious commissions—a crucifix and Saint Clare (Saint Francis of Assisi’s colleague). By happenstance, he opened up a new sculptural direction while cleaning up after his beginning sculpture class at Seattle University. Students had poured leftover plaster of Paris into a number of quart milk cartons, and it had hardened into white blocky columns. Pondering their potential, he peeled away the waxy cardboard and set the elongated brick upright, noting its parameters—just 2¾ inches square. A sculpture carved from such a minute block would have an intimate character, he thought. And while he found abstraction a suitable language for his paintings, Pham believed that representing common utilitarian objects—especially on a small scale—could convey a sense of mystery.
His first subject was a plain, straight-backed chair, delicately carved atop a coarse gypsum pillar. It soon became the first of a series. Pham notes: “by carving them in small sizes, I re-contextualize the power that the [raised] chair represents by providing beholders a viewpoint of observance and reflection. [The chairs] simultaneously convey authority and vulnerability, and a strange sense of dominance.” Additionally, the viewer becomes a kind of Gulliver, a giant peering down upon the silent artifacts of a Lilliputian kingdom.
In sculpture, the diminutive is not new. A 2005 Art News posting cites Mary Ceruti, director of New York’s SculptureCenter, who declared, “In sculpture the whole idea of small is anti-modern.” Ceruti may have meant that the notion of heroic, aggressive, and outsized sculpture—from Henry Moore to Richard Serra to the Brobdingnagian silliness of Jeff Koons—needed a corrective, an experience in which the viewer assumes a greater role in defining the space and his or her relationship to the work of art. In other words, small works, by bringing the viewer’s attention to the space around them, can actually have greater resonance. Think of Joel Shapiro’s tiny bronze and cast-iron chairs and coffins from the 1970s or, from the same period, the Plexiglas-box-encased voyeuristic environments of the late Robert Graham, peopled by miniature nude wax figurines engaged in leisurely or erotic activities. (Shapiro and Graham both also produced monumental sculpture.)
Pham’s plaster works, despite their small size, nevertheless echo the historical precedent of the monumental form aloft on a pedestal, and their whiteness associates them with academic classicism and the beaux-arts sculptural ideal. To further his miniaturist aesthetic and enhance its mystery, the artist turned to a non-art material: the bar of translucent or pastel-colored bath soap. Thematically conceived, each of his soap series represents a vessel or dispenser of liquids. The most Catholic of his pieces is a chalice and paten. As I write, Pham is displaying fifteen of his tiny soap sculptures in the exhibition Vessels of Life at the Rangoli Metro Art Center, Bangalore, India. Arranged in a single-file line on a long white table, this humble procession of pastel-colored urns and bottles offers a reflection upon life’s mysteries.
The work of Don Doll, Arturo Araujo, and Trung Pham straddles two worlds. In Doll’s case, his priestly labors have always informed his photojournalism and his images are inseparable from his vocation. His practice of “abiding, serving, observing” has given him rare access to native and tribal peoples that commercial photojournalists—who fly in on turnaround deadlines—cannot achieve. Araujo finds time to make his work between classroom responsibilities, site commissions, and supply preaching in the multi-ethnic parishes of San Francisco. Pham forthrightly states that his work grows out of his immersion in the Spiritual Exercises; it is his healing witness to the community of “restless Vietnamese American hearts who courageously withstood suffering and kept their faith, hope, and love alive.”
Measured against the rubrics of the contemporary art world, this kind of work is hard to categorize, much less evaluate critically. Artists who have vowed “in all things [to] love and serve the Divine Majesty” and be “the help of souls” aren’t likely to become the next flavor of the month at trendy New York or LA galleries. Yet theirs is work that speaks powerfully to our time, offering insight, comfort, and challenge uniquely informed by the Jesuit vocation.
In 1995, the Society of Jesus, recognizing the corrosiveness of materialist secularity, the growing imbalance of wealth and resources, and the rise of alienation in the waning years of the twentieth century, proclaimed at its historic thirty-fourth General Congregation in Rome:
We are constantly driven to discover, redefine, and reach out for the magis [the greater]. For us, frontiers and boundaries are not obstacles or ends, but new challenges to be faced, new opportunities to be welcomed. Indeed, ours is a holy boldness, “a certain apostolic aggressivity,” typical of our way of proceeding. Our way of proceeding is a way of challenge….