CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Jerzy Kenar inside Marriage; Summer, 2010; Country Paintings, 2009

Jerzy Kenar gives public art a whole new meaning. While he’s done his share of highly visible work, including a 19-piece exhibit at O’Hare International Airport, some of his work has been for churches, where he subverts the traditional, awe-inspiring aesthetics to create a more accessible iconography. “When I was a boy,” says the Poland-born artist, “my grandmother always said I would go to hell, because she went to church twice a day and I wanted to kick a ball and play with the guys. And so when I did go to church and saw Christ on the cross, I was afraid.”

Kenar’s own designs for nondenominational churches occasionally feature the Holy Family seated on a bench or beckoning welcomingly to parishioners. And when he creates a crucifix, he does his best to make it grab the attention of the congregation. One features Christ atop an undulating grid rather than the traditional arrangement. “The priest called me and said the old women complained it made them dizzy,” recalls Kenar. “That’s what I wanted. So they can concentrate on praying, not sleeping.”

When he’s not devising ways to manifest the church as a place that celebrates “laughter, sharing, giving and good energy,” Kenar transitions from the sacred to the arguably profane. His cavernous studio/gallery in the East Village houses a group of towering cedar phalluses that rock back and forth. The space is also home to a series of large-scale works that echo memories of childhood (a construction of intertwined poplar and linden represents his parents), a painting that evokes summer (nude figures overlaid with swirls of orange and red paint), and mixedmedia pieces using hay. “I thank God for nature, for colors, for the chemistry of my brain,” offers Kenar. “I think he wants me to give the best from what he has given me. And that’s what I work hard to provide.”

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