On Sunday, May 22nd, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is planning to open Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose, a retrospective of work featured in the widely-distributed artist-run publication. You can pick up a copy of Hi-Fructose in many a suburban Barnes & Noble; it’s not exactly an obscure, back-alley avante-garde smut zine. But that’s not stopping Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities Commission member Ben Loyola from attempting to declare an all-out 1980s-style Culture War over the exhibition.
At issue are a series of paintings by cheeseball “pop-surrealist” Mark Ryden, which, in an interview with local news outlet WAVY, Loyola describes as “very anti-Christian and anti-Catholic.” MOCA receives $120,000 in funding from the commission. In reference to Ryden’s painting “Fountain”, he’s remarked “She is holding the severed head, and blood is spraying up and showering her in blood. Is this what we are subsidizing at MOCA?” He’s also asking the Commonwealth Attorney to investigate whether or not the artwork in the show is deemed pornographic, because “There are paintings of nude portraits in all positions.” Yes, that’s a real concern an Arts and Humanities Commissioner has in 2016.
But Ryden’s painting “Rosie’s Tea Party” has drawn the most serious ire. The tableau is a childhood play on the Catholic eucharist ritual, with “Rosie” drinking Jesus-blood-wine and eating flesh: “Look at this, she’s got a saw in her hand cutting off a piece of ham with the words on the ham ‘Corpus Christi.’ That is Latin for body of Christ, and the ham is dropping down and eaten by rats.” Someone call Giuliani.
This predictable conservative overreaction to what is—in all honesty—a kind-of-terrible, troll-y painting wouldn’t be particularly newsworthy if the Catholic League hadn’t gotten involved. Even by the League’s typically insane standards, this open letter from President Bill Donohue to MOCA Director Debi Gray is far more shocking than anything Ryden has attempted:
Dear Ms. Gray:
Opening next week at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art is an exhibition that features a painting by Mark Ryden, “Rosie’s Tea Party.” It depicts a young girl in her First Communion dress, wearing a crucifix around her neck, cutting a piece of ham with the words “Corpus Christi” (Body of Christ) inscribed on it. There is a bottle of wine on the table with a picture of Jesus in it; nearby, there is a rabbit pouring a teapot with blood coming out of it.
When one of the commissioners on the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities Commission objected to this work, you defended it, saying, “Art is intended to be controversial.” Ryden defended his painting by saying, “I am really not poking fun at religion,” adding that “Someone ought to poke fun at those Christians, though.”
I have a suggestion. Why not substitute a young Muslim girl in a hijab, wearing a machete around her neck, cutting a piece of ham with the words, “Allahu Akbar” inscribed on it. In place of Jesus in the wine bottle, display a picture of Muhammad. And yes, please keep the blood.
When Muslims complain, tell them that “Art is intended to be controversial,” and “Someone ought to poke fun at those Muslims anyway.”
Please be sure to let me know the outcome.
Here’s an idea: Why doesn’t Bill Donohue make that painting? We’ll gladly follow up on the outcome.