In 375 A.D., Greek monastic theologian Evagrius of Pontus became the first to classify eight instinctively human tendencies that lead to immoral behavior. Evagrius' list, which included sorrow, discouragement and vainglory, was revised in 590 A.D. by Pope Gregory I.
As the uncontested (if now fairly secularized) canon defining sinful behaviors, Pope Gregory's amended list added "envy," combined vainglory with pride, and united sadness and discouragement to form "sloth." The History Channel once declared Gregory's list to be even more widely recognized than the Ten Commandments. Perhaps this is because it has less to do with defining moral laws and more with spelunking the darkest caverns of the human character.
Focusing on this venerable list is the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' exhibition SALIGIA: Seven Deadly Sins, presented by the Pittsburgh Society of Artists and juried by gallery owner Steve Mendelson.
The show's name stems from the mnemonic elision of the first letter of each sin's Latin name: Superbia (Pride); Avaritia (Greed); Luxuria (Lust); Invidia (Envy); Gula (Gluttony); Ira (Wrath) and Accidia (Sloth).
A clever nod to Gluttony, and winner of a Juror's Award, is Mildred Tersak's acrylic "American Gastric," which reinterprets Grant Wood's "American Gothic" to reveal striking changes in the national image since 1930. Tersak replaces Wood's anemic farm couple with two obese and despondent look-alikes. The male has abandoned his pitchfork, icon of self-sufficient labor, for a dinner fork, icon of sedentary consumption.
Unsurprisingly, frequent references are made to the stock market and its notorious stewards. One such example is Alan Byrne's "Greed -- 1929," an acrylic depicting unnamed day traders studying extensive ticker-tape emissions, presumably before the crash. Bernie Madoff's mug likewise puts a face on Avarice. In Martha Ellen Ressler's fabric collage "Wall Street Greed: Cascading Collapse," Madoff clutches $1,000 bills while sporting a dress shirt printed like a financial page. A chart of the recent market downturn, rendered in sparkling thread, follows the spiky New York skyline.
In "After the Fall (Pride)," Cynthia Cooley's photographs of abandoned steel mills reference events more geographically immediate, while Alan Bryne humorously connects all seven characters of Gilligan's Island to a separate sin in his acrylic and ink "1960s Sitcom as Modern Morality Play." In the process, he confirms that MaryAnn did indeed silently envy Ginger.
Meanwhile, Sharon Wilson Wilcox and Paula Garrick Klein offer a larger-than-life board game called "Demon Death Match." While it resembles Chutes and Ladders, it also appears to echo Hieronymus Bosch's oil "The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things." Wilcox and Klein replace Bosch's all-seeing eye of God with an unattended, limitless fire pit into which a human figure plummets. The image recalls the stern admonitions of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards and his infamous 1741 fire-and-brimstone sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Other works, by contrast, are unapologetic, like Carol Constantine's oil portrait of a blonde with red lipstick, titled "Girl Got Pride." In her statement, Constantine contends that a strong sense of self is nothing to be ashamed of.
Ultimately, what's most significant about this exhibition is its timing. It comes not at a moment when the nation is riding high, but when it is beset by political and economic upheaval, a kind of earthly reckoning for overspeculation and excess. That we still return to these ancient spiritual and social prescriptions in difficult times reveals a movement not toward religious fervor or political obfuscation, but rather toward recognition of human weakness, which underlies the failure of so many societies and systems. Taking the country's mounting unemployment numbers and credit crisis as fodder, the artists in SALIGIA remind us that every sin has its wages.
SALIGIA: Seven Deadly Sins continues through Aug. 30. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0673