Religion, Sexuality and Art
By Michael Lucas
Charles Merrill’s artistic temperament was evident right from the start of our interview. Defining himself as three-quarters gay and one-quarter straight, he said that whatever the gender of his partner, he likes smooth skin and the smell of night blooming jasmine.
He lived the earlier parts of his life-he’s now 73-on a grand scale, starting off in the fashion business in New York City, then studying acting with Stella Adler. After a stint with the Navy in Japan, he met his wife, Evangeline-who collected Kandinskys and Pollacks-at a gallery show of his work in Palm Beach. They remained together for 28 years until her passing in 1990.
A self-made millionaire (he co-founded Merrill-Lynch), he moved among high-society during the years of his marriage. Later, he moved to North Carolina and immersed himself in Native American culture. Today, Merrill is an activist (as a protest for inequality, he refuses to pay taxes) and an artist who views religious zealots as dire threats. His oil paintings include LGBT and religious symbolism. Recently, he edited the Bible with scissors and ink to eliminate the Right Winger’s hit parade of anti-gay passages. He knows the Koran in translation, but burned a valuable antique edition of it given to his late wife by King Hussein Jordan.
We spoke with Merrill about his latest works before the opening of his New York art exhibit, which includes his oils and a video installation.
You cut out specific verses from the Bible, but burned the entire Koran. Why is that text is dangerous? The Koran is responsible for 9/11. This kind of thing is foreseen in the Koran, actually, with the non-believers heaped in piles and set afire. The non-Muslims who don’t believe that the book talks about that very obviously have not read the Koran. They have their silly fantasies that the Koran is peace and light and Khalil Gibran [the Lebanese artist and poet], but it is not. Even [President] Bush goes around calling Islam “a religion of peace.” He’s full of crap; it isn’t. Why don’t we hear more criticism of the text?
[The Muslim] strategy is to intimidate people out of saying the least bad thing. But if everyone cowers like the media does, what chance do we have of preserving our freedoms and our legal system over time? It is up to the artist to edit the Bible and burn the Koran, because artists have the courage to do things that so-called leaders in politics dare not do.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I had many phobias of death. Now, though, I think, “If I get to that deathbed in the hospital and feel remorse that I haven’t made this warning against violence, then my life hasn’t been worth much.”
How did the gay community respond to your religious-based performance art? About 50 percent applauded me, and 50 percent were strongly against. Many people were concerned about the concept of burning a book, particularly a religious book. They’re clinging to the religious brainwashing they underwent when they were children. They hang onto that childhood father figure in the sky and twist it to where their make-believe friend Jesus helps them come out. I see faith-based gay organizations popping up all over the place; to me, that’s oxymoronic. Maybe if they would read the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, the end of the Bible, they wouldn’t think they had such a great pretend friend in Jesus. If you’ve matured as an adult you will get rid of all those tooth fairies in your mind, take responsibility for yourself and live out your potential as a human being.
How would you describe the role of religion in our country’s current presidential debates? It’s very important for the candidates to specify what is in their minds. John Edwards, for example, reverted to his childhood Southern Baptist religion when he had the tragic crisis of his son’s death. Well, a president simply is going to face many crises. Is he or she going to be adult, and effectively handle the crises, or are they going to revert to mythology and imaginary friends? Is there any proven connection between praying and the successful resolution of a crisis? When Hillary says that faith brought her through Bill’s sexual indiscretions, I want her to elaborate.
All a candidate need do when asked about their religious beliefs is to say, “Oh, that’s very personal to me” and they get the knee-jerk reaction of “Oh we understand; don’t bother to explain.” That mindset has prevented our society from making an objective assessment of the complete text of the Koran.
Finally, how do you see these issues playing out in upcoming years; are you an optimist? I think that the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment will prevail, despite any setbacks.
Paintings by Charles Merrill, through Aug 31, at Broadway Gallery, 473 Broadway, 7th Fl., 212-431-1079. Visit his web site at merrillcharles.com.