Toronto artist, Farhad Nargol-O’Neill, aims for 2011 Venice Biennale

  • September 11, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - For some artists the idea of devotional art may be laughable — an obscure subspecies of Hallmark greeting card imagery with no purpose other than to excite shallow sentiment. But for Toronto sculptor and painter Farhad Nargol-O’Neill there’s no such thing as meaningful art without devotion.

“Creation of art is an act of devotion,” Nargol-O’Neill told The Catholic Register on a recent visit to his studio.

Nargol-O’Neill calls himself a devotional artist, among other things. He is at work on a series of Stations of the Cross bas-reliefs which will premier in March in the first art show at the new Regis College on Wellesley Street in Toronto. The show with Toronto iconographer Galina Oussatcheva will mark Regis College ’s annual Artists’ Vespers and will be on display through the Doors Open Toronto event May 29 and 30, 2010. 

At the same time Nargol-O’Neill is doing his best to get the attention of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Ravasi has announced plans to have a Vatican pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale — the Olympics of art. It would be the first time in the 114-year history of the international art exhibition that the Vatican is present. Nargol-O’Neill wants to be one of the artists representing the Vatican.

O’Neill’s work is in collections in Ireland and Canada, and the artist has a long list of institutional commissions to his credit. But even he acknowledges the Biennale is a bit of a stretch for someone with a modest, solid career.

Big names bandied about as possible Vatican representatives in Venice include Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, Greek-Italian artist Jannis Kounellis and German artist Gerhard Richter.

“I have no difficulties with showing with any of these cats,” he said.

Jesuit Father Gilles Mongeau doesn’t claim any insight into how Vatican officials will choose artists for the 2011 Biennale, but he does see Nargol-O’Neill as an artist with a very Catholic way of creating art.

“If we’re looking for an art that is Catholic and religious but is also in dialogue with contemporary art or contemporary culture, he has as good a shot as anyone else I would say of getting there,” said Mongeau.

Mongeau, a theology professor at Regis, chose Nargol-O’Neill for the Artists’ Vespers show because he sees something both ancient and uncompromisingly contemporary in his work.

“What attracted me to it in terms of Regis College was his experimentation with classical rhetoric as the set of rules for his art,” said Mongeau.

The rules of rhetoric and insights into psychology behind those rules were the basic language of Western art right up until the Renaissance. That same mindset drove St. Ignatius of Loyola as he formulated his Spiritual Exercises.

As he works on maquettes for his Stations of the Cross, Nargol-O’Neill is reading the Spiritual Exercises.

Salt + Light Television CEO Fr. Tom Rosica has helped Nargol-O’Neill out with a couple of Vatican contacts, but he also claims no inside knowledge about how the Vatican will organize its Venice pavilion. However, Rosica does note that the Vatican is quite serious about reconnecting the church with contemporary art.

“John Paul II’s Letter to Artists was a very important thing, and we have to mine the depths of that,” said Rosica. “I don’t think the church should be dictating what art should be, but at the same time I think religious art should be religious art. You should have some idea that it is religious when you look at it. Does it lift the spirit?”

It’s been 10 years since the papal Letter to Artists spoke of the practice of art as something essentially spiritual.

“In shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also in some way reveals his own personality by means of it. For him art offers both a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth,” wrote Pope John Paul II.

Nargol-O’Neill fears money and a star system has obscured the spiritual purposes of art in our time.

“It’s all being run by investment bankers and corrupt curators,” he said.

The Vatican should be making different curatorial decisions than the art market decisions that drive most exhibitions today, he said.

Nargol-O’Neill is not about to start handicapping his own chances of making the Biennale, or failing that a commission for work to add to the Borgia apartment, where Pope Paul VI’s collection of contemporary art is on display in the Vatican.

“If I waited for everyone to say yes to me I would never have got any place,” said the artist.

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