Artistic depictions of religion and spirituality have existed nearly as long as humankind. The desire to visualize a connection to a higher power has deep roots within art history. Modern and postmodernist thought ignited transitions into secular subjects and abstraction. However, connections to religion, spirituality, and worship have endured as a lasting point of influence on artistic output as well as a continual link to heritage, identity, and community. Praise exhibits a diverse range of works from the Burchfield Penney collection that exemplify this influence. Collectively, the selected artworks speak to themes of the fluidity of worship, reclamation of space for congregation, and the transformative power of spirituality to cultivate a sense of belonging through intra/intercultural interaction and exchange.
This transformative power is exemplified, for instance, by William Cooper’s Naming Ceremony, Ghana (1994), which recalls the artist’s life-changing experience of connecting back to his ancestral roots and receiving his African name in a special ceremony. David A. Gordon’s Hold series visualizes this power in the context of the African American church. Craig Centrié’s O Christo Negro or Legba Kafou (1980) is one of the Haitian artist’s vibrant renditions reflective of themes from Haitian mythology and religion, articulating a complicated fusion between Western religion and non-Western traditional spiritual practice.
Posing pertinent questions of agency in the representation and preservation of cultural traditions, particularly for Indigenous communities, Jeffrey M. Thomas’s diptych In Search of an Appropriate Symbolism, 1991 / Empty Chair, Buffalo, New York / Traditional Dance, Regina, Saskatchewan (1986) is part of a larger series of diptychs through which the artist “ponders the creation of symbolism which will define and recognize First Nations’ experiences, which will do so in a way that will educate Native and non-Native viewers alike, and which will do so without malice.” These layered inquiries are put in conversation with artworks such as Vreelandt B. Lyman’s The Prophet (May 1939), reflective of inspiration the artist gathered while stationed in Calcutta, India during the later years of his life.
Photographic work by Milton Rogovin and Fred Scruton situates worship in context with the socioeconomic realities of urban life. An internationally acclaimed social documentary photographer, selections from Rogovin’s first major photographic project document the repurposed storefront churches of Buffalo’s African American communities. Scruton’s Segunda Iglesia Evangelica Pentecostal "Sion," Buffalo, New York (1996) is part of a series documenting inner-city buildings in Buffalo that have been repurposed and converted into churches. These works articulate the complexities and the resilience of historically marginalized communities to maintain a connection to worship as an essential site for respite and community. Other artists featured in the exhibition include Michael Zwack, Marilyn Stone, and Jean MacKay Henrich.
Whether inspired by the artist’s own personal religious beliefs and heritage or through interaction with other cultures, the notion of spirituality is visualized as a transformative practice. Blurring the lines of influence between Western and non-Western religious and cultural traditions, spirituality is grounded in something that transcends one specific denomination or practice. Praise reimagines worship and its possibilities to cultivate more meaningful connections with ourselves, and with one another to forge a sense of healing, community, and the betterment of each of us as individuals that feels more crucial now than ever.
 Carol Podedworny, “Perspectives from Iroquoia” Exhibition Text; Gallery 44 Center for Contemporary Photography, 1992, Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives