Gospel according to Sean Oswald

Artist brings contemporary, religious imagery to Oxford Arts Center

By Emma Jarman

I don’t believe in God. My father took me to an Episcopalian church as a child, and my mother and stepfather dragged me to their Methodist congregation throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, but similar to my relationship with mushrooms or shellfish (I kept trying, really wanted to like them), religion just never took. I know little of the Bible, though I appreciate it, and reading it cover-to ]-cover is on my bucket list. I do, however, love art and the experience of communication that transcends words and rhetoric.

My grandmother has been a believer all her life. She has read and continues to read the Holy Bible, attends church every Sunday and more, lives her life according to scripture and prays to a big guy in the sky she truly believes in. She has family photos hanging in her home, not contemporary works of art or anything that doesn’t accent the Laura Ashley/Thomas Kinkade theme of the sitting room.

The Sean Oswald version of the Gospel of St. Luke caters to both of us.

“I really do think my audience is somewhere in between the art world and the non art world,” says Sean Oswald, the artist who created and self-curated the Gospel of St. Luke exhibition hanging on the walls of the Oxford Community Arts Center in Oxford, Ohio. “I want to be communicating to both. I want to be communicating to people who are sincerely religious, and I want to be challenging to them. But then also I think I’m trying to communicate to the contemporary art audience.”

Oswald’s art is not as black and white as the charcoal and paper with which it was created. Race, religion and politics are oft thought to be stark issues with little room for interpretation or comingling. However, Oswald believes people do not exist solely in those spaces. Oswald himself rides the median between the worlds of contemporary art and religion. Out of school, he entered the ministry, but he eventually left his work as a pastor to go to art school. The way he felt misunderstood by his peers in art school is an issue he hopes the St. Luke exhibit can help bridge.

“I want to complicate things. Open up the dialogue,” he says. “It [the separation between religious audiences and contemporary artists] feels very much like a political divide. You’re either liberal or you’re Republican and there’s nothing [else]. But people are not that way. I think a lot of people who I talk to perceive it that way when it’s really not, and I don’t want there to be so much fear around these things. I want people to be able to engage with these things. And I want to without fear.”

Oswald’s The Gospel of St. Luke is four drawings housed in cardboard reliquaries, hung on four white walls. It is inspired by the works of artists including Andrea del Verrocchio and Piero della Francesca, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” and the ideas of combining contemporary art and experience with old world religious imagery and perspectives.

“It’s almost like I’m trying to say, ‘Hey, listen up, art people. Christians, they aren’t so bad!’ And then I’m trying to say to the church people, ‘Hey, you kind of need art’ or ‘They’re not so bad,’” he says. “I’ve always been between both demographics, and I’ve always had trouble communicating certain things with them. Whether I was at church and I wanted to ask questions that an artist would ask, that was difficult. I think that I was marginalized for that. But I’ve always been involved with contemporary art demographics and I could never talk sincerely about religious things, unless it was nihilistic.”

The medium is simple. The most basic, black and white charcoal sketched onto plain, white paper, framed in cardboard reliquaries—subtle complements to the housed works—fashioned from moving boxes, telling a story that has been told as many times as the Bible has been written, revised and interpreted. The origins, birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ are nothing new to the worlds of Christian or contemporary art. What is fascinating, however, is Oswald’s ability to lure both demographics into one room, offending no one and intriguing both camps into having open, honestly curious conversations with each other about the ages-old tale of the Christian Jesus.

“I think it’s good for people to come to shows in general just to slow down and to look at things and to engage with physical objects and drawings and sculptures and to think about them,” Oswald says. “For my work, it would be about coming and seeing the work and slowing down. And I think the pieces are generous—I think they have things to offer.”

Sean Oswald’s The Gospel of St. Luke is on display through April 6 at the Oxford Community Art Center, 10 S. College Ave. in Oxford. The exhibit is free and open to the public during gallery hours. For more information, visit seanoswald.com or osarts.org. 
Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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