Saints Alive

Could anyone be a saint in today's world?

By Kevin Lynch, Capital Times, August 14, 2002

The notion may seem antiquated, but artist Jeffrey Morin believes it is possible to "impact the world in a saintly way." Yet he creates portraits not of do-gooders doing good, but of the essence or posture of a person who looks inward to find strength or grace in a world that may seem godless.

Morin updates classical style and religion-bound concepts to quietly challenge social presumptions in his exhibit, "Modern Saints," at the Wisconsin Academy Gallery, 1922 University Ave., through Aug. 30. (For information, call 263-1692. Gallery hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.)

This is masterful figurative art with tempered emotional power in its eloquent postures, and in the themes that radiate from them.

The modern "saints" Morin depicts appear strong, but utterly vulnerable and human.

No flaming fingertips or feet hoisted on little tufts of cloud. Most of them are nudes in partial shadow with heads bowed. The figures in his gouache paintings, monotype prints and art books are intentionally heroic, says Morin, a professor of art at the UW-Stevens Point and chair of the school's art department.

Though the show includes primarily male nudes, Morin's art is meant to be more evocative than provocative. He has gravitated to the theme of saintliness because, as an artist, he feels a kindred spirit to those often-misunderstood martyr types.

The roots of Morin's art go back to his own; he was raised as a devout Catholic in northern Maine. His ancestors are Acadians, a disenfranchised French-speaking people most of whom, expelled by the British, settled in Louisiana, as Cajuns.

"I have an old-fashioned or romantic attitude about art that goes back to when the church was the major patron of art," Morin says. "I think that people still feel grace, pity and purity but these ideas are out of fashion among artists. I feel compelled to invent these kinds of images."

Morin sees his calling as somewhat akin to saint or a religious zealot.

"People make art in spite of themselves - it's a very inconvenient thing to do. It takes time and doesn't have a comfortable place in society," he says. "People describe religion in a similar sense. A religious zealot would never consider that God doesn't exist. I would never think of not making art. The smells and bells of religion are like art - where does this stuff come from? The ideas and the physical process?

"But in the end, it gets down to basic human needs, hopes and desires."

The very humanness of a person of grace is what fascinates Morin and enriches his art.

"If you read the lives of the saints, most of those people were outcasts, and some were subversives," he notes. "When they're dead it's easier to canonize them. But I'm sure many of them were pains in the ass in doing their good works that maybe nobody wanted them to do."

Almost all of the pieces in the show were done in the last few months, and a pattern repeats itself through many of the works. His figures' heads are bent and the postures convey reflection or self-abnegation.

"Practicing for a Fall From Grace" is a complex painting, visually and thematically, with the feel of a masterwork. It is a huge, gorgeous rendering of a nude male figure in a cascading position, his limbs and torso unfolding like a great bird shot from the sky, succumbing to the sudden rush of gravity.

But the notion of "practicing" for a fall gives this work its weight. Is it the self-consciousness of willful sinner or a society that "wills" him to be a sinner?

Genuine grace, whether self-generated or endowed by a higher force, may fill this man's spirit. It may be society that determines the "fall" from grace, partly on the assumption that spirituality is good and sexuality is bad, and never shall they commingle.

Morin thinks the spiritual and the corporeal are closer than we think. A clue to his stance lies in one of his elegant handmade art books, which recounts a teenager's experience of comforting visitations from Saints Michael and Gabriel: "I had often kissed and embraced them, and sometimes had touched them in a physical and corporeal manner."

Morin doesn't deny a homosexual subtext to (some of) his art. Indeed the ambiguity of "falling from grace" becomes pointed when priests are vilified during this period of sex abuse scandal mania.

A number of clerics, such as former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, admit to a sexual relationship but not to abuse.

"I think of how society can make decisions for us," Morin says. "Listen to the diatribes on talk radio or shock radio, the pundits making a decision for a whole portion of the population, whether a person is living in a state of grace or sin.

"Or it's about being labeled. Someone says, oh, you're living in sin. But what about someone who is sublime? They may be almost preparing for sainthood or martyrdom by being killed. People think you're a sinner and they say, we'll kill you."

Indeed, one of Morin's major works (not in the show) is a gripping shrine-like installation piece "God Loves Matt Shepard," done in memory of the young gay man who was tortured to death in a hate crime several years ago. (The work is in the permanent collection of the Wustum Museum of Art in Racine and viewable on Morin's publishing Web site www.sailorboypress.com.)

Dominant Desire

The musty, dusty idea of grace, like others far more pernicious --persecution or witch-hunt -- has a way of resurfacing. What often ensues is another battle in the endless war between darkness and light. Many of Jeffrey Morin's figurative images, such as the gouache painting "Dominant Desire" (above), convey an inward search for spiritual strength. Morin's handmade art books, including "The Twelve Articles" (below), describe experiences of spiritual and corporeal intensity.

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