Few contemporary LDS fine artists have enjoyed the popularity, influence, and prestige of J. Kirk Richards. His time in Rome alone was a vector through which 20th-century Italian Expressionism continues to shape Mormon aesthetic expectations for spiritual art. Rendering well-worn religious and Christian (though, notably, not distinctly Mormon) subjects in an unconventional visual idiom, Kirk has dramatically reformed and extended the traditionally narrow boundaries of what counts as devotional art in Mormondom.
If the formula of traditional content + unorthodox form has justifiably earned Kirk the reputation as an innovative but spiritually anodyne artist, his more recent departures from that formula have not been without controversy. His 2015 painting “Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge” garnered extensive media coverage, including critical pushback from both the right and the left. The painting’s break from formula was less about composition than content. And while humanity’s primordial Mother is not an unconventional subject—even a dignified and confident Eve partaking of the fruit in an act of radical agency and foreknowledge—depicting her as a bald, nude, black woman is an act of representational defiance. In many ways this Eve is still distinctly Mormon and unambiguously a Richards work, yet the ground here begins to shift.
New Colors marks more than just the literal incorporation of new pigments into the artist’s pallet. Here he explores fundamentally new aesthetic territory, both channeling and revering at a distance the giants of early 20th-century Modernism. The work is substantially (though not exclusively) less religious and more visually challenging. Yet one strongly senses something familiar in the work, despite the break from expectation: Kirk’s work still feels and reads Mormon. This impression covers the range of media and subjects presented—from nude figures to sketch-work to found-object sculptures to airplanes. Two works in particular provide an entry point for understanding the intuitive felicity with which Richards combines, both formally and thematically, the visual conventions of Modernism with the leitmotifs of Mormon life.
Contained and enframed by an immense maternal belly, six child-like figures form a flowing and dynamic circle. Each plays an instrument, and the impression is that the music propels the circle in vivid motion, investing it with a momentum that adds weight to the exaggerated encumbrance of the pregnant body, borne with dignity and strength and tenderness by a graceful back and the massive legs of the colossal maternal figure. “Joie de Vivre” draws its title from Picasso, but the visual composition hints strongly at Matisse (“Dance”) and Klimt (“Hope I”). The color pallet is aggressively non-realist, allowing for essentially unconstrained compositional play. The pink which predominates conveys feminine power rather than submission (there is no paternal figure present). Yet the work is unambiguously Mormon, not just in its veneration for maternity but in its connecting of Joy to posterity. Is there anything more Mormon than a “family band”?
A many-eyed monster in the form of an enormous bull seems to dominate the frame. He is aggressive and imposing, strangely carnivorous, with a threatening phallus and an all-eyeful visage. Opposite him stands a lone female figure, face in profile, rendered in an almost hieroglyphic posture. With her extended hand she stops the bull. Working chiefly in a pallet of black, grey, and white, the bull here cannot help but recall Picasso’s “Guernica,” in its outraged portrayal of wartime atrocity and the sacrifice of innocents on the altar of unrestrained masculinity. The only apparent connection to any recognizably Mormon visual iconography here is to Richards’ aforementioned rendering of Eve. The resemblance is strong and unmistakable. In “Woman Stops The Bull” it is not just any woman who stands up to the toxic, menacing masculinity of the monster; it might be Eve in the primordial sense, but it is also Eve in the “Every-woman” sense. One subtext here could be the unusual position of Mormons on the strange political landscape of the 2016 presidential election. But another subtext is most certainly the intensifying cultural pressure within Mormonism surrounding sexual identity politics and its impact on innocents, particularly children. In the Book of Abraham’s “Facsimile No. 1” a wicked priest is sacrificing his child. In the same book’s “Facsimile No. 2” an Egyptian God is described as a rutting bull.
In media landscape where Ieshia Evans standing serenely against Baton Rouge police in riot gear has emerged as an almost transcendently iconic image of agency in the face of oppression, who will cause the priestly incumbents to see the innocents their martial campaign threatens to trample?