When Chris Ofili exhibited his Holy Virgin Mary (a small part of which comprised elephant dung) at New York’s Brooklyn Museum of Modern Art in 1999, so incensed was Mayor Giuliani at a work he deemed ‘sick, offensive and anti-Catholic’ that he threatened to evict the venerable institution from its city owned building. While Cléa van der Grijn’s exhibition, The Outsider, is unlikely to cause the same controversy, her images of the Madonna rework and reimagine, like Ofili’s, more traditional Christian iconography.
The artist also strays from a traditional westernised view of the pale-skinned Virgin Mary. In the acrylic on canvas, A Moment, not only does the Madonna have lipstick smeared around her mouth and what could be mascara dripping onto her cheek, but the multicoloured headscarf suggests a character of Caribbean origin. And in I Am Not Invisible the dark-skinned full-lipped figure suggests both an Africanised and sexualised figure far removed from a Madonna by Raphael or Rubens.
At a glance, the Madonna With Hope, with its demure central figure and gold leaf finish, could pass for a traditional Russian icon. On closer inspection, though, the rouged cheeks and full red lips suggest a more sexual and worldly figure than that found in standard Catholicism. And in Matriarch, there is little at all to link van der Grijn’s image with anything in the Marian tradition; her Madonna is a very real, as opposed to, an idealised figure, the peach skin and closed eyes suggesting weariness but also resilience.
Van Der Grijn is also interested in delving beyond surface images to the essence of her subject. In Her, the blurred figure is a mere ghostly spectre devoid of physical features. The ornate halo though (an intricate network of gold leaf, glazes and glass beads on linen) suggests that the Virgin’s inne sanctity is of greater significance than her outward physical appearance.