Magazine article Sculpture

Dylan Mortimer: Working Faith

Magazine article Sculpture

Dylan Mortimer: Working Faith

Article excerpt

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 atheists.

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.

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 about religion.

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 Baptists.

God Hooks My 4ss 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. …

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