A radical Jesus

A Day in the Life of Christ presents a complex religious hero

“Ecce Homo” by Harold LaVigne.

“Ecce Homo” by Harold LaVigne.

Photo by David Robert

Who was Jesus, anyway?

A series of paintings by Harold LaVigne, now on display at the Kamas Gallery through May 31, offers a complex answer to that question—a manifold answer that begs to be explored.

Works depicting the life of Christ have, of course, been done and done again over the last 2,000 years. Most of LaVigne’s paintings have the unusual quality of being simultaneously reverent and fun. In A Day in the Life of Christ, LaVigne uses bright colors and exaggerates his subjects’ features to create what he describes as a comic strip or cartoonish effect. But instead of parodying Christian themes, A Day in the Life of Christ underlines Christ’s teachings of love and social justice.

LaVigne began the Life of Christ series in 1970 as a response to the political turmoil of the Vietnam War era. LaVigne, who lived in San Francisco in the 1960s, was a Vietnam War protester and civil rights activist.

“I chose thematic material that I thought had some relevance to the current relations between the government and the people,” LaVigne says. “Christ had trouble with the government, too.”

LaVigne’s art presents the radical side of Jesus. For instance, in “The Woman Taken in Adultery” (37 inches by 30 inches), a woman is about to be stoned to death for her sin, but Jesus intercedes for the woman, demanding of the angry crowd, “He who has no sin, cast the first stone.” In LaVigne’s portrayal, the adulteress is naked but, surprisingly, so is Jesus, perhaps suggesting Jesus’ sympathy for sinners and a vulnerability to attack. The woman stands in front of Jesus, obscuring his naked body from the viewer, and Jesus’ arms are around the woman, shielding her from the scowling crowd.

“This is a very revolutionary moment,” LaVigne says. “The people who were about to stone her were operating on … law, but Jesus’ teaching is, ‘Love one another.'”

Only one of the works in A Day in the Life of Christ is a departure from a comic strip style. In “Ecce Homo” (37 inches by 30 inches), which is Latin for “behold the man,” Jesus wears a purple robe and a crown of thorns. The background is done in a style I thought of as abstract. LaVigne describes it as “calligraphic.” It is, to put it plainly, a jumble of streaks.

Jesus appears to be fading into, or emerging from, the chaos of these calligraphic lines. The lines cover his face and body, making him appear scratched and wounded. His shoulders are hunched over and he wears an expression of pure sorrow, something bordering on defeat.

LaVigne says that Jesus is emerging from the “jungle,” from that dark time of ridicule and condemnation. The jungle is more than just symbolic of Christ’s trial; LaVigne says that he means to portray Jesus as a sort of “Asiatic saint” who (like Buddha as he sits under a tree) disappears from society for a while.

While he has always been fascinated by this loving, yet radical, Jesus—a Jesus who he found so relevant during the political unrest of the 1960s and 1970s—LaVigne does not call himself a Christian.

“Christianity is a hard way to live—one that I cannot do,” LaVigne says simply. “I think Christ was a great teacher. He taught us what we ought to do, but it’s not always what we do.”

LaVigne presents many answers to the question, "Who was Jesus?" In LaVigne’s art, Jesus is a radical, a defender of the weak, a Jewish lawbreaker and an Asian saint. While none of these presentations give a definitive picture of Christ, they do give a startling and unique glimpse at a figure who is perhaps as controversial today as he was at the time of his death.