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Ron Athey: 2019 Religion and the Arts Awardee

(Photo credit: Paul Mpagi Sepuya)


The Religion and the Arts Award Jury is pleased to announce that Ron Athey is the recipient of this year's Religion and the Arts Award.


A queer American performance artist, Athey has engaged with religious visual and aural forms throughout his career. The AAR is proud to recognize his consistently provocative body of work at the intersection of autobiography, creative expression, and critique.

Athey’s performances boldly probe the intersection of sexual, religious, and political discourses. Utilizing imagery and ritual actions deeply rooted in Pentecostal traditions of faith-healing as well as Catholic and Orthodox iconography, the artist perforates traditional pieties, enacting new visions of the sacred in their stead. He has performed regularly since the early ’80s, including such significant works as his collaboration with Rozz Williams on the experimental musical project Premature Ejaculation. In the ’90s, Athey explicitly turned his attention to religious motifs in works such as Surgical Stigmata, Martyrs & Saints, and Torture Trilogy, which were assailed by conservative cultural critics. These jeremiads often had as much to do with the artist’s identity as an openly HIV-positive gay man as the content of his work.

Ironically, such reactions helped draw further attention to the artist’s oeuvre, revealing a sophisticated and mature artist deploying far more than shock tactics. Athey’s complex fusion of glossolalia, bodily mortification, sado-masochism, and apocalyptic visions destabilize audiences not only emotionally, but hermeneutically as well. He is less focused on fostering consistent narratives in his performances than on building moments of pulsing, overflowing sensory experiences. In his recent Acephalous Monster (2018), Athey generates a symbol of anarchic disruption which might well apply to his work more broadly. To be “liberated” from one’s head is to discover a new kind of freedom, beyond the strictures of artificial hierarchies. Like William Blake, a great visionary precursor—equally untrammeled by artistic or religious convention—Athey has his own “infernal method.”

Athey is the winner of multiple awards and commissions, among others from Art Matters and the English Arts Council. In addition to his extensive body of performance work, he has created art across a stunning range of media, from video installations to collages and scarification imprints, and he has written insightfully about his own work and others. He is an experienced programmer and curator and has acted or been featured in more than a dozen films or documentaries.

The Religion and the Arts Award Jury will present the award to Ron Athey on Sunday, November 24, 2019, from 3:30 to 5:00 PM (A24-305) during the Annual Meeting in San Diego. Following the presentation of the award, expert discussants Anthony Petro (Boston University) and Linn Tonstad (Yale Divinity School) will invite Athey to reflect on the role of the artist in framing the public understanding of religion. Please join us in honoring Athey for his courageous explorations and transgressions of boundaries, artistic, religious, and otherwise.