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Crucified on the Undergound

28 March 2014

Nicholas Cranfield on a church and Tube exhibition in London

Responses to the Stations of the Cross: Antony Micallef's Kill Your Idol, 2014

Responses to the Stations of the Cross: Antony Micallef's Kill Your Idol, 2014

CHRISTIANITY arguably began as an underground movement. Now a London parish church has taken the Christian message of Good Friday on to the Underground. Ben Moore, himself an artist, who has signed off on one of the paintings, which has been painted after his design, has invited a range of artists to display work that responds to the tradition of the road to Calvary.

These pictures and sculptures are now installed impressively around Thomas Hardwicke's 1813-17 Church of St Marylebone until Maundy Thursday. It is intended that some are reproduced on billboards at 14 Tube stations that have religious names, although London Transport has nerves about the confrontational aspect of some of the images.

Charing Cross, Temple, St John's Wood, Angel, and Marylebone are among the stations that are part of this modernist pilgrimage route. Simple as the idea is, this is sheer genius, and should give pause for thought, or more.

The exhibition has appropriated the iconic sign of the bar and circle which has, since 1908, in one form or another, announced the London Underground. Here, the blue cross bar in the red circle has been extended into the form of a cross. I can almost hear the howls of anger from secularists that a quasi-national symbol has been perverted into a Christian one, or that innocent travellers are being exposed to the violence of the Christian message.

Moore has made a judicious choice of British artists as diverse as Matt Collishaw, Paul Fryer, and Wolfe von Lenkiewicz. Sculptures, large and diminutive, jostle with paintings, a video, and chalk graphics.

St Marylebone is a conventional late-Georgian church, significant for its scale rather than its detail. It is the sort of church where pews are marked off for "PCC Secretary", "Crown Sidesmen", and "Church Warden Emeritus".

Into this untroubled space Moore has invited an impressive roster of contemporary artists to reflect on the mystery of the death and Passion of Christ. As with any group show, the works themselves are of uneven quality, and the space makes demands of the installation which do not allow all the works to be seen to their best advantage. But this is an impressive and clever show.

As you enter the church from the busy thoroughfare, the first interpolated work that grabs the attention is the massive hands of the Crucified. These large-scale drawings by the Argentine artist Ricardo Cinalli hang from the gallery at the head of the nave and welcome us. In between them, on the floor of the choir, is a large wooden cross pasted over with greenbacks, as Americans used to call their worthless dollars, while in the 1884 apse is a large graphic by von Lenkiewicz, who has reconfigured a well-known composition of Nicolas Poussin.

As I wandered through the show as it was being installed by Cadogan Tate Fine Art, a passer-by came up to me, mistaking me for the Rector, and asked whether this work had always been there. It certainly looks as if it has. It is the size of a drawing-room wall, as it quite covers the reredos.

In front of it in the sanctuary is set the most surprising sculpture (Paul Fryer), in which a black man is shown seated in a gilded chair. Hewn in a conventional way to resemble the Man of Sorrows, the figure has a real presence about it. But the throne is an electric chair. Little wonder that the neighbours are disturbed. So, too, were Pontius Pilate and his tribunal, as captured elsewhere by Antony Micallef inKill Your Idol, on the First Station.

Benjamin West's 1818 heritage painting of Christ's nativity hangs over the holy table in the chapel of the Holy Family, and I hope that no Chancellor would ever allow a faculty for it to be sold. The chapel itself is filled with a life-size sculpture of Christ carrying the cross. The shock that follows comes from realising that the man carrying the cross is in fact a skeleton, crowned with thorns, as unorthodox as it is absorbing. It would be a narrow reading of the work to take the church to task for displaying an image denying the resurrection when it is no more than an attempt to grapple with what it means to allow God to die.

On the back wall, alone, there is a cross composed of two vintage rosewood spirit-levels made by the firm of Elliott Lucas in Cannock, a block-mounted glass box containing 

two silver nails, and an oleograph of Christ with the crown of thorns deliberately hanging out of kilter (Nancy Fouts), and one of Matt Collishaw's high-resolution photographs (this of a still life).

Perhaps the most affecting piece in this broad show is one that hints at the possibility of resurrection; inside a bell jar, a dead chick is suspended from a red, egg-shaped balloon. In the Orthodox tradition, St Mary Magdalene is associated with red eggs and so the piece speaks of John 20 and the encounter in the garden on the first Easter morning.

The work has been installed next to the font on a small Georgian oval hall table which was given to the church in 1966 in memory of a woman who was married in the church earlier that year and who died, aged 25, in the first months of her marriage. True resurrection, then, remains the hope for us all, artist and non-artist alike.

"Stations of the Cross" is at St Marylebone Parish Church, Marylebone Road, London NW1, until 17 April, and various Underground stations.


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