There was once a televangelist (though he himself abhorred that term) named Dr. Gene Scott. Dr. Gene wasn't lean but he was an often mean and flamboyant preaching machine. He had a habit of smoking big cigars and the usage of profane language on camera. The acclaimed film maker Werner Herzog once profiled Scott in his film God's Angry Man. Scott once remarked that a lot of folks just couldn't get past the smoky haze of his cigar to discover a nugget of truth or a salient point about Christianity that he was making. Although not a theologian or televangelist, much less a flamboyant or profane one, artist Ray Istre has put together an interesting and engaging work of art along with compelling commentary in his latest project Ugly Jesus available at Cafe Press. And just as in the case of Dr. Gene's preaching, if one can get past the title of Istre's book, one is in store for a new perspective and a deeper, more profound vision of Christianity. But more about that later.
A native of Crowley, Louisiana; artist Ray Istre has lived and worked in the central Texas area for several years. In his working adult life, Istre has at one time or another been a maker of wooden toys, a tombstone engraver, a portrait studio artist, a successful singer/songwriter, a painter of interstate billboards, and a muralist. Painting billboards (the one he did for a certain pancake chain is simply amazing) led to the impetus to paint murals. His most famous mural is one done in tribute to "Motor City Madman" and hunting enthusiast Ted Nugent.
Other murals Istre has undertaken are of a historical significance - outlining historical events in small town Texas that bind communities together. The artist has a visionary plan that in the future, murals in small towns off the beaten track of I-35 will serve as tourist spots for road weary travelers.
I recently caught up with Ray Istre and we discussed his aforementioned book Ugly Jesus. It is a book of 66 original drawings and a story. I made the observation only half jokingly that Istre might consider a bodyguard at his book signings considering the provocative title of his book. He laughed it off, saying "it's not that bad", but he has met some rather interesting characters - those who believe that he might be desecrating their pretty and sanitized Jesus. While there has been some misunderstanding and controversy surrounding the book, Istre maintains nobody has wished hellfire and everlasting damnation on him...yet.
When one conjures up the visual image of Jesus in one's mind, one is sure to conjure up one of the "pretty" artistic renditions done throughout the last 2,000 years. And that is the image that Istre has a problem with. As he explained, Christ's humanity became lost along the way to artistic perfection. Actually relatively little is known about Christ's physical appearance. The only thing one can be safe in assuming is that Jesus was probably short in stature and had a beard. Even the classic long hair is not a sure thing according to Istre. In fact, some of Istre's depictions are of a bald or balding Jesus. The facial features are often unpleasant and hideous. Istre wonders "If he looked like Woody Allen, would we feel as sorry for the character than if he looked like Jim Caviezel"? He probably best sums up his work with the statement that "Jesus coming in an ugly body may be an artistic statement of God". Istre could have very well constructed one of those nice little coffee table books - books that a lot of people buy but few look at or read. Nice, perfect images of Jesus. Images that don't offend, images that are politically correct, images that are bland and uninteresting. Images that perhaps even Jesus himself disdains. Istre could have authored one of those books, but to his credit, he didn't. And we're all the better off for it.
Ray Istre's Ugly Jesus is a refreshing, much needed alternative vision of Christ in contrast to the traditional, one dimensional portraits offered up by artists throughout the centuries. The paradox offered up by Istre is that only by examining the ugliness of Christ can his true beauty be revealed. Istre's Jesus is one that is more humane, more accessible and user friendly. And shall I dare say it? Someone you would want to have a beer with. After all, he did eat and drink with the outcasts of his day.
So the next time I encounter a picture of Christ, a mural, or even a stack of syrupy, buttery, pancakes, I won't look at them quite the same anymore. And for that, I owe Ray Istre a debt of gratitude. Perhaps Dr. Gene wasn't just blowing smoke after all.