In 2015, Montreal-based artist Guy Laramée placed a large-format Bible from the 19th century upright with the spine open. Then, using a power grinder, he carved a landscape into the pages and painted along the curvatures, evoking the space of a cave whittled into a sheer mountainside.
It is a beautiful summoning of desert spaces, conjuring the place of the biblical prophets. It is, however, an unusual treatment of the Good Book.
Laramée, along with a number of contemporary artists, has been working with books not as muse, but as medium. You could call these artists book lovers, but only in the way that you could call Michelangelo a marble lover or Edward Scissorhands a tree lover.
When written in the same sentence, the terms “religion” and “art” tend to turn the contemporary secularized gaze back in time to Renaissance imagery. Those old, redolent, often pious pictures of Christ Child and Madonna are pleasing to look at, but these days their principal function is to confirm how religious art existed in ages past. Present-day artists can’t possibly be interested in that anymore.
To other eyes, religion and art co-exist just fine, as long as it’s a nebulous, personal “spirituality” that the artists are trying to express — nothing too public, political, or potentially threatening to anyone who looks at it. Others light on the scandals — Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, John Latham’s God is Great — thinking the arts now only work against religion. And still others reduce “religious art” to some proselytizing message, like you might see in Thomas Kinkade’s kitschily-lit homes.
Which is all quite remarkable, considering modern and contemporary art is flooded with religious symbols, strivings, conceptions, and, yes, controversies.