A Higher Power

In America today, Jesus is pop culture’s King of Kings, a force in politics, film, music, and books. In the world of contemporary art, though, his presence is less established. While modern curators always seems to make room for dung-smeared Madonnas and crucifixes in urine, where are the works of genuine, unironic reverence? Not in Manhattan’s most influential galleries. Not in Artforum.

But one Sunday last fall, at least, one such work made the cover of the New York Times Magazine. To illustrate a story about religion in the workplace, it featured an Alec Soth photo of an office in Riverview Community Bank, the Christ-centered financial institution in Otsego, Minnesota. The photo showed a curvilinear desk, a burgundy armchair, and—most prominently—a spectacular painting hanging on the plain white wall.

The Senior Partner depicts a stately downtown office, where two clean-cut executives confer with Jesus over a laptop. Dressed in business casual robes, the Good Shepherd looks completely at home in this environment: confident, resolved, a rainmaker, ready to close the deal in enthusiastically ethical fashion. It is twilight in the picture, and the lights from nearby skyscrapers pour through a picture window to bathe him in a golden halo of big-city commerce.

Even reprinted in godless fish wrap, The Senior Partner is instantly memorable. Remarkably, the Times didn’t even bother to mention the artist’s name. It was an oversight that might have driven a lesser man to despair, but Nathan Greene, the artist who painted The Senior Partner, doesn’t seem particularly interested in personal glory. Instead, the forty-four-year-old Seventh Day Adventist, who lives with his wife and children in rural Michigan, is mostly focused on spreading his vision of Christ as a compassionate, accessible presence in people’s everyday lives.

Besides, Greene’s vision is becoming increasingly popular even without the acknowledgement of the Times. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Tennessee Republican, has a lithograph of a Greene painting in his office. So does the Senate’s chaplain, Barry Black. The evangelical television show, It Is Written, uses a Greene portrait of Jesus in its opening credits.

For years, Greene painted in the basement of his house, but recently he bought thirteen acres of land and built a seventeen-hundred-square-foot artist’s studio on it. Today, a Greene original goes for $25,000 to $50,000, and there’s a two-year waiting list to get one. Greene is a painstaking craftsman. While composing The Introduction, which shows Jesus playing matchmaker to Adam and Eve, Greene painted and repainted Jesus’ face eight times. “He’s just passionate about every little detail,” said his agent, Dan Houghton. “In that particular case, he could not have the face of his creator less perfect than his creations.”

Typically, Greene finishes only four or five new paintings each year. To make his work available to all who want it, Houghton runs a publishing venture called Hart Classic Editions, which reproduces selected paintings as lithographs. Sometimes, Greene depicts Jesus in traditional biblical scenes, but the definitive works in his oeuvre are those like The Senior Partner, in which Jesus appears in contemporary settings: offices, operating rooms, suburban homes.

In depicting Jesus this way, Greene continues the tradition of one of his artistic heroes, Harry Anderson, a fellow Seventh Day Adventist and a popular mid-century artist whose illustrations used to appear in magazines like Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1945, an art director asked Anderson to paint something that showed Jesus in the contemporary world. He responded with What Happened to Your Hand?, which showed Jesus explaining his stigmata to a trio of curious, forties-era kids. Some found it blasphemous to portray Christ in this modern manner. Others reacted more favorably, and Anderson went on to create paintings like The Consultation (Jesus provides a second opinion at a patient’s bedside) and Christ in the City (a spectral, Godzilla-size Jesus hovers outside the U.N. Building in Manhattan).

In 1977, while Greene was in high school, his art teacher introduced him to Anderson; the art teacher thought Greene would make a good assistant to the older painter. The apprenticeship never materialized, but in 1990, when an Adventist hospital asked the retired Anderson to create two portraits of Christ in contemporary settings, Anderson encouraged it to commission Greene instead. A freelance illustrator at the time, Greene jumped at the chance to create work of a more permanent nature.

The first painting he completed, Chief of the Medical Staff, is one of his signature canvases. In a dramatic, tightly cropped composition that evokes the luminescent palette of Maxfield Parrish, Christ steadies a surgeon’s hand as he makes his initial incision. “We’ve taken that image and printed it on business cards and bookmarks,” said Todd Chobotar, director of mission development at Florida Hospital, where the original hangs in the main lobby. “We give one to every patient who goes through a procedure here. When they go into the operating room and are put under by the anesthesiologist, many are still holding their cards.”

Greene’s work has obvious populist appeal, but is it truly important art? Or just evangelical kitsch, a technically superior version of those cheap plastic figurines of the Son of God playing football with schoolkids? “I really want to avoid anything that could be perceived as corny when I depict Christ,” Greene said. And even at its most sentimental, his work is never mere décor: While millions of Americans profess to have a close personal relationship with Jesus now, few artists working in any medium have documented this phenomenon as tellingly as Greene has.

Also, Greene perfectly conjures the upbeat, have-it-all ethos of today’s evangelicals. Consider one of his most striking works, The Introduction, which depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Chaperoned by Jesus, the pair stare at each other like lovers on the cover of a romance novel. The surprisingly metrosexual Adam wears razor-cut sideburns, and bares a smoothly waxed chest. Eve has the serious, no-nonsense beauty of a female contestant on The Apprentice; she may be wearing just a touch of lipstick.

Like many artists, Greene paints from live models (or more specifically, he takes photos of live models, then refers to those photos throughout the many months it takes him to finish a canvas). In real life, Adam is a fashion model from Miami, Eve a model from New York. So it’s possible the anachronistic facets are accidental. But whatever Greene’s intent, the end result is a brilliant synthesis of reverence and pop culture. Indeed, compare The Introduction to Michelangelo’s Temptation and Fall. In the latter, Adam and Eve are being chased out of Paradise by an angel with a sword, their faces contorted with fear and shame. In Greene’s painting, Eden looks like a fun, sexy place to spend eternity. There’s no serpent in sight, and no forbidden fruit, either. A placid tiger and a curious giraffe observe history’s first blind date. In the distance, there are leafy green palm trees, cascading waterfalls, a couple of flamingos. It looks like Hawaii, if Hawaii were a casino in Las Vegas.—Greg Beato