On October 6, 2010, Kathleen Folden, identified in the media as a 56-year-old truck driver from Kalispell, Montana, smashed her way into a display case at the Loveland Art Museum in Loveland, Colorado with a crowbar. Her purpose was to destroy a work of art, a multi-panel lithograph by Enrique Chagoya entitled “The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals.” Folden managed to tear up part of the work before she was stopped by a museum patron. Folden was arrested at the scene; her $350.00 bail was paid by an anonymous donor. Google her name, and you’ll find plenty of admirers clamoring to help with the cost of her upcoming trial on a charge of criminal mischief (a Class 4 felony). There is, inevitably, a Facebook page.
Why such an outpouring of support for a woman smashing things up with a crowbar? Because the lithograph in question — or, rather, one of its twelve panels — had been widely reported to depict Jesus Christ – or a female figure with the head of Jesus Christ – receiving oral sex. There’s a man’s head pressed against the figure’s lap, and a protruding red tongue. The word “orgasm” appears next to the Christlike head. There are other words and symbols, what looks like the Spanish phrase “18 años” and a pictograph that may refer to the pope (Chagoya has said the work refers to the pedophilia scandals rocking the Catholic church, and to the corruption of the spiritual). I can’t quite make them all out in the online images I’ve found. And of course I can’t see the original, as Folden tore it up. What’s left of it is being held by the police as evidence.
Actually, I did see it once. The exhibition of which Chagoya’s work was a part, “Shark’s Ink: The Legend of Bud Shark and His Indelible Ink” was on display at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009. Shark is a world-renowned printer whose atelier is located in Lyons, Colorado, just west of Boulder. As Michael Paglia, art critic for the local New Times weekly Westword, notes, the show failed to arouse any controversy in Denver, though Westword did name it the “Best Print Show – Contemporary” for 2009. Paglia said Chagoya’s work “looked like a cross between ancient Meso-American codex scrolls and underground commix.”
I remember “The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals”. I too picked up on the references to Mayan codices. For me, Chagoya’s collage-like juxtaposition of images also recalled Surrealist works, such as Max Ernst’s “Une semaine de bonté,” with their dreamlike mix of the erotic and the violent, the mundane and the macabre. I suppose I read Chagoya’s work in the light of that association. And read is the right word. None of the articles on the Loveland incident have mentioned the relatively intimate scale or the book-like codex format. Few things could be further from the kind of iconic, monumental work we envision when we think of religious art. Chagoya’s work invited close observation; it was cryptic and puzzle-like. I remember being uncertain as to which order I was expected to read the images (in what direction do you read a Mayan codex?), and how they might fit together. Chagoya’s images were intended to challenge the viewer, to invite a close engagement with the possible narratives they proposed.
But that was in a setting in which viewers’ expectations matched the works’ demands. Few people inclined to label such images as blasphemy or pornography would likely find their way to the second floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art in lower downtown Denver. Paglia claims that “the differing reactions to the show highlight the dichotomy between the progressive atmosphere in Denver and the conservative sensibilities that rule Colorado’s hinterlands,” and that seems true enough. In last week’s elections, almost as many Denverites voteds for the creation of an extraterrestrial commission as for the “personhood” of a fertilized egg (and the UFOs outpolled the Tea Party gubernatorial candidate roughly 3-1). Still, it seems worth pointing out that the case that is perhaps most closely parallel to this, Dennis Heiner’s vandalism of Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary with elephant dung and applied genitalia, unfolded in the confines of the Brooklyn Art Museum. The hinterlands don’t have a monopoly on religiously inspired vandals.
Be that as it may, as soon as the exhibit opened in Loveland, the work attracted controversy, which attracted the media, which, apparently, attracted Folden. Folden can hardly be described as a part of the community in which the controversy erupted. Kalispell is located in the far northwestern corner of Montana. Loveland is just fifty miles north of Denver, and a quick glance at a road atlas shows the distance from Denver to Kalispell to be about the same as the distance from Denver to St. Louis, Missouri, or to Sacramento, California. The difference, I suppose, is that Kalispell is more or less in the same media market. Still, it’s a long drive. And Folden drove to Colorado for the express purpose of destroying the lithograph. This makes her defense attorney’s argument that the city of Loveland is to blame for displaying a work that was “deliberately provocative” ring somewhat hollow; anyone who drives that far chose to be provoked.
Folden’s motivations were explicitly religious. Witnesses to Folden’s attack heard her yell out “How can you desecrate my Lord?” She was wearing a shirt reading “Tougher than Nails” – a reference to the crucifixion – and appeared in court in a second shirt, reading “Jesus beat the devil with a big wooden stick.” When I read this I cannot help recalling the eyes scratched out of medieval images of Judas, the “thirteenth century panels in Siena whose painted demons have been scratched to obliteration by pious fingernails,” and the images of former saints smashed and burnt by the iconoclasts of the Reformation. The public and dramatic nature of Folden’s attack recalls the 1972 assault on Michaelangelo’s Pietà in Rome, by Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-Australian geologist convinced he was Jesus Christ. The equivalence is far from exact – Folden’s theology and motivation, and the object of her rage, may well be different. But Folden, like the iconoclasts of old, seems to inhabit a demon-haunted world in which images have real power, and the battle between good and evil continues on the walls of churches and galleries alike.
Many of Folden’s self-proclaimed defenders seem to treat the image she attacked as a stand-in for the politics they perceive behind it. Much is made of the fact that Chagoya is a tenured professor at Stanford. Not to mention a Mexican-American and a former labor activist! Calls to defund the National Endowment for the Arts echo through the blogs. But I don’t think Folden sees it that way. Hidden deep among the comments on a blog praising Folden I found one posted by a man saying he was Folden’s son, and that she was mentally ill. I don’t know if that’s true, but her need to destroy the image physically speaks to something other than an objection to sexually charged or religiously offensive imagery in a taxpayer-funded venue. However terrible her act, it is a backhanded tribute to the power of the image, to its ability to embody, and not merely represent.