Artist Joe Letitia Employs an Icon Both Spiritual and Secular

Of all the subjects a person can choose to address in his or her art, religion might be the toughest. Or it could be the easiest, in that "universal" concepts tend to speak for themselves. Then there are the oft-intimidated viewers of such art—someone like me, for instance, who knew what a "peeping tom" was before I knew the origins of a "doubting Thomas." But even Renaissance painters whose work featured only biblical topics weren't necessarily as zealous as their patrons, if they were believers at all.

Which brings us to the art of Joe Letitia and his memorable Didymus exhibition, a reception for which takes place from 6-8 p.m. tomorrow evening in the Art and Recital Building's Blackberry Farm Gallery within the Clayton Center for the Arts at Maryville College.

In Didymus—a word from both Aramaic and Greek meaning "the twin"—Letitia presents us with many versions of the hand of Christ's apostle Thomas as it pokes at the savior's lance wound to determine that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. (As for the twin reference, some sources indicate that Thomas' twin was Judas, while others suggest it was Jesus himself.) Letitia's renditions of that hand are iconic; their simple, often overlapping shapes at times resemble fish or doves.

In his artist's statement, Letitia writes, "my process starts with a very clear and singular image, which in itself is still a symbol of an action…. The works are made by the repeated replication of this core image." The artist also makes clear his debt to "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas," a painting by Baroque master Caravaggio from 1601-1603. Yet there's a certain contradiction in Letitia's use of that image as a jumping-off point, addressed below.

Despite its entrance via a café that saturates the gallery's air with the smell of fried burgers, the exhibition space—with exposed ductwork painted black, spotlights on suspended rails, and polished cement flooring—is quietly elegant. And Letitia's show fits it well. The work displayed encompasses an impressive range of materials and methods, including silkscreen drawing, oil on canvas, oil and acrylic paint on paper, and ceramics in the form of adjoining panels. Furthermore, the artist has created numerous pieces that are either split canvases (not quite diptychs) or groupings of three or four images.

As varied as Letitia's art is, the omnipresent image of Thomas' finger probing a gash in Christ's side pulls works together into a satisfying whole. Seen through double doors dividing the gallery into two areas, "Pilgrim's Progress" is a pair of canvases joined as one. Containing clustered hands with pointing fingers, the combined halves create a pattern reminiscent of M.C. Escher's well-known "Drawing Hands" lithograph. Oil paint in tones of black, gray, white, and a steely blue tie the piece to Letitia's silkscreen drawings, particularly the strikingly large "Didymus 1." However, hands in the latter work are more subtle—almost an overlay of web-like marks. Hands formed from ghost-like lines in "Colossians" are similarly downplayed, not at all like the very real-looking hands Caravaggio rendered.

In terms of art history, "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" is considered significant for its lifelike portrait of the apostles and Christ, and of Christ's physically-ravaged body. As such, it represents a departure from the often idealistic art of Caravaggio's era. In fact, the artist (actually a man from the town of Caravaggio named Michelangelo Merisi) hired ordinary people from the street as models, and the naturalism of their flawed faces and rough gestures enlivens his painted scenarios.

Conversely, Letitia makes no attempts at realism, save for a trio of two-dimensional pieces more literally referencing Caravaggio's image of Jesus' wound, among them "Greetings Rabbi 2" in oil on paper. Only Letitia's masterfully realized ceramic hands in the wall-hung "Passing of Blame" truly reflect Caravaggio's mission to draw the viewer into an invented reality.

As for the aforementioned contradiction of the influence of Caravaggio's painting on the Didymus show, Letitia's work is not only abstract for the most part, it's fairly understated, and driven by a formal device, whereas Caravaggio's scene with Thomas is nothing if not high-octane. In my mind, Letitia would be better off simply referring to the story of Thomas rather than trying to factor a specific painting into his visual equation.

It should be noted that Bible passages, most of which are every bit as dramatic as Caravaggio's art, accompany the work in Didymus and tend to undercut the images' well-balanced restraint. Like the famous line of Dylan Thomas ("Rage rage against the dying of the light"), Jesus' plea in Matthew 27:46 is painfully human: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" It's then that some viewers might wish that Letitia's art could be just a tad more loose and passionate.