Monday, February 20, 2012

Conversion Narratives

by Robert Boyd

As literary genres go, conversion narratives have it all. You get both the titillation of sin and the redemption that comes with conversion. For believers, this is as close as they can get to living in the twilight worlds of criminals and the demimonde. Cartoonist Eddie Campbell distilled the conversion narrative down to its essence in one panel from his masterpiece, Graffiti Kitchen.

Born Again
Eddie Campbell, panel from Graffitti Kitchen page 4, 1988-92

The first conversion narrative (and the first autobiography written in the West) was Confessions by St. Augustine. It set the form into place and autobiographical conversion narratives have remained popular ever since. If you've ever read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, you know the one of the best parts is the "Detroit Red" section, when Malcolm was drug-dealing, gambling, robbing and pimping.And then we get the prison-house conversion.

Conversion narratives can be written or spoken. But until this weekend, I had never seen one in form of a CV. That's how artist Forrest Prince (whose show The Truth Will Set You Free is on view at P.G. Contemporary) presents his. It starts off with his life of sin.
1947 Willingly molested for money [Prince was 12 at the time--St. Augustine was a little more forgiving of the sins he committed prior to the age of 14.]
1948 Drug abuser. Babysat for prostitutes.
[...]
1953-56 USMC. Honorable discharge. 2 weeks in brig for leaving post. Sex addict on speed.
[...]
1958 Pimp and blackmailer.
1959 Dance teacher, Fred Astaire Studio. Gigolo and whore.
1960 Attempted suicide. Overdosed on sleeping pills.
[...]
1964 Arrested for running a call-girl service. Charged with pandering. Dismissed.
Then the conversion comes. The interesting thing is that he started to do art before becoming born again, but the two are clearly intertwined.
1969 Please God, save me! Began doing art work.
1972 Charged with assault to murder and carrying a pistol. Convicted; $300.00 fine (a case of a paranoid speed freak protecting himself from real and imaginary enemies).
 Surrendered to God: off meat, off drugs, off sex. PRAISE GOD!
1973 Slipped: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Still seeking, started serving.
His work was noticed by James Harithas, who gave him a one-person show at the CAMH in 1976. In some ways, his CV becomes more normal here, as he lists the exhibits he has had. But not completely normal.
1985 Larry Pfeffer Grant, $7,500. PRAISE GOD!
[...]
1992 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, commission for a sculpture from Allison Greene. She wanted a large mirrored heart with "love" embedded in it. The deal fell through when the donor backed out, saying I wanted too much and since the Museum was not about to spend their cash on me, it was all over. But, Praise God! Bill Hill came by and snapped it right up. 
Prince also lists every time he was rejected for Lawndale's Big Show (2001, 2002, 2005, 2010).

Without Prince's conversion narrative, his work would seem pretty strange. It still seems pretty strange, but at least there is an explanation. When you look at a piece like Today's Lesson, you understand that it is the work of a highly religious convert.

Today's Lesson
Forrest Prince, Today's Lesson, blackboard, chalk, eraser, defense of animals bumper sticker, 37 x 49 x 2.25 inches, 1993

This is barely a piece of art--it's a sermon hectoring you to change the way you live.

The Money Changers Are Still in the Temples
Forrest Prince, The Money Changers Are Still In the Temples or Born Again My Ass, found objects, wood, acrylic, 22 x 15 x 5.75 inches, 2009

But Prince's Christianity is neither orthodox nor conventional. We live in a time when its hard to imagine a politically liberal form of Christianity because the Evangelical right has asserted itself so strongly that it (and fellow religious conservatives outside the evangelical movement) are the only kinds of Christianity that exist in media representations and popular culture. But Prince makes pieces like The Money Changers Are Still In the Temples or Born Again My Ass which criticizes Southern Methodist University for their association with George W. Bush.

The Money Changers Are Still in the Temples detail
Forrest Prince, The Money Changers Are Still In the Temples or Born Again My Ass detail, found objects, wood, acrylic, 22 x 15 x 5.75 inches, 2009

The Money Changers Are Still in the Temples detail
Forrest Prince, The Money Changers Are Still In the Temples or Born Again My Ass detail, found objects, wood, acrylic, 22 x 15 x 5.75 inches, 2009

His grievances aren't always religious. It's Time to Put Away Childish Things criticizes the MFAH, possibly for their baseball exhibit from 2005.  The title refers to First Corinthians 13:11: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." I interpret it as an attack on the MFAH for putting on a shallow, crowd-pleasing show that has nothing to do with art. But it may be that he sees the MFAH as a childish organization.

It's Time to Put Away Childish Things
Forrest Prince, It's Time to Put Away Childish Things, mixed media, 16 x 12 x 6 inches, 2012

It's Time to Put Away Childish Things detail
Forrest Prince, It's Time to Put Away Childish Things detail, mixed media, 16 x 12 x 6 inches, 2012

It also seems that Prince carries a grudge--after all, he includes his unsuccessful commission for the MFAH in his CV. And he remembers every time Lawndale rejected him. (Perhaps Prince needs to meditate on Matthew 5:39.)

Occupy Love
Forrest Prince, Occupy Love, neon lights, mirror, 23 x 30 x 3.5 inches, 2011

Prince's political stance, which is always informed by his religious belief, is all over this show. Hence Occupy Love. Hence a piece exhorting the viewer to boycott Exxon-Mobil and BP. It's interesting and refreshing to see a Christian artist to take a left-wing stance in this present age, but Prince's work has some of the same weaknesses I see in much contemporary Christian art (as well as in much contemporary left-wing political art)--it's too preachy. I guess that goes with the territory. In the end, the story of Prince's conversion is more powerful than the artworks on display here.


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