Transformative Triptychs in Multicultural America

By Stott, Annette | Art Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Transformative Triptychs in Multicultural America


Stott, Annette, Art Journal


From the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, the hinged triptych with narrow panels closing like doors over a larger center panel became a favorite form for Christian altarpieces and small devotional shrines, particularly in northern Europe. In modern times, art historians have spread knowledge of and appreciation for the medieval and Renaissance triptych through books, articles, exhibitions, and the ubiquitous slide lecture. In the process, this format has become thoroughly associated in the public mind with Christianity and with European culture. Widespread awareness of historical altarpieces may have contributed to artists' renewed use of the threepart format during the past four decades. Unlike the earlier tradition, however, the contemporary triptych usually appears as three detached panels of equal size that contain no reference to Christian devotional art in title, materials, or content. Instead, such triptychs by artists including Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein express a purely formal, aesthetic choice.l

A smaller group of triptychs by contemporary women artists in the United States forms the subject of this study. These triptychs refer directly to Christian devotional art in their subject, form, and content as a way of exploring the impact of Christian society on the lives and identities of women and people of color. They find their place within the context of the contemporary debate over multiculturalism.

The popular belief in the melting pot (the idea that the different ethnic, racial, religious, and social cultures of native and immigrant peoples should melt into a single, unified culture) is seriously challenged by the concept of a tossed salad or Latin soup in which immigrant and native cultures retain much of their uniqueness as they come together to form a culture of diversity. Proponents of cultural diversity, or multiculturalism, assert the equal validity of various identity groups' unique experiences and perspectives within U.S. culture.2 These groups reclaim their histories and define their identities in relation (often in opposition) to the perceived dominant culture. Opponents of multiculturalism see it as a divisive and destructive trend. They reiterate the need for common language, both verbal and cultural, in order to maintain national unity.3 The art object, as an expression of cultural production, has become a contested site within this debate.4

Although the notion of a dominant culture is problematic, multicultural activism is predicated on a belief in a majority culture that attempts to consume and destroy, or at least silence, minority cultures. Dominant culture is a useful term for describing the culture promoted by meltingpot theorists as well as the strategy of assimilation associated with it. Typically, melting-pot culture is characterized as Western European, Christian, and male. Certainly within art circles, power has resided primarily with Caucasians and the patriarchal institutions they have founded. Through a strategy of appropriation and transformation some contemporary women artists are challenging that hegemonic construction, in the process questioning their own identities. For some of these artists, the triptych is a useful symbol of a powerful and historically dominating culture. Some have used the triptych to empower specific sociopolitical messages but most approach it as a tool for opening dialogue.

Jenni Lukac, a Jewish artist of Eastern European descent from Richmond, Virginia, who currently lives in Lithuania, has explored the triptych in her art for the past ten years. She explains: "The Christian architectural and figurative tradition is, in the western world, the dominant artistic vocabulary. If one wishes to have a visceral, intuitive effect upon, as well as an intellectual rapport with, a larger Western-oriented audience, one must utilize the vocabulary known to the majority."5 In her Immigrant Shrine of 1987 (fig. …

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