A CONTROVERSIAL modern art exhibition has been branded "garbage", an "insult to the city" and a "dig at Christianity" by visitors from across the country.

North+South, which opened at Southampton City Art Gallery last month, explores English identity in the 21st century.

However, prominent religious leaders say the "disappointing" exhibition is a "missed opportunity" to reflect the issues in Southampton's multicultural community.

The art at the centre of the controversy depicts the Holy Trinity as three white business shirts hung from a line with three pairs of underpants and handkerchiefs.

According to the artist, Chris Lewis-Jones, it is an essay on English spirituality and questions the extent to which man was made in God's image.

A description of the work reads: "Is god still male? Does he have genitals? If so, are Y-fronts his garment of choice?"

Another of the Nottingham artist's pieces, Patriotic Pants, shows a pair of green underpants splashed over the Union Jack and Kurdish script scrawled over the top.

According to Lewis-Jones, it questions "the antipathy that still characterises the relationship between the worlds of Islam and Christendom".

The Rev Ian Johnson, who is well known for high-profile work with ethnic groups and is chairman of the South-ampton Council of Faiths, labelled the work as "pretentious" and said it was "not art".

Mr Johnson, the Rector of Southampton, said: "There seems to be a strange euphemism between Christianity and nationality in the exhibition, but Christianity has nothing to do with being English or British.

"It works too hard to be provocative, in my judgement, to be good art or entertainment.

"My passion is immigration and multi-faith work and if that is what it was about it did not penetrate with me at all."

There was similar condemnation from the Muslim Council of Southampton, with Azad Majid describing the exhibition as "crude and juvenile".

He said: "The North and South exhibition was a wonderful opportunity for artists to emphasise the cultural and religious diversity that embodies our country in an original and thought-provoking manner.

"Instead I came out of the exhibition extremely disappointed by a handful of artist who, in an attempt to be risqué, used pre-pubescent themes to emphasise their contempt for religion.

"No fewer than two exhibits decided to pointlessly use Y-fronts and male briefs as a backdrop for raising theological and religious questions. Giving the impression that it was far easier for them to use crude references to create a shock factor rather than rely on more ingenious means to get the audiences attention.

"My greatest disappointment was the fact that I'd actually wasted 30 minutes of my life to visit the gallery to witness these artists' exhibition. There are so many more deserving issues which could have been emphasised or addressed within our communities.

"This is an exhibition I would not recommend to anyone that I like and I feel mildly embarrassed that I am even giving these artists any publicity at all."

The art provoked a lively debate on race and religion in the pages of the gallery's visitor comments book.

Mr and Mrs Bleigh, from Cornwall, wrote: "I see the usual Arabs and Muslims have their obligatory say in the exhibition re: North and South.

"It's obvious that political correctness extends into so-called art. How thoroughly pathetic and insulting. Three pairs of underpants depicting the Holy Trinity - what nonsense and a dig at Christianity to boot."

Scattered among some positive comments, visitors said it was "a waste of space", "garbage", "appalling and very upsetting" and "rubbish".

However, Mr Johnson could not understand how anybody could take offence to the Holy Trinity piece, which he said "did not bear any serious thought".

"As usual wherever anything to do with the Middle East comes up, the normal hate comments about Islam can be found," he added.

"The ignorance about Islam and about the contribution of migrants to this country, and our economy, makes me sad and angry."

Gallery curator Tim Craven said that contemporary art often provoked political debate, but that he did not believe it was offensive.

"I am not entirely surprised at the reaction it has provoked. It's a very interesting subject and very pertinent to the 21st century," he said.

"I do not think it's offensive to Christianity. We have free speech in this country and people are allowed to talk about all matters, be it Christianity, Islam or any other religion."

Another controversial piece, Charge, is a series of eight flags based on the St George cross.

Artist Pippa Hale replaces the famous red cross with motifs which reference ancient Ottoman Turkish lettering that allude to the theory that St George was in fact a Turk.

Miniature versions of the transformed St George cross are on sale for £12 in the gallery gift shop and have proved popular, according to the gallery.