NORTH ADAMS — In her first U.S. solo museum show, London-based painter Rachel Howard brings her Paintings of Violence (Why I am not a mere Christian) to MASS MoCA for its U.S. premiere. In Paintings of Violence, Howard addresses not “a bacchanalian violence, but the steady calm hand of violence on a greater scale.” The canvases in her exhibition do not so much depict violent acts as function as evidence of such actions, with deep visceral crimson oil paint dragged down a shocking pink ground. The installation, which consists of ten paintings and a single sculpture, will be on view at MASS MoCA beginning February 17, 2018, with a members’ reception on March 24.
“In real life people are cruel for one of two reasons — either because they are sadists…or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it — money, or power, or safety. But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things. … Wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.” – C.S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity
“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear… fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.” – Bertrand Russell, from “Why I Am Not a Christian”
Howard has long engaged with human cruelty in her practice—“When I paint about human cruelty it’s about getting things off my chest,” she says—including in the series Repetition is Truth – Via Dolorosa (2005 – 2009) and Suicide Paintings (2007). She is deeply influenced by art history and literature: in the case of Paintings of Violence (Why I am not a mere Christian), the work’s title references both C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian,” texts which argue respectively for and against adherence to Christianity. Lewis wrote that Christianity is the pursuit of a life at one with God and the rest of existence—a “good” life. He characterized Christianity as a “fighting religion” which believes itself to be in the midst of a “civil war” between God and “the rebels.”
According to Lewis, we are not absolutely good—that is, at one with God—and therefore God is “the only comfort.” He is also, according to Lewis’ formulation, “the supreme terror.” Russell meanwhile argued that a mutual basis in fear intimately links cruelty and religion, characterizing Christianity’s belief “that hell-fire is a punishment for sin” as “a doctrine of cruelty” responsible for centuries of violence: “the more intense has been the religion of any period,” Russell wrote, “the greater has been the cruelty.” For Russell, the best response to the “terror” of the world is to “conquer” it with “knowledge, kindliness, and courage.” Howard has described her own position as “squeezed somewhere in between” Lewis and Russell.
Paintings of Violence is the result of five years of slow, methodical work. The deliberate pace and precision of Howard’s process parallel the particular type of violence that this installation engages, which Howard has described as “maximum damage, planned and calmly carried out.” This “controlled violence” recalls holy wars and crusades, forced conversions, and shock and awe tactics. The kind of violence implicit in Howard’s paintings is not only outward-focused, but also directed towards oneself: the canvases mirror Howard’s own height and wingspan, approximately 66 inches in each direction.
Each canvas began with a grounding field of fluorescent pink, down which Howard methodically dragged strips of deep Alizarin Crimson oil paint, using a T-square to shape the precise edges. The durational relationship between Howard’s body and the canvases—a repetition of the same set of movements over the course of years—evokes the ritualized action of self-flagellation. The white towels that Howard used to wipe the excess paint from the T-square are folded neatly and stacked on a rough wooden plinth, each crusted with the colors of recently spilled blood, as though used to clean up the scene of an accident or violent crime. Together, the paintings and cloths ricochet between abstraction and performance, suggesting a violence whose vast scope hovers at the edge of imagination.