Religious conversions: the art of Josh Iguchi

On View

Untitled #2

courtesy of the gallery and artist

When the transformational Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church called for a dialogue with the contemporary world, they couldn’t have anticipated the art of Josh Iguchi.

Iguchi was born in 1964 as Vatican II unfolded, and he was raised Catholic in its progressive wake. At nine, he witnessed Jesus Christ rebranded a superstar and become a rocking Broadway sensation. Later, he saw Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ—a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine—jacked by sensationalistic politicians into a cause célèbre. The art world itself was undergoing a revolution. Postmodernism blurred the distinction between high and low art while recycling historic styles and themes in a contemporary context.

It was amid the 1990s-era backwash of this tsunami of change that Josh Iguchi made the works now on display at the Castellani Art Museum. The exhibition is titled Western New York Collects: Josh Iguchi, the second in an ongoing series highlighting works culled from regional collections by artists associated with Western New York.

As a fine art major at Alfred University, Iguchi familiarized himself with the painting masters, especially Caravaggio, whose gritty and often graphic realism appealed to the young artist’s sense of dramatic realism. In these tableau photographs Iguchi recreates the Judeo-Christian stories often depicted in Western art, frequently mimicking the style and compositions of historical works. These are contemporized versions however, liberally furnished with signifiers of popular culture and bestowed with ironic deadpan earnestness. They mimic the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting of the Baroque era through strategically placed colored lights that amp up the images to psychedelic levels. Characters glow with Rembrandt-like inner radiance, had Rembrandt been using peyote.

The exhibition centerpiece, on loan from the Burchfield Penney Art Center, is the monumental Last Supper. Jesus and his apostles, garbed in nineties’ attire, assume the = often parodied da Vinci seating arrangement over pizza, Labatt’s beer, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The central Christ figure looks suitably bummed, as the surrounding disciples adopt familiar theatrical gestures. The scene is saturated with a lime green and cherry- red glow. It’s not anything approaching conventionally reverent, but it’s not mocking either. Iguchi displays genuine appreciation for both his subject and the art historical antecedents he mimics.

These photographs were painstakingly staged without post-production Photoshop manipulation, using cleverly concealed lights and old-fashioned Ektacolor film, which Iguchi processed himself. In the sublimely comical Ascension of Christ for instance, the acid green saints, blood red background, and indigo blue ascending Jesus were precisely lit in advance. Christ’s feet, which extend into the picture from above, are not cut and pasted. A friend of the artist is sitting on an I-beam in the old icehouse that is now Big Orbit Gallery, his legs hanging down.

The works often trumpet their theatrical staginess, electric light cords dangle conspicuously, draperies and sheets serve as backdrops, and settings are sparse or industrial. Many of the works include mock antique frames, spray-painted kitschy gold, sometimes ornamented with plastic trinkets.

Iguchi understands that the devotional scenes of the masters were no more authentic than the Hollywood sword-andsandal epics of our times. These stories have long acted as a type of Western world Rorschach test, reflecting the societal penchants of the period in which they were created. Iguchi just dispenses with the pretense and confronts this reality head on. At the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University through July 21.

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