Satan at Home
J. Fatima Martins
May 25, 2018M
Satan at Home opened at III of Cups in Lincoln on May 3rd, the same day as religious leaders in the United States celebrated National Day of Prayer, a political event, enthusiastically supported by President Donald Trump to promote religious liberty. This year the White House established the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative backed by American Christian evangelicals and Catholics.
In his brief and poignant exhibition statement, John Skinner, engaged a conversation about the complex nature of religious liberty, the context of language and meaning, and the normalization of one point of view over another. He wrote, “Christian words and images are so common in the United States that we don’t notice them. They appear in politics and government constantly. Christian imagery can be added to anything to make it seem more virtuous. I’ve replaced this imagery with something more remarkable, Satanism, to draw attention to how common it is.”
Satan at Home arrives at a moment in which artists are exploring the possibilities of spiritual faith, religious institutions, and social conventions in their work to reveal underlining problematic inconsistencies. Exhibitions like Satan at Home offer important pathways for deep examination of culturally ingrained beliefs, attitudes, habits, and symbols that are taken for granted as standard and default. Skinner does not pass judgement nor does he attack, he simply stages a conversation, allowing the art itself to debate with the viewer’s emotive reactions. Skinner’s art is observant, subtle, and seriously roguish, yet polite.
John Skinner Q & A:
JFM: When I met you at III of Cups you said that you hadn't exhibited in a long time. Tell us about some of your previous exhibitions and work.
JS: It's the first time I've exhibited in a long while because it's been a while since I've had work that I thought would inspire a conversation about a topic I consider important. I don't think that Satan at Home is related to my previous work. I was once very interested in exploring telephone networks, and I had a number of exhibitions that came from that hobby, more than a decade ago. Samples of that work can been viewed on my profile here.
JFM: "Satan at Home" comes off as tongue-in-cheek and funny but it is also poignant, revelatory, and respectful. Do you always use humor as an expressive layer in your work, and do you consider yourself a conceptual artist?
JS: I often make art when I am confused by my own ideas or feelings. I like to approach my confusion with experiments. I substituted Satan into familiar public uses of religious imagery because it was the largest simple change I could think of to that imagery. Experiments like these create a juxtaposition that can get a laugh out of people. So, yes, it's fair to say I've used humor often in such experiments, and that they are conceptual art. Recently, I've been wondering things like: How do I resolve my positive childhood experience of religion with my later disgust at how religion functions in politics and government? What shall I make of the fact that religion seems to me inadequate at providing a sense of individual purpose, yet it binds communities together through shared collective purpose so well that it is very difficult to replace with any secular institution?
JFM: Tell us about the making of the photograph featuring Governor Pete Ricketts and you in a 'Hail Satan' holiday sweater. Did you intend to show the photograph in the exhibition or did the decision to present it as art arrive later in the process?
JS: Last Christmas I heard the phrase "Merry Christmas" used as a challenge in response to the greeting "Happy Holidays". I like Christmas and the spirit of generosity that is supposed to accompany it. I don't think that responding to a genuine holiday wish by challenging the beliefs of others is at all fitting to this spirit of generosity. I wondered if a holiday sweater reading "Hail Satan" was something that existed in the world. The internet obliged.
The next week, my girlfriend Misha told me about the official Christmas tree lighting in the Nebraska State Capitol Building. I decided to go with a small group of friends, wearing the sweater. The pageantry of the gathering was lovely -- in particular I like it when strangers are invited to sing together in public. However, I could not truly enjoy it knowing that Christianity is not treated as simply one faith among many. Christian arguments are treated as unbeatable justifications for most any misogynistic, uncharitable, or unwise thing our leaders or lawmakers want to do.
Though suspect of what Christmas means to Governor Ricketts, I was not above accepting his invitation to the crowd to come over to the Governor's Mansion for holiday cookies afterward. Upon entering, there was a handshake / smalltalk / photo op with the First Couple. I mentioned to the First Lady that I live just down the street from the Governor's Mansion. She invited me to drop over some time, even though I'm pretty sure they don't actually live there? She spotted the sweater right as my girlfriend's sister was ready with the camera. The First Lady did a pretty good job of reducing her look of shock in time for the photo.
I was so delighted with the photograph that I texted an old art school friend, Ashley Goodwin, to reserve a gallery exhibition date. I wanted to force myself to produce artwork themed around the photo. Part of the reason is that I was embarrassed by the photograph. In it I appear, perhaps, to be going through an angry atheist phase more typical of a teenager than a grown man. Seeing the words "Hail Satan" there honestly still shocks me a bit. I wanted to explore what was behind my embarrassment and shock.
JFM: The quilt "Satan Bless the U.S." is a beautiful piece. Somewhere on social media, I read that this is the first quilt you've ever made. Have you made art using fabric before and how did the quilt idea originate?
JS: Viewers may perceive the quilt as anti-American, or anti-military, or anti-Christian. I submit that it is none of these things, and I invite viewers to interrogate the reasons for those perceptions. I was inspired by the Quilts of Valor program, in which quilters donate their work to veterans in the hope of helping them heal and recover from war. (Mine is not an official Quilt of Valor, for which religious messages are prohibited.) The quilt is being donated to a Satanist veteran, Travis, who served in Iraq with the 201st Military Intelligence Battalion, and then returned to Iraq as a civilian doing a similar job with a defense contractor. This career lead Travis to a skeptical attitude toward the ethics of intelligence work and the role of private industry, a skepticism which helped inform the quilt.
Regarding the creation of the quilt as art, I've known for years I would one day make a quilt. Family gatherings in childhood often revolved around appreciating my aunt and uncle's quilts. I assumed everybody had elderly relatives who collected quilts or something similar, and I thought it was all very boring. This aunt and uncle then donated their collection to the University of Nebraska, upon which it became the largest public quilt collection in the world, the International Quilt Study Center. Having relatives with such a collection, I then came to understand, was hardly a typical childhood experience. Questions started to occur to me about how this collection had come into being. I learned that the money for the quilt collection, and the museum that houses it, came from my uncle's career, which included being in the CIA and vice president of Mobile Oil. A career that spans national intelligence and the petroleum industry suggests an uncomfortable closeness between the narrow business interests of a particular corporation or industry and our perceived national interest. I've often wondered about the hidden costs of the quilts.
JFM: Are you a practicing Satanist? The Church of Satan in Missouri has won some important legal battles and are recognized as a valid faith. Have you reached out to the Church with the exhibition? Is there a Church in Nebraska?
JS: Unlike real Satanists, who have particular belief structures and values, I chose not to represent any particular theology for Satan. For example, my roadside sign that reads "Satan, I trust in you" is a reference to common "Jesus, I trust in you" roadside signs, which are often found paired with an anti-abortion sign. Rather than decide if my imagined version of Satan supports or opposes legalized abortion, I could allude to the topic by substituting Satan into an essentially vacuous Christian message commonly put to a political purpose.
I am not a practicing Satanist, and I honestly don't know much about Satanism. I chose the image of Satan on a whim when I bought that holiday sweater. I do see periodic news items about the things that the Satanic Temple has accomplished in support of religious freedom. They seem pretty wonderful. I'm not aware that they have any branch in Nebraska and I have not reached out to them.
Originally from the small town of Craig, Nebraska, John Skiles Skinner received an Art degree from University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2006. Today he works as a computer programmer and still lives in Lincoln.