Somewhere, during the 1700s, someone, somehow, got the idea to construct a model ship in an empty bottle. By doing so the viewer was left to wonder what bizarre or magical method might have been employed to fit such a large, complex object through such a small opening. It left one with a visual paradox which conflicted with the belief that the laws of the physical universe were immutable. Believing that someone would spend the unthinkable hours necessary to literally build a ship in a bottle was absurd, so people were left flummoxed, wondering what exactly the trick was. A ship in a bottle became a type of metaphor for finding a secret way to overcome what looked to be an impossible obstacle…to controlling and utilizing to a miraculous end the immutable laws of science.
Yet, by devising special tools and through countless hours of diligent and painstaking work, a ship could actually be built within a bottle. The end product looked like something magical or paradoxical, but it was produced through the cultivation of an endurance and patience most people would never experience or even try for. It required an immense amount of self-control and an appropriately tranquil or even trancelike state of mind. That brings us to Steve Moseley, who started building model ships within bottles after becoming a “house-husband”, raising a child while his wife pursued her post-doctorate career. Somewhere, somehow, he then got the idea to begin creating little satirical dioramas within empty bourbon bottles.
Why bourbon bottles? Well, bourbon is a completely and unabashedly American intoxicant. Nobody is sure why it is called bourbon. It could be from Bourbon Street or from the European Bourbon Dynasty. In American history there was even a group of politicians in the late 19th and early 20th century called the Bourbon Democrats. These were extremely conservative Southern Democrats who made up the extreme right wing of their party. So bourbon has a reputation as being a strong component of Southern culture, especially in the state of Kentucky, where Steve Moseley resided when he began to create his patience bottles. Recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was seen making a Tequila Sunrise in a video in which she discussed politics, so maybe a Tequila Sunrise is the drink of Northern socialists (who knows). Bourbon would definitely seem to be a drink of Southern conservatism.
So if the bottle literally holds an important aspect of Southern culture, it becomes the perfect means by which to present satirical versions of that culture, especially its religious life. You ingest or pour out the intoxicant and you get your satirical diorama in its place. Moseley seems most interested in lampooning the literalist approach to the Bible. He is also helping in the recycling movement by preserving these cast-off bottles as a means to examine Southern religious life. Indeed, he is, in essence, attacking the culture of conservativism represented by bourbon. Bourbon is part of the culture of Southern denial and nothing attacks a sense of denial better than satire. And if you say this is not very Christian, I’m not sure Mosely is, as I saw him wearing a tee shirt paying homage to the People’s Front of Judea (the fictional group of revolutionaries from Monty Python’s Life of Brian movie). And, shoot, Jesus loved satire too. He called the Pharisees a bunch of whited sepulchers: pretty on the outside but concealing death and corruption inside. That is pretty good satire, Lord.
So you can see some of Moseley’s work in the images. It is not so much that he is attacking the Christian religion as he is attacking what some people have done to the Christian religion. We have The Last McSupper in which Jesus and his demon-thrashing, healing crew are pigging out on some fast food before the crucifixion. Here he mocks the melodrama of a last supper with the premise that Jesus magically knew the next day would be the end. What I think is funny is that most death-row prisoners in US jails choose fast food as their last meal before execution. Was the first last supper the precedent for this? In I’m Bored, Me Too he mocks the conservative or literalist concept of heaven. Just what the heck are we supposed to be doing in heaven? You know, I like doing volunteer work, but if everyone is friggin’ pure, what can I do? How can I be good if there are no challenges or anyone to be good to? It’s Not Sublime is a mockery of the art world (more of this please) as a gallery hopper just plain refuses to place too much meaning into a box of crackers. Jesus H. Christ: The Teen Years (my favorite) is inspired by the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text where the youthful Jesus is portrayed as, well, a youthful Jesus. Here a teenage Jesus is miraculously giving girls breast enlargements. As Steve pointed out to me: “…free consultations but copay is required.”
In this California show Moseley has branched out to do some sculpture and painting as well, which I am happy to see as he has been falsely classified as an “outsider” artist for long enough. His is really a remarkable story. As an educated guy, a trained scientist, he put his child before a career, put his wife’s career before his own, defying sex and gender stereotypes, and this, thankfully, lead to his bourbon bottle miracle dioramas. In his satirical revelations of literalist bunk we can sense the true humanity and even real Christian sentiment that has factored into his life.