Dorothy Day sculpture. (Photos: Oliver Conroy)

“We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists [of conspiring to do], but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”

So spoke Dorothy Day – “Catholic anarchist” and founder of the radical Catholic Worker, still published seven times a year at Maryhouse in the East Village. Day, an activist and writer who became the godmother of the religious-left “Catholic worker” movement, died in 1980, but her legacy lives on in the form of the East 3rd Street soup kitchen she founded to minister to the poor and homeless of the East Village and Lower East Side.

Day is among the subjects of an ongoing exhibition by the young sculptor and illustrator Christopher Alles, whose art is being shown this week at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, also in the East Village. The Sheen Center’s Bleecker Street location – a block from a Planned Parenthood office named for another Village social crusader, contraception activist Margaret Sanger – seems somehow to encapsulate the tensions of our age.

Entitled “A Peering,” Alles’ exhibition highlights his sculpture work in plaster as well as sketches in charcoal, acrylic, and mixed-media. All the pieces shown are focused on human subjects: figure studies, self-portraits, and busts of subjects both spiritual and temporal.

His expressive but mostly un-experimental pieces are, in a contemporary art world where blank canvases and gold toilets are passed off as the height of artistic achievement, strangely satisfying. (In a recent review of the exhibition, the conservative cultural journal The New Criterion praised the pieces for their indifference to conceptual fads.)

People are overly preoccupied with imposing philosophical concepts on art, Alles believes. He deliberately shies away from conceptual art for that reason. “They’ve worked everything out in their concepts. It loses all the poetry,” he said. “Imagine if a musical composer, if every note [he wrote] had to have a rational justification for it…it would lose the magic. It’s not that art is irrational, but it’s using a more intuitive language.”

Some of the exhibition pieces are commissioned works on loan from churches and religious organizations. Alles actually prefers commissioned work. “There are parameters to work under, [which provide] a sense of discipline,” he said. “Limitations which I find helpful.”

Two of the pieces in the exhibition were commissioned by the Sheen Center: sculptures of Dorothy Day and Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the center’s namesake. The building occupied by the Sheen Center was originally a men’s shelter, and Dorothy Day “almost certainly” spent time there during her life. As the demographics of the Bowery changed, the shelter was shut down; the building now occupies some of the most expensive real estate in New York.

Alles’ commissioned pieces are often more “complete” and formally conservative, which he said is deliberate. “I approach commissioned pieces more reverently because the individuals [depicted] are completed. They’re finished people.” To an artist who does both, non-commissioned pieces are opportunities to experiment or work through an idea, but commissioned pieces have built-in context.

The Day sculpture is modeled from a “classic, powerful” photograph of her as an older woman, framed by policemen. Alles admits he tweaked her pose slightly to make it more receptive and humble, appropriate to an iconographic commissioned piece. Even in death, it seems, Day stubbornly refuses to be put in a box.

Day was proposed for sainthood in 1983, but some have argued that canonization contradicts her spirit. “Don’t call me a saint,” she supposedly said. “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

Tomorrow is the last chance to check out Alles’ art in person, as the exhibit will be packed up Saturday morning. For those who can’t make it, however, we got some photos.