Finding the Transcendent in “Ugly Art”

by Sarah Bernhardt

CEREMONY, Matt Zorn, ceramic, glaze, 10” x 17” x 4”, 2020 

You’ve arrived at the door of 3636 Texas Ave. in St. Louis Missouri to take in the exhibition Ritual at the Intersect Arts Center. If you’ve come here looking for beauty at first glance you will find it. And you won’t. There are some compositions that catch the eye with an immediate pleasing satisfaction. Some painstakingly detailed drawings in the back corner, some intricately stitched fiber works, perfectly crafted lithographic prints, a strand of 1000 freshwater pearls. But there are also 12 photographs of a toilet bowl with a fresh stream of urine, ashtrays full of cigarette butts, bingo balls twirling in a dingy, damp mid-century basement, a pitchfork with rusty tines, and a crusty mass of paint and chicken bones and charred feathers.  The show is a sweeping and inclusive exploration of contemporary interpretations of the things, places, objects, practices that are part of rituals across time, place, and culture. Rituals of history, rituals of daily life, spiritual rituals, and rituals of the imagination. 

MEZQUITA DEL CRISTO DE LA LUZ, Jason Guynes, graphite on panel, 11” x 14”, 2017
BROKEN TOOLS STILL SPEAK AND STILL SERVE, Anne Bouie, mixed media, 12” x 7” x 3”, 2020
HALO 2: THE REVEALING, WYJ Collective, photography, 36” x 33”, 2018

As you enter the gallery, one of the first installations you encounter is a wall filled with prints of a dinner table— a table set for 10 that repeats and repeats and repeats, echoing that daily ritual of sitting down to eat. The gathering takes on various arrangements as the participants come and go. While the configuration changes slightly each time, the objects and the event of eating dinner endures. Artist Andrew DeCaen included this quote by art critic Peter Schjeldhal with his artwork:

“Eating, when we do it consciously, feels as serious, and even sacramental, as if our lives depended on it—which happens to be the case.” 

Peter Schjeldhal

From the sacred to the mundane, this quote encapsulates the range of rituals explored in the exhibition. Rituals feel superfluous in many ways. They are not necessarily necessary. You can eat lunch without ceremony, and it will still nourish your body. But the rituals around eating, for example, can transform a food experience into a transcendent awareness of life and sustenance— and in the church, even the promise of eternal life.  

GATHER I – V, Andrew DeCaen, lithograph, 11” x 15” x 0” each, 2018

Rituals can be practiced with a high degree of intentionality, or they may be absorbed into daily life by rote, carried on from the traditions of past generations.  You may have rituals so ingrained in you from birth that you hardly recognize them as separate from your DNA. You may have developed new rituals during this time of Covid.  You may love your rituals, you may loathe some of your rituals, you may roll your eyes at some forms of ritualization by others.

These things that we do, these rituals, with ceremony and with repetition, are not just habits.  Rituals are the embellishment of necessity, the soul of why we do what we do. They are the distillation of a universe of intricate and expansive ideas often surpassing comprehension into a tangible, enactable structure of gestures, words, and objects. They not only nourish our bodies but are necessary to nourish our minds and our souls.  Our thriving does depend on them, whether we are conscious of it or not. If that’s not some sort of transcendence, I don’t know what is. The artworks in this exhibition demonstrate the transcendent power of making, and of the made object. These artworks transform the simplest of gestures, the plainest of objects, into an experience of wonder or deep spiritual significance of grounding daily gratitude, or ways of lamenting the unspeakable pain of our broken world. 

TABLE, Jeff Wunrow, silk dupioni appliquéd in rayon, overlaid with Ultrasuede and polyester thread, 33” x 24”, 2021
OUR LADY OF THE SNOWS, Curt Lund, sculpture, found and collected objects, 40” x 24” x 24”, 2020

The history of the words “rites and rituals” points to a sense of propriety, prescriptiveness, or even correctness, which may feel a bit rigid, archaic, or even intolerant in this post-post-modern moment. Or perhaps, as we cling to rituals, those are the very qualities we subconsciously desire.  As a curator, I explicitly invited viewers to explore this breadth of artworks with an open heart, tenderly and curiously listening to how and why other people do what they do in the way that they do it, even when they find it at odds with their own beliefs.  As artists, many of us have cultivated a posture of openness, but you no doubt identify with some pieces and not with others. You may feel strong reactions or no reaction at all. You may understand or feel confused. You will undoubtedly find pieces with which you agree, and those with which you disagree. You may find some works filled with transcendent beauty, and others with grotesque ugliness.  James Smith, writer, theologian, and philosopher shares a compelling reminder of the effort it requires to experience art in a meaningful way, “A life hungry for aesthetic surprise does not settle for daily doses of predictably poignant comfort; instead, I need to expose my palate to strange, maybe even unsavory tastes as a way of making myself available for the sublime. While we can’t manufacture the surprise, we can learn to make ourselves available.

Because the significance of rituals is built over time—months, years, lifetimes—it is difficult in one pass through an art gallery or one 800 word essay to empathize with a ritual foreign to your own sensibilities. However, bringing your own interpretations to artwork can offer a unique communion with the ‘other.’  Smith writes, “…Rather than being embarrassed about this subjectivity, we should own and celebrate that an artwork finds its end, even its completion, in our subjective experience…. The affecting encounter is a crystallization of possibilities built up over time, and only possible because of the unique history I bring to the work of art here, now.” 

HABITUAL DETRITUS, Aaron Wilder, 8 framed prints of digital collage, 32” x 90”, 2017  

And this, my friends, is an even deeper essence of transcendence. This posture of listening outside of our own experience, of looking at art that we do not find beautiful, of listening to the lament and trauma, the grotesque and absurd, that is the Christ-like transcendence that art offers us. Art allows us to transcend our own “incurvatus se” our own self centered worldview, our own sin, and see, through paint and clay and fiber and graphite, an empathetic connection with one we might consider our aesthetic enemy, but perhaps after seeing their artwork with an open heart transformed by the Spirit, we can be closer to loving as our neighbor.


Sarah Bernhardt is a St. Louis based artist, community activist, and adjunct professor at St. Louis University. She founded and directs Intersect Arts Center, a place of belonging for creativity and community. Intersect houses a gallery, community maker spaces, educational programs, and private studios for artists with a mission of nurturing relationships between people with diverse backgrounds and increasing accessibility to the arts.

Instagram: @srbernhardt

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