'Ugly' Christ on cross is too much to bear for art judge

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The Independent Culture

For the second year running, Australia's most prestigious prize for religious art has been overshadowed by a row over one of the paintings in the competition.

The controversy around a painting of Christ on the cross and the inscription "Only Woman Bleed" has led to one of the judges resigning in protest.

The Sydney academic Christopher Allen stood down from the judging panel of the Blake Prize for Religious Art because of the "deliberate ugliness" of the work, by the artist Adam Cullen.

"This isn't a personal preference, it's a judgement," he said. "I've never even met him – I just don't like his work."

Dr Allen's decision has thrown the competition into turmoil again, coming a year after organisers faced a similar controversy over a statue of the Virgin Mary wearing a burqa and a hologram of Christ morphing into Osama bin Laden. Those two exhibits incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church and the then prime minister John Howard, who labelled the works "gratuitously offensive".

The organisers of the Blake Prize insisted it was important to include a variety of styles. Rod Pattenden, chairman of the competition, said: "We respect Dr Allen's strength of feeling about Adam Cullen's work, which is based in a deep appreciation of beauty in art. The Blake Prize however, embraces diversity in its entries and it is important to us that we remain open to the many styles through which artists engage with the subject area."

Cullen, who won Australia's Archibald Prize in 2000, said of Dr Allen: "How can he be so offended? It's just a Jew on the cross – all the other entries would be of a Jew on two bits of wood," he told The Sydney Morning Herald. "It's a very left-wing, almost pseudo-femme, artwork."

Cullen's painting, titled Corpus Christi, is a triptych inspired by early Christian art. It is painted with acrylic and enamel on canvas. The inscription, "Only Woman Bleed", is based on a line from a song by Alice Cooper.

Events reached a climax when the panel met to draw up a shortlist of entries and decided not to include Cullen's work. When one of the other judges changed their mind, Dr Allen was outvoted, prompting him to walk out.

Other judges on the panel seemed divided on the issue this week. One, Kathleen McPhillips, agreed that the painting was "really offensive". Another judge, Lachlan Warner, told the Herald he voted for it because he "wanted to look at it again".

Cullen said he had become accustomed to strong reactions to his work. "Sometimes I think all I have to do is wake up in the morning – I just have to fart and there's flames," he said.

The Blake Prize is worth more than £9,000 to the winner.

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