By Leah Gallant
Much of your work draws on Catholic imagery and references. How does your faith drive your work? How do you see your work in relationship to canonical Western Christian art?
I first started dealing with spiritual and religious themes—and therefore also Christian themes—a couple of years ago. I had a realization that I think a lot of artists—Albert Herbert comes to mind—who deal with those sorts of themes had at some point in their lives, which is that I am a religious person. It’s part of my identity, it’s just a certain quality that I have, and I wanted to make art that was true to that quality. That’s when I made the self-portrait piece, ‘Night Call to Samuel,’ which is about that realization, and also about vocation in general. However, just because I’m making work that draws on this long history of Christian art doesn’t mean that I want to just engage with the West. Especially since I am a Catholic, which is the universal church that’s spread across the globe, I think that element of my religion will lend itself to making work that could be appreciated by a number of different cultures. One role model that I could look to is the Estonian Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt. The New York Times recently praised his music’s quality of an almost universal spiritualism that still did not deny his own specific religion.
Liam Cawley, Night Call to Samuel
A lot of art in the canon was produced under a very specific relationship between artists and the church. What are your thoughts on being an artist, and a Catholic, and a Catholic artist in 2015, when there’s a very different relationship between the Church and the state, as well as between artists and benefactors of contemporary art?
It certainly makes the art world more diverse, which I think is a good thing. However, I think there’s a perceived rift between art and the church. The late St. John Paul II wrote about this in his 1999 letter to artists, in which he emphasizes his desire for the church and the arts to have a relationship again where the church valued contemporary artists and contemporary artists considered the church in a more serious way than how a lot of people today do. This is also similar to a sentiment that Neo-Marxist sociologist Jürgen Habermas has put forth in his theory on a post-secular society, which is that the project of secularism, which is a mainly European project, and is based in Enlightenment values that believes that reason will overtake religion, has not succeeded, and this can be seen in the Eurocentric nature of that claim, where in global society religion still plays a very important role for most people across the globe. So Jürgen Habermas and Pope John Paul II would have both wanted to see a society where religion has no institutionalized place perhaps in the secular square but is not silenced in the secular square. I think Jürgen Habermas said something along the lines of ‘to disclude religious voices in the public square is distinctly illiberal.’ And I think that extends to the art world in a sense. I don’t feel as though I’m being particularly excluded—I was given a place at this residency; I haven’t had a heck of a lot of opposition at Notre Dame (which probably isn’t very surprising). But I know that there is a trend, which I encountered first in James Elkins’ book, ‘On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art,’ against religious ideas in contemporary art. But there’s also a sociological trend and in some ways an artistic trend towards their consideration.
When I think of most of the contemporary artists or artworks that deal with Christian themes, I think of pieces like Chris Ofili’s ‘Black Madonna’—pieces that have a much more complicated and often critical perspective on Christianity.
The Black Madonna is a really complicated one. But I think a lot of the opposition to that piece was against the elephant dung present, which Ofili explained is a sort of sacred object in I think several African cultures, so in that regard would not be critical. However, what I always thought was more suspect about that piece were the collaged angels out of pornographic images, so it is definitely very complex. And I hope to be complex too. But I believe that complexity does not have to be a wholesale criticism of faith.
Who or what are some of your major influences?
In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, I’d also say that with my thesis, which dealt with ideas of apophatic theology, I was very influenced by the work of Bill Viola and his work with the writings of St. John of the Cross. I have also been influenced by philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, and I’ve drawn inspiration from the sparse yet continued lineage of artists who have dealt with spiritual and religious topics and themes to this day—anyone from Van Gogh, Rouault, and Chagall to Stephen de Staebler, Jeni Spota, and Makoto Fujimura.
Liam Cawley, Opus for an Apocalyptic Choir
One of the things I find most appealing about your work is its playfulness. ‘Night call to Samuel,’ for example, shows you startled, black coffee in hand, and your thesis, ‘Opus for an Apocalyptic Choir,’ is a triptych with twenty four noisemakers that randomly turn on. What role does humor play in your work?
I think it’s good to have some levity. I’ve never considered myself to really be dealing with humor in the same way that some artists do, as a primary theme. But the theme depicted in ‘Night Call to Samuel’ does reference a scene that I experienced many times in undergrad— staying up until 3am in the morning with a cup of black coffee and seeing things out of the corner of your eye in a state of sleep deprivation.
Liam Cawley, Memento Mori
‘Memento Mori,’ on the other hand, a 7.5 ft tall sculpture that viewers can walk inside to be reminded of the fleeting nature of life, has a much more solemn air. What were your intentions with that piece?
I wanted to experiment with ways that the viewer can associate themselves and interact with a three dimensional object that they couldn’t with a panting on a wall. So I think the idea that it would be placed relatively close to the wall so you could go between it and the wall and then sort of be engulfed or inside or forced to interact with it very closely came first, and then I made decisions on materials that I wanted to use, the interior side is covered in tar, which has an interesting texture, absorbs light in a very interesting way, and also has a very strong smell that would be emphasized by the forced proximity of the viewer. And once I had decided on the materials that I wanted to use and the idea of being enclosed in the space, that was when I started to think about themes of funerary embalment. In ancient Egypt they would cover the mummy in tar, and the piece is very coffin-shaped. I was also thinking about what tar is–it’s dead matter from pre-historic times.
What are you planning for your grotto-like installation space in the basement of the Commerce Center?
I would describe it as more catacomb-like—it’s very stony and subterranean but still clearly man-made, and has a number of Roman arches. I hope to convert this space into a sort of twenty-first century Roman catacomb to memorialize the twenty-first century martyrs, of which there are many, although I’m focusing on the Egyptian Copts who were killed by ISIS/ISOL in Syria last February.
Of the resident artists this summer, you’re one of two who grew up in South Bend. How has the growing local art scene shaped your own practice?
It’s made me really happy! It’s really edifying to see South Bend grow—not only in the art scene, but our music scene has been blossoming as well. Downtown is vibrant in a way it never was when I was a child. It was really great as a developing artist to have this dynamic environment that was between being a post-industrial rust belt town—I think it made it to some lists of the most dying cities in the nation – and being a more cultural location. I’ve heard stories about what South Bend was in the eighties, and I’m really glad to see the town that I grew up in moving towards a new vitality and a new cultural importance.
Photo Credit: Liam Cawley and Leah Gallant