This is Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour as Jesus painted meticulously by Rachel Hecker.
Rachel Hecker, previously known for her renderings of grocery lists and convenience store tags is painting portraits of who Christian’s call the Son of God and the man whose name most of us in the Western world yell out at the onslaught of traffic, physical pain, or the inevitable moment you realize you’re out of toilet paper.
Rachel, like every great Jesus painter before her, including my favorites shown below, is in quite good company:
Van Der Weyden
Durer’s (Diva) “Self Portrait”
Science / The History Channel
So about 2000 years after Jesus’ first bout with fame Rachel has decided to take on his portrait:
"I understand the irony in it but I also understand that I’m trying to make devotional portraits without any irony…I don’t think you could shoot yourself in the foot more than telling people you’re painting Jesus, and that’s really liberating in certain ways…If there’s anything that could scare the art world you start talking about that shit.”
Jesus, based on a male model found in a magazine
Viggo Mortensen as Jesus
The visual comparison of the portraits to her previous works seems far fetched but there is a strong link between a large canvas painting of a business card and Viggo Mortensen as Jesus. The link is founded in a common theme in most of Rachel’s artworks: vanitas.
Obstructed skull painting still in progress
If you know my work, or if you know me well, you know me and vanitas are like best friends and not just on Facebook or Google+, we hang out. So when I visit Rachel I know she understands the obsession. I could talk memento mori all day and it’s comforting to hear someone’s opinions on the ideas of the fleeting and ephemeral transience of life in contemporary art.
Dandelion seed head sculpture
Studio shot with charcoal briquette sculpture
When I asked Rachel, “Why portraits?” and she brought up her brother. She had been trying to paint a large scale portrait of him from a small photograph. She said it never really came out as she had wanted and that the paintings “failure” reminded her of the all to familiar notion that what she’s seeking out is rarely found at the end of a painting, but is usually found in the process.
So in the midst of family portraiture and vanitas paintings of grocery lists came Jesus. In her most recent show at Skydive in Houston, Texas, Rachel set up pews and candles to heighten a devotional experience:
And the results were quiet.
Rachel said that most viewers stared up at the painting in silence and even one woman remained reticent and focused on the piece for a good hour or more. As Rachel mentions in her blog, she has been interested in the anomaly. The “reality” of Jesus is a strange and intriguing notion exercised by highly rendered portraiture. No one knows what Jesus looked like, and yet, Jesus is probably the most famous human form that proves to be consistently amorphous. With a beard and shoulder length locks, a medium to emaciated physique, add some rays of light or a halo and you might have, Jesus:
Like Rachel’s paintings of lists and ephemera, the notion of Jesus’ appearance is fleeting and often he’s depicted at the age of 33, right before his death.
For years now Rachel has been involved in meditation and aspects of spirituality fill her daily life:
"Nine years ago on Easter Sunday I was sitting in the Nob Hill Masonic Center in San Francisco, for the last day of a meditation intensive with an Indian Guru. I was there because I wanted to learn to quiet my mind - most of my thoughts had become involuntary, mostly torturous, and completely redundant. I was not looking for a spiritual practice or a religion, and I inadvertently got both."
(From Rachel’s blog, link found below)
Since the beginning of her spiritual practice, Rachel’s work has shifted into what she and others may call a sentimental (Bang!) and spiritual (Pow!) realm. In contemporary art these are usually adjectives that upon mention make most contemporary curators, gallery directors, and critics nervous.
Western art, after thousands of years of religious paintings, somehow turned into a secular place and me and Rachel talked on this for a bit in her studio visit. Reflecting on our talk I feel the stigma remains; if you’re making spiritual art it’s time to hit up Etsy or your local community church festival and call it a day.
Yet, some of the most beautiful, popular, and highest appraised artworks are imbued with spiritual aspects that reach for transcendence. Art is by nature irrational, and what is more irrational than spirituality?
Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas
The last image of Rachel’s studio includes a piece that in retrospect I find one of the most spiritual, transcendent, and genuine, and half of it is hidden under a trash bag—making it all the more lovely:
What looks like a multicolored straw pinata is one of Rachel’s longest surviving collections. Made of plastic straws, hot glue, and string, she has been adding to it for years and said to me “If I could get away with it I would probably just do that all day.”
Now this may not be a Rothko monochrome or DaVinci Last Supper but what it lacks in visual presence it makes up for in it’s performative persistence. There are straws she added when she was upset, straws bought on boring days, straws glued after wonderful moments. The collection of ever growing straws reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Chogyam Trungpa:
Hope and fear cannot alter the season.
When I think of this quote it reminds me that there are times of grief, success, and stagnation and that the gamut of human expectation can only deviate from the season of the present moment. When I envision Rachel adding a bright lime green straw onto an opaque magenta straw I see her living in the present moment; without hope or fear, with some kind of zen like quality that comes in the most trivial and boring acts of the day. So, what better representation of vanitas, of the frailty of human existence than a plastic straw pinata hanging amongst portraits of Jesus?
You can visit Rachel’s website here.
You can visit her blog here.
Rachel Hecker lives in Houston and teaches painting and sometimes gives life advice at the University of Houston’s art department.
A special thank you to Rachel not only for allowing me to have a studio visit but also for her amazing support and presence during the three years I was working toward my Master’s.
Rachel Hecker. She’s a badass meditating Hindu painting Jesus while smoking cigarettes.
Thanks for reading,
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