Chicken Noodle Dark Night of the Soul

One of Warhol's famous soup cans,
as shown on gallerywarhol.com

“The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise.” – Mother Teresa

Call me unimaginative, but I didn’t think I could find any similarities between Andy Warhol’s work and Psalm 23 …although I may have implied otherwise during one of my church’s fabulous sermon discussion groups. In retrospect, it may have been because the two are so dissimilar that our associate pastor, Paul, who was sitting across the table from me, said he’d love to read something on that very subject.

Paul has led many conversations at our church about living into God’s story as opposed to living into culture’s story. Living into God’s story requires trusting in God and finding our meaning and comfort in Him. Psalm 23 uses organic imagery – still waters, green pastures – to illustrate how God comforts His beloved.

Warhol’s imagery is synthetic. The images Warhol is known for are not rendered to be realistic, but simplistic, making them easier to reproduce en masse. Warhol and his team would churn out this kind of work at his studio, “The Factory,” like how Campbell’s churns out cans of soup. This is the consumer culture’s story. The NIV translation of Psalm 23 says that The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. But in consumer culture, you have to lack something, otherwise you wouldn’t need to buy soup or art or cars or Brillo pads or any of those other thingamabobs out there for purchase.

However, God is not altogether absent from Warhol’s work, and I don’t just mean his series of silk-screened Last Suppers. For holiness, I would look to the movie star portraits (not to make them Golden Calves). What Warhol does with chicken soup, he does with movie stars. The problem therein being that movie stars are people, and when it is attempted for them to be mass produced and treated like soup, a few things fall through the cracks. Dimension is lost. Flat representations of faces are colored with unrealistic, garish hues. In half of Marilyn Diptych, for example, Marilyn Monroe’s skin is Pepto Bismol pink.

Diptych is a solid block of Marilyns: the same picture repeated over and over and over again, with minor imperfections. She is set up to be the supply for any public demand of her, something to be used then thrown away…then used again. On the second half of the canvas, the Marilyns are in black and white. They’re dark, blotched, blackened, their quality even less consistent than those of the left half. After the faces get the blackest, the Marilyns then start fading, until she is depleted to whispers of facial features at the right end of the canvas.

Marilyn Diptych demonstrates a consequence of living into culture’s story. It’s true that when we seek comfort in things that are not eternal, ultimately they will not nourish or satisfy. Tragic still is when people themselves are treated and/or treat themselves as mere commodities to be sold and used. However you invest yourself in culture’s story, faith in the temporal has a way of culminating into a serious why have you forsaken me? moment, because here, in the black, synthetic darkness, it’s terribly difficult to find those green pastures and quiet waters.

When looking for God in Warhol, go to the blackest faces in Marilyn Diptych. When the garish colors’ promise turns out to be false, it doesn’t feel like the aforementioned waters and pastures are a reality. But God is also in the suffering, as Mother Teresa would say, Jesus in a distressing disguise. Even if they’ve been putting their trust into something else until then, God is with those whose stories have failed them.

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