Two years ago, artist Wayne Polak provoked a controversy when he installed 14 street signs along a sidewalk of the Saint James Episcopal Cathedral. The signs bore images from the stations of the cross, rendered in universal signage symbols.

But because the signs had been placed on a public right-of-way, the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened to sue the city for violating the Constitution’s clause separating church and state. The Madison-based group backed down when the cathedral, located at the corner of Wabash and Huron, agreed to move the signs within its property line. Polak’s Stations of the Cross is now a permanent feature of the complex’s gardens.

“It generated a lot of positive energy and publicity,” says curator Nathan Mason. The incident inspired Mason, a church member, to find other ways of using contemporary art to link the public and spiritual environments.

Of course, the practice of commissioning artists to create work for churches has a long history. In that same spirit, four more site-specific installations by Chicago artists have since been added to the historic cathedral and its neighboring Diocesan Center, three of them temporary. Though none of the works are overtly religious in nature, they depend on their sites for the desired effects. “The only thing that makes them religious is the fact that they’re here,” says Mason. “It’s not the pieces themselves, but their context.”

Last year, Mason invited artist Adam Brooks to create a permanent installation for the parish. For the project Out, Brooks stenciled and sandblasted decorative patterns on the 22 lit exit signs scattered throughout the complex. The stenciled patterns discreetly play off the work of Edward J. Neville Stent, the architect who redecorated the cathedral’s interior in 1888-89, enriching the nave, transept, and arch with stencils in the Arts and Crafts style.

Max King Cap’s temporary installation Bulwark consists of six blocks of vinyl-transfer text placed alternately inside and outside the lobby windows of the church’s Diocesan Center, which is fronted by a plaza. The work lists domains over which specific saints are assigned patronage–theft, rabies, lost items, epilepsy, and 122 others.

Sculptors Adelheid Mers and Patrick McGee have each created temporary artworks that complement the cathedral’s interior. McGee’s monumental string construction is lofted 25 feet above the floor of the nave. The work, which resembles a three-dimensional line drawing in space, enhances the symmetrical intricacies of the wood-beamed vault, a feature of the redesign imposed on the English Gothic cathedral in 1875 after it was damaged in the 1871 fire.

Mers has made one of her colored-light projections on the cathedral’s center aisle, which bathes the viewer in glaring red, yellow, and green hues. A reference to the light streaming through the church’s stained-glass windows, the work has a spiritual effect, illuminating the idea of a divine presence.

“The current cultural dialogue has ideologues on both the right and the left who want to imply that art and religion are inimical to each other,” says Mason. “But my project is a very concerted demonstration that they’re not. People on the right assume that artists are immoral or aren’t regular people, and people on the left have the same perceptions about religious people and institutions. Both perceptions are completely erroneous. This project is just one little conversation in that debate. I thought a little temperance would be nice.”

“Site-Specific Installations at Saint James Episcopal Cathedral and the Diocesan Center” continues through June 3. The cathedral, at 65 E. Huron, is open 11 AM to 2 PM Monday through Friday, as well as after 9 and 11 AM Sunday services. The Diocesan Center lobby is open 9 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday. Call 312-787-7360. –Jeff Huebner

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of “Installation by Adelheid Mers” by J.B. Spector.