Monday, April 13, 2009

San Diego hosts the Wast Supper

It’s the sort of in-your-face challenge to our orthodox religious perceptions that was just begging for an obligatorily outraged reaction from conservatives and the religious right. And you do have to wonder: What would Jesus say?

Easter Sunday apparently came and went without incident in the Old Town district of San Diego, where the Chuck Jones Gallery, one of the local art galleries, has since mid-March drawn more than casual glances at a painting that’s a parody of Leonardo da Vinci's “The Last Supper.” And guess who does the honors.

In the convincingly rendered tableau by Texas artist Glen Tarnowski, Bugs Bunny stands in for Our Lord & Saviour, accompanied by the Looney Tunes galaxy of characters. Elmer Fudd, Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig — they’re all here, subbing for the disciples. All at once it makes sense that the painting, named “The Gathering,” would show up at a gallery named for Chuck Jones, the legendary Warner Bros. animator — a gallery that’s part of a California-based chain of art galleries featuring Jones’ work.

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The reaction, if you go by one press account, has been robust but not turbulent. Diane Bell of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported April 2 that, after some criticism of the painting, the gallery decided to add a biography of Tarnowski, explaining his artistic intent, and documenting the personal narrative of life as both a Christian and an alumnus of California Lutheran University.

Craig Kausen, the gallery chain's CEO and Jones’ grandson, told the Union-Tribune he’d gone so far as to consult a local priest who said he wasn’t upset by the idea, even though he hadn't seen the artwork. “There is nothing irreverent about it whatsoever,” Kausen said.

Which just can’t be true. At its core, “The Gathering” is nothing but irreverent — it’s necessarily irreverent given the cast of characters it contains. Irreverence is what the stars of Looney Tunes do, and do very well. Tarnowski knew this from brush stroke one.

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But let’s be real; there’s nothing new about this kind of animal anthropomorphism in the culture. Someone’s making a fortune right now on oil paintings of dogs playing poker. From Tony the Tiger to the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, we’ve gotten used to animals selling us things.

Matters of faith are something else again. The emotional tripwire of how the principals of the Christian faith are depicted in our society would seem to be the threshold for a call to arms, the line one dare not cross. But with the agenda of the religious right declining in favor with the American public, and as a baseline of greater social interaction seems to be taking hold, the door’s open for a tolerance we haven’t seen before. And it's open more than a crack: this is hardly the first Last Supper parody in recent years. With Jesus surrogates from Ronald McDonald to Marilyn Monroe, we've been here before.

There’s always been a thin line between the secular religion of commerce and the ecclesiastical religion of religion. That line, like the one that’s blurring distinctions between news and advertising in a bad economy, is drawn in an increasingly shifting sand.

So in all likelihood, the big deal in Old Town blows over quietly (unless someone steps up and pays the $20,000 asking price, or talk radio Doberman Rush Limbaugh has something to say) and nothing untoward happens. No noisy protests. No threatening 4 a.m. phone calls. There’s simply too much else going on that needs fixing. Move on, people. Nothing to see here.

That’s all, folks.
Image credit: “The Gathering”: Chuck Jones Gallery. © 2009 Glen Tarnowski of Katy, Texas. Sesame Street Last Supper: Via Stray Thoughts & Ruminations; click the link above.

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