Los Angeles artist Michael Arata invited me to write the introductory essay to his catalog, Virgin "T"s, that would accompany a one-person exhibition of his work at the California State University in San Bernardino in the fall of last year. Michael, a long-time resident of Los Angeles, has exhibited his eccentric and often humorous works in several Southern California galleries, in the US and abroad in France and Belgium. The Virgin "T"s in this body of work, some of which are actual silk screened T-shirts, are in part a response, albeit a sometimes biting one, to the continued fraying of the separation between Church and State and all the political, social, and commercial ramifications that entails. In the essay below, I strove to be as provocative and visceral as the work before me.
You shouldn’t believe that the T-Shirt you’re likely wearing right now is a modern invention. By today’s standards, a T-Shirt is a walking bulletin board with your favourite designer label silk-screened onto it. Michael Arata knows this already because ancient history taught him that the boys in marketing around the time that Jesus was dining on his last bit of foie gras, commonly referred to as the Last Supper, had an enlightening idea for Jesus’ resurrection. On the third day, Jesus rose with a T-Shirt made out of distressed cotton painted purple that said in Times New Roman: “I went to Mount Golgotha and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt”.
However, the “tee” shirt as it is also affectionately called was really the brain child of Mary, the Virgin. Her nickname the Virgin fit her like a “T”. And while we’re at it, here’s something else you might not know about the Virgin Mary. You probably confuse the story of Mary and the Immaculate Conception with a virgin birth, angels, and the like, but it didn’t quite happen that way. According to the Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, “The Immaculate Conception is a Catholic dogma that asserts Mary, the mother of Jesus, was preserved by God from the stain of original sin at the time of HER own conception”. Furthermore, “Mary was conceived by normal biological means (her parents had sex), but her soul was acted upon by God or kept immaculate”. Mary grew up living a life completely free of sin and stayed a Virgin Mary. Fortunately, peer pressure in those days was nothing compared to today. For the record, it was the Miraculous Conception, not the Immaculate Conception nor L’Immaculée Conception by André Breton and Paul Eluard, that involved the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary.
That historic event marked the first time since the birth of (wo)MAN that virginity became both a liability and a commodity, simultaneously: a burden from birth, yet a treasure to be protected by overly zealous fathers and chastity belts, only to be unlocked within the sanctity of marriage; a prize commodity sought after so ardently, perhaps even more than the Holy Grail, which every man swore his honour and allegiance to but so very few actually had partaken. Mary understood this dilemma and when the Angel Gabriel swooped down from the Heavens to announce his fertile message, Mary was already wearing a T-Shirt that said “What, me worry?” Only since James Dean hit the movie screens in a virgin white T-Shirt and faded blue jeans that clung to his ass like Pamela Anderson’s tits in a wet t-shirt contest have T-Shirts enjoyed such popularity. That is, of course, until Michael Arata got a hold of them.
Isn’t this what it’s all about anyway? Getting hold of something virginal, pure white, Snow White, oil, land, your daughter’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend with the pointy breasts who never wears a bra that you just want to gut up the middle Lolita-style? Managing perceptions, rumours, beliefs, religion, culture — did she or didn’t she get fucked in the ass? Perception: Every time you use the word fuck from now on, replace it with the word suck and you’ll see how it changes your world. Spin. Artists do it all the time. So do Presidents. So does the Church. The Vatican has known this for decades and capitalized on it. The Religious Left, the Religious Right it’s all about you believing that what you expect, desire, want to be the TRUTH – or is at the very least accepted behaviour carried out under the supervision of your peers, society or government.
Michael is carrying on a time honoured tradition, spreading the WORD, crusading to restore and reform; cleansing us of our Original Sin, giving us all a second chance, a second Virginity, filling us with a child’s innocence, under one Democratic Nation and one merciful GOD. Like any other grassroots movement, Michael’s gospel gets out by word of mouth, bumper stickers, rallies, T-Shirts and nowadays, text-messaging, DVDs and Powerpoint presentations. Michael even owns and operates his own franchised Church of Mary’s Parents complete with urban Stained Glass windows. He might not have been the first to welcome all spiritual denominations into his Church, but Michael clearly has been the first to accept all major credit cards through Ticketmaster to secure a ticket to paradise.
You might think these Virgin T-Shirts are a joke, and you’re probably thinking that they’re art as well; Christ, what else could they be? But you’re not sure. It’s a tough place to be with your pants down around your ankles looking silly looking at silly art no? OK, so they’re a bit kitschy sometimes. God knows that there are a million T-Shirts out there with Adidas plastered on the front, made in China and finding their way into Africa and Palestine but it’s all good. We live in a Democracy – everyone shares in the wealth.
But the real question is: do you care about what you’ve become, what you wear, the car you drive, the God you pray to, the food you eat, the art you frequent? Of course you do. IM, Image Management, I told you. Pretend to be cool, pretend to be a virgin, pretend to be an artist if it helps, but it doesn’t matter and it won’t matter in today’s society cause they are all inflated currencies. Take another look at Michael Arata’s work; it is through any lens titillating without the cheap theatrics of a red light district whore or barroom stripper. The Prophet Mohammed can take you to the mountain but he can’t make you jump unless you believe. Michael has taken us up there many times before. Jump, you’ll see and you just might find that what you discover at the bottom hurts a lot harder than the fall. Open your eyes. This is you.