Entering Holly Moe’s installation Good News is a commitment on the part of both the artist and the viewer. The central arch that opens into the space is composed of two symmetrically arranged series of ocean waves, washing up almost to the ceiling and parting gracefully to allow for safe passage. In its assertive physicality, its odd material make-up, and its loaded symbolic potential, this monumental entryway is an apt introduction to Moe’s project. The towering waves cascade in elegant Hokusai-like patterns and yearn to envelop the viewer, but they are not made of real liquid or even a shimmering reference to it. The waves are large-scale, two-dimensional collage drawings made of pieces of carpet, the wall-to-wall plush kind with which we have been domestically familiar since the 1950s. And Hokusai is only a secondary reference, for Moe means for the towering wall of carpet to represent not just any beach scene, but rather the parting of the Red Sea, a biblical story from Exodus detailing the miracle that saved Moses and his followers from certain death.
Moe has worked with these elements before but never in such an expansive, museum-like scale. Born in Wisconsin, schooled at UCLA and then earning an MFA from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Moe has settled in Bandera, Texas and has pursued various symbolic systems in unusual materials in an effort to unsettle contemporary mythologies. Investigating motifs from vocabularies as disparate as Greek myths and mail-order advertisements, Moe mines the familiar, urging the viewer to realize the assumptions brought to art. She develops an elaborate craft through her experimentation with carpet, cutting it into exacting shapes and incising lines with gunpowder and fire. Generally, the carpet is a neutral buffer used to make the cold floor more comforting, serving as insulation between the harsh reality of the ground and our tender, particular toes. Moe animates the carpet to become more assertive, so that in losing its passivity it makes the viewer more aware of its useful presence. And unlike the consumable aesthetic niceties of a Navajo rug or an Indian killim, Moe’s carpets demand recognition.
With Good News, the artist employs the same comforting materials but offers a different set of symbolic icons. Upon passing through the parted waves, it becomes quickly apparent that Moe successfully consummates the set-up of her introduction throughout a series of wall hangings, sculptural elements, and opportunities for participatory interaction. Like The Parting of the Red Sea, each element refers directly to a Biblical verse or symbol, and each is expertly made of collaged wall-to-wall carpet. Good News directly references the artist’s specific experience of conversion to Christianity and her wish to share her experience with the viewer of contemporary art. The installation surrounds the viewer with Christian symbols, like a simple garden in which to consider the gifts of life. There are praying hands above a wall equipped with pens used to write personal entreaties while kneeling on cushions. The Holy Ghost hovers on one wall near a descending dove, smaller birds, colorful lilies and a Tree of Life. The central floor-piece is given over to a book-shaped collage that alludes to the fruits of the spirit and the power of the word recorded in the Bible. At the opening ceremonies of the exhibition, Moe wanted to make physical her symbolic beliefs in a live, performative manner. A long horn, a shofar, was blown in the tradition of the Jews of the Old Testament, calling people to worship. The artist offered to wash the feet of visitors in a stage-set like fountain at the rear of the installation and to say a personal prayer that she believed would make a difference in the visitor’s life.
Moe’s Good News is very much within the historical tradition of artists making religious art, from the stained-glass depictions in medieval churches, to Giotto’s Passion Cycle of the Life of Jesus, to the attempts at transcendence by the post-painterly abstractionists. But unlike the familiar Catholic imagery, in its Roman heritage or filtered through the Latin American tradition, the non-denominational, “Born-Again” Christian faith does not readily conjure up a set of stock images familiar to the art world. Holly Moe has created her own imagery and method of presentation in order to offer her very personal experience in the contemporary world. (This installation is not dissimilar to New Yorker Archy Rand’s paintings illustrating stories of the Jewish Torah, which similarly challenge both the art world and religious traditions.) Her renditions of the praying hands, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the fruits spread over the pages of the Bible are reminiscent of a stylized representationalism popularized in the 1960s after Vatican II and American churches tried to become more relevant to congregations listening to rock-n-roll and watching situation comedies on television. The large, collaged felt banners easily depict abstracted inspirational forms and slogans. Moe’s adaptation of this soothing style seems to be aligned with her openness and her hope to reach a large number of people with her message, drawing on an experience common to a certain generation of Americans who may have lost the urgency of faith.
Moe’s Good News radically stretches the limits of the function of art in the context of today’s art-making habits. Certain types of politicized art are often instructive, didactic even, in the service of a certain definable cause. But Moe has upped the ante, actively proselytizing her viewers to accept Jesus Christ as Savior. She has taken the secular space of the art gallery and its core belief—the transformative ability of art to provide new experiences and different ways of thinking—and re-introduced blatant religious imagery. Solidly based on an age-old tradition, Moe’s site for religious conversion pushes the limits of the contemporary art site, which has rarely been challenged by an overt evangelical religion. This transgression of one righteous position inserting itself into another context of righteousness is the most disturbingly challenging—and the most compelling—aspect of Moe’s Good News.
Kathryn Hixson is the editor of The New Art Examiner and is based in Chicago, IL.