Art's oddity a cultural critique
Surreal images highlight tension with plain culture of artist's rootsBy Robert Rhodes Mennonite Weekly Review
Weird. Disturbing. Bizarre.
Don Swartzentruber is probably used to the litany of backhanded adjectives used to describe his accomplished and visionary, if decidedly difficult, art.
Others, however, especially those who come from a similar Old Order background as Swartzentruber, might also add “offensive” to the mix. But the artist is ready for that, too.
Swartzentruber, who grew up in a Conservative Mennonite Conference home and now teaches and makes his eclectic art in Winona Lake, Ind., recently completed a cycle of paintings called “Pop-Mennonite.”
The collection, which offers a visual critique of Old Order culture, while juxtaposing it with popular comic book imagery, also includes a soundtrack featuring snippets of Anabaptist hymns and tent sermons.
The paintings, which show influences ranging from regionalist painters Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton to Disney animation, feature a variety of Old Order subjects and scenes presented with surreal twists.
The collection will be on exhibit at Goshen (Ind.) College’s Good Library Oct. 16-Dec. 9, sponsored by the Mennonite-Amish Museum Committee and the Mennonite Historical Library. Swartzentruber said many of the images in the collection come from his childhood in Delaware, inspired in part by the excommunication of his father when the artist was young.
“The excommunication helped me step back from the culture a bit,” Swartzentruber said June 20. “I don’t feel like I have any bitterness. I still feel a closeness [to Old Order culture], and my family continues to attend the same church, and my brother is on the ministerial team.”
Though it may be critical of conservative Anabaptism, Swartzentruber believes the collection explores some bigger issues as well, including the human tendency to make God fit a particular description.
“I have yet to come across any group of believers who have not tried to push Jesus into their own world view,” Swartzentruber said. “I guess what I try to do is handle the work as honestly as I can. With an open spirit, hopefully people can see God through it.”
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