Exchanges between the Washington University and Saint Louis University communities are relatively common. Most Wash. U. students know people who attend SLU or have visited the campus in the past. There are several aspects of SLU, however, that remain either unknown or relatively obscure to us. SLU’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MoCRA) is an excellent example of this. Housed in a large single-room building on campus, MoCRA showcases modern spiritual art from a variety of artists. The current exhibition, Cosmic Tears (on view until Dec. 13), perfectly exemplifies the style of art MoCRA normally displays. Produced by Michael Byron, a professor of painting at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, the exhibit consists of “mixed media on paper” pieces, which have a clear transcendent and spiritual influence.
The various works are usually titled “Cosmic Tears” followed by a number, and were painted between 2003 and 2004. There are two exceptions: a triptych, called “Cosmic Tears [A, B and C],” which was created in 2009, and an individual artwork painted in 2003, possibly the first piece in the series. Fairly large, the piece stands alone on a wall in the middle of the room. The background is very dark and there are yellow-outlined indentations on the surface. There are also several slightly raised reliefs scattered across the work, giving the painting the appearance of reaching into the third dimension. All of this contributes to the illusion that one is looking at a surface covered in drops of rainwater.
The triptych, fashioned five years after the rest of the series, was developed after Byron learned that MoCRA was going to showcase his work. The pieces are labeled “A,” “B” and “C” but are placed out of order. They hang on the wall behind “Cosmic Tears” and, like the other paintings, are the sole elements on their wall. The two works on the ends of the triptych are darker, reminiscent of the original Cosmic Tears. The piece between them is only dark in the middle, with multicolored edges. The two artworks on the outside flank the inner piece, giving it a sense of frame. They lack a defined mounting, so this effect is easily observable.
On Sunday, Nov. 15 at 2 p.m., Byron gave a lecture regarding his work and the inspiration and theory behind it. He talked about several topics, including Kandinsky and Rothko, two significant 19th-20th century painters. One of his main points was his relationship to and motivation behind the Cosmic Tears series. When he finished the first cycle of the work, he felt that it was completed. However, when he learned it was to be exhibited at MoCRA, Byron began to feel that he could perhaps create more in the sequence, depending on the nature of the exhibition gallery.
The abstractness of Byron’s work is certainly spiritual. By its very nature, one must strive to find a deeper meaning or motivation within work that has no obvious concrete significance or message. The numerous Cosmic Tears paintings throughout MoCRA force the viewer to confront his or her own psychological and spiritual feelings. While not overtly religious, the paintings do evoke a sense of tranquility.
A short statement is painted on the wall of the exhibit, a sort of subtitle. It reads, in part, “Each tear contained all the joy, pain, and sorrow each person’s life would hold…Our task is to shape that tear into Meaning.” Byron’s art allows the viewer to attempt to create meaning out of the abstractness of his Cosmic Tears. At least for me, it serves as a metaphor for the tumultuous nature of spirituality.