Mixing the burning issues of our time like racial relations and women’s rights into a Christian art symbol like Michelangelo’s “Pieta” risks confusing the issues. Anna Orbaczewska’s painting “Pieta” now on view at the A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn illustrates the point.

What you see in place of Jesus’ lifeless body in the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion, is a lifeless, blue-skinned female in the lap of a hooded figure.

Art of interpretation

As Art News magazine sees Anna’s painting, the figures are “decisively about escaping a toxic relationship.” “Decisively”?

The magazine is so firm on this interpretation that it headlined the review “A call for women’s rights.” What do women’s rights have to do with the good book story of Mary and her dead son?

Granted, A.I.R. Gallery is known for risk-taking by female artists, but Anna’s work abuses the privilege by going out of its way to twist a Christian art subject to fit some socio-political agenda.

When you play off an iconic image like Michelangelo’s “Pieta” with similarly posed figures but with dissimilar meaning under the same title, you render meaning uncertain.

The exhibit curator Agnieszka Rayzacher, had written about Anna’s art in a catalog for an exhibit in 2020, saying: “She refuses to bury her feelings.” Well and good, but does she have to take her issues out on Michelangelo’s work?

But wait. Something else Art News said proves out when it says, “There’s an occult edge to ‘Pieta’ – the hood, the ritual underway on the blue woman.” Such a takeaway resonates. Fanaticism in political or religion can be deadly. In that sense, Anna invoking Michelangelo’s “Pieta” pans out.

Another questionable artwork title was Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photo of a crucifix submerged in urine.

If he hadn’t used that title, the cross set aglow by the golden fluid might have come off as celebratory. His explanation for naming his photo “Piss Christ” – that he sought to picture Christianity drowning in commercialism – didn’t reflect in his picture.

Mixing it up

Done well, mixing biblical icons with current events can be effective provided your title reflects the mix.

You may remember Rene Cox photograph “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” at Brooklyn Museum of Art showing all the apostles as Black.

The image drove the then mayor Rudolph Giuliani to scream she was being anti-Catholic. But the picture title suggested patriarchy and racism in the church.

Obviously, using biblical references to address current events are a minefield. I’m also thinking of Art Spiegelman’s New Yorker magazine cover drawing of a crucified rabbit some years ago, which upset the Catholic League for Religion and Civil Rights.

The drawing might have been defensible if he hadn't titled his work, “Theology of the Tax Cut,” making reference to a rabbit in the drawing dressed in a suit with empty pockets pulled out against a background of Form 1040A.

Spiegelman said he drew inspiration from the fact that April 15 – the tax deadline – came the day before Easter. If he hadn't used the title “Theology of the Tax Cut,” his image would have been a nifty visual pun.