Diplomatic relations between what I’d like to believe is a personal spirituality and the cultural residue of a religious upbringing tends to come off without much conflict, even though the uncomfortable prick of Sunday School edicts can still be summoned at the slightest provocation. Chick tracts used to scare the hell out of me. I haven’t read any in years, but I was greeted by one at the bus stop the other day, left on the bench by an ostensibly well-meaning but elusive disciple. Gun Slinger is one of over 100 titles in a series of narrative evangelical pamphlets. They usually end with an unrepentant character being dragged off to Hell by figures ranging from shadowy ciphers to Cthulhu-like monsters. The renderings are dead-serious cartoons that utilize every trope of the medium to designate good characters from bad. Evil characters have bulging, bloodshot eyes and five-o’ clock shadows. Ones destined for salvation almost invariably have neat haircuts and pleasing features. The detail is stunning sometimes, but the art always follows a basic code of character symbols to get the message across. This art had a purpose. It had answers, and you’d better answer to them, else be fetched by some creature of questionable metaphysical origin to answer to your maker.
The heavy scrawling and emphasis on damnation was a bit too strong for the innocuous brand of suburban Christianity I grew up in. The tracts we were given to hand out focused on more peaceable tenets like forgiveness and helping those less fortunate than yourself. They contained pleasing watercolors of the Christ child in a white cotton bundle, or a father and son leaning over the kitchen counter discussing “how far is too far?” Still, Chick tracts found me—behind buildings, on bathroom counters, tucked into used books. They were the flipside to the doctrine that no one liked to talk about too much upfront. It was a bad selling point. It was the fine print that came later.I can’t put my finger on what touches me to the quick about these. What I love about art is the asking of questions, the unabashed acknowledgment of the insoluble. Still, I think what draws me to all forms of naïf art is a paradoxical awe, maybe something akin to respect, for such a small thing that attempts to confront the insoluble with absolute confidence. —Christina Catherine Martinez, an artist and writer living in Oakland.