03/07/2014

Objectifying Time

PHC01

Peter Happel Christian, "Sword of the Sun", installation view Once Around, 2013, one bundle of 365 sheets 8.5x11" fiber-based gelatin silver paper

PHC02

Peter Happel Christian, "Sword of the Sun", installation view Drag and Drip, 2013, unique gelatin silver print, 14"x11"

PHC03

Peter Happel Christian, "Sword of the Sun", installation view Search/Shade I, 2013, archival pigment print, 14" x 11"

PHC04

Peter Happel Christian, "Sword of the Sun", installation view Infinite Field II, 2013-2014, Plexi-glass, found oak sawhorses, custom cedar sawhorse, mixed media

PHC05

Peter Happel Christian, "Sword of the Sun", installation view Infinite Field III, 2014, maple plywood, custom sawhorses, mixed media

this essay originally appeared March 5, 2014 on mnartists.org

Peter Happel Christian’s exhibition, Sword of the Sun, at Macalester College addresses the materiality of photography literally — his work is as likely to materialize as object as it is in print. Framed contact sheets, a photogram, a few color prints, and a sheet of photographic paper developed with the drag of dripping chemicals, all hang in the gallery among a series of sculptures made from cardboard boxes, mirrors, shards of glass and two tables of meticulously ordered sundry materials. The tables are laid out in such a way that the various articles serve as detailed citations, evidence of mental associations connecting shape and form, documentation of the material resonance between objects, time, nature, and the photographic record itself.

The contact sheet is a longstanding resource for photographers. Displaying positive images of the photographs on a roll of film, contact sheets are primarily used to make selections of one photo over another. Happel Christian presents them for view as a whole, both hanging in frames and laid out on the tables. Capitalizing on the shifts from one frame to another — depicting the same subject from different moments and perspectives — he treats the contact sheet’s assembled thumbnails as a meditation on the movement of his attention through the flux of the world. Some of the contact sheets are pulled from work made years earlier, so that the photographic record’s preservation of time looks both forward and backward. He’s effectively exhuming past intuitions and repurposing them in his aesthetic and conceptual present.

In Once Around, two bundles of paper rest on the gallery floor.  Happel Christian tied up and placed a stack of 365 sheets of 8.5×11” black-and-white fiber paper next to a stack of 365 sheets of 4×6” resin-coated paper; he then left the bundles of paper on a cedar pallet in his yard for one year. A year’s worth of sunlight exposed the paper but no images, while the warp of the weather wrote itself onto the surface, developing a record of the sheets’ time in the sun, wind, rain, and snow. The pallet is displayed in the exhibition, propped against the gallery wall as if casually moved out of the way and forgotten, its purpose complete. Some mixture of soil, moisture, pulp and emulsion have marked the pallet’s surface where the bundles sat. Their removal appears to have been forced: a chunk of raw wood is now visible at the corner of the larger stain, as if it had to be pried loose. Small patches of paper remain where the bundled sheets resisted separation from their resting place. It is as if the paper, under the weight of a year’s exposure to the elements and in recognition of material kinship with the wood, began to bond to the pallet.

Three straightforward color prints, Search/Shade I-III, hang on the wall, but unanchored at the base so that the bottom edge rises, ever so slightly, out into the space of the gallery. The figures in these photos cover their eyes to block the intensity of the sun above. Their arms create a diagonal that reappears in other images and objects throughout the gallery space. Indeed, such forms recur throughout the exhibition — circles, crescent moons, narrow rectangles, etc.  The figures are determined to look at the sun — our most basic marker of time’s passage — despite their inability to do so without mitigating its brightness. Their determination is indicative of the way Happel Christian asks us to look at the materials in the exhibition.  He presents items for view, shaped by the power of time and light, while exposing for us the mediating process of his physical shaping of objects and images in order to bring us to these perceptions.

Against this backdrop, the aforementioned tables, Infinite Field II & III, become a kind of research hub for all of the other pieces in the gallery. As a collection of data the assemblages are at once tantalizing and elusive. Stacks of cut-open security envelopes are layered one upon another next to neat piles of photographic images that beg to be lifted for a quick look beneath. Happel Christian simultaneously splays open what is hidden while obstructing thorough inquisition. Taken together, his stacks of photos, papers, and open book pages create new compositions; their discrepancies in size and degree of overlap allow for one to extend out from under the other. We may wish to see that which is still unavailable, but the interplay of images we are given offer propositions at least as compelling as the mystery of what might yet lie beneath.

Objects of obvious significance — black mirrored stones, finely printed photographs, a collection of clay discs with impressions formed by sea-glass — are juxtaposed with what appears to be the material detritus of Happel Christian’s studio process: wedges of wood, slivers of paper from trimming prints, halves of photo paper boxes, a disposable camera still in its silver wrapper. The equivalencies generated by these relationships allow the byproducts of creation to reclaim a place of importance in the construction of thought and experience. Small rocks serve to weight books and prints down onto the table; other stones serve to support the glass tabletop and the angled feet of the sawhorse legs. The archeological precision of the distribution of objects over the table orders these artifacts of material experience and interaction, all with equal deliberation and intention.

In Sword of the Sun, Happel Christian forms a coded but only partially decipherable legend for the interconnectedness of light, time, and our ability to process the experiences of each. Put together on a sturdy conceptual structure, the impact of this work is first viscerally material as a phenomenal experience.

06/12/2013

juxtaposition without permission v.3

Juxtaposition 3

image credits (left to right): Gemini 8 after splashdown Mar. 16, 1966, NASA; Slovenia Ice Cave, Peter Gedei; Japanese Spider Crab, Dave Thompson

05/30/2013

F* That: Photography and the Ineffable

A new essay of mine, “F* That: Photography and the Ineffable”, has gone up on Lay Flat. It concerns the work of Mishka Henner, Mårten Lange, Jason Lazarus, and Keith Taylor.Screen shot 2013-05-30 at 3.16.29 PM

02/16/2013

juxtaposition without permission v.2

juxtaposition 2

image credits (left to right): two-toed sloth, The Last Tuesday Society; rocks, Bobby Doherty

11/16/2012

juxtaposition without permission v.1

image credits (left to right): volcanic lightning, Terje Sorgjerd; The Fairy of Eagle Nebula, NASA, ESA, STScI/AURA; Aplysia californica inking, Genevieve Anderson

11/09/2012

Lu-Wow at Bethel University

Lu-Wow, an exhibition of images from my series Mahalo is up at Bethel University’s Johnson Gallery through Dec 14th, 2012. Here are some images of the installation.

08/16/2012

The Ethics of the Dust

Remnants of John Ruskin’s The Ethics of the Dust, Ten Lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Crystallization (with apologies to the Bethel University Library)

03/21/2012

Jason Fulford’s The Mushroom Collection

Jason Fulford’s new book The Mushroom Collection is designed to accompany his exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The fifth installment of curator David Little’s New Pictures series, the exhibition begins in the gallery, spreads out into the museum, and is published into the wider world. The exhibition is the latest iteration in Fulford’s Mushroom Collector projects. It combines his own photographs, a short black and white video with a squeaky undulating soundtrack that permeates the exhibition, and the collection of mushroom photographs by an anonymous photographer that initiated Fulford’s project. The mushroom photos are small and scattered throughout the gallery, intermixed with the other photographs and varying heights on the wall – sometimes growing in unexpected places: over the wall text and onto the museum’s signage. Fulford’s photographs in the exhibit are poetic and understated. The collection of images is quite varied in size and format, incorporating contact sheets and photograms. Formal echoes and recurring shapes move the viewer from one visual phrase to the next. It is more sensory than cognitive – about seeing and associating on an intuitive level.

Fulford spreads these near visual equivalences outside the gallery. Working with other departments of the museum, as part of the MIA’s Art ReMix program, Fulford’s mushrooms pop up in displays throughout the museum, commingling artifacts and visual tropes from his other photographs and previous installations of the project with the MIA’s permanent collection. Though mostly sculptural in nature (aside from the indicative mushroom photograph serving as a label for the intervention), the spirit is the same as with Fulford’s photos. The associations are visual and often funny – a wry, though often oblique, commentary on the larger museum collection.

It is within the context of this exhibition that Fulford creates the small book The Mushroom Collection (9.5”x6.5”, 24pgs). Clean and economic in design, the book begins and ends with a page of perforated color stamps of Fulford’s photographs. Between those pages are black and white reproductions of pieces from the MIA’s collection and elements from Fulford’s work. Scattered throughout the pages, small “X” marks indicate locations ready to receive the colored stamps, inviting the viewer to intervene in the book, as Fulford has in the museum, making associations based on visual confluence, the experience of the exhibition, or some other idiosyncratic preference.

Assuming that the distribution of the book in the gallery and its proximity to the infiltration of the extant museum might hold a special key to completing the book in its most fitting form, and as an excuse to complete the search for mushroom throughout the MIA, Paula McCartney and I set about with book in hand to find each mushroom and let it guide our placement of the stamps onto the “X”s. In the copies of the book from DAP, the stamps come with adhesive. However, due to concerns about providing stickers to miscreants within the museum, the copies available at the MIA require a person to smuggle in their own sticky substances in order to complete the book onsite. We presumed that finding the pieces from the permanent collection that were reproduced in the black and white pages of the book would give us some indication of the proper stamp selections for that page. We located sixteen mushroom interventions within the galleries, some of them bearing direct connection to the black and white reproductions in the book. With others, however, the mushroom and Fulford’s object intervention had no direct correspondence with the available stamps. Thus, in the end, we were forced to make our own connections between pages and stamps, rather than retrace and record the ones Fulford made.

Initially, this was frustrating. My preconception was that the book was a companion to the exhibition, a way of pushing the viewer to engage it in full, creating an archive of the experience by completing the book. Instead, the book is a way to encourage the viewer to give in to Fulford’s process and way of thinking, creating a record of that individual experience occurring within oneself. So, while this experience is certainly enhanced by viewing the exhibition, the book is able to function without that immediate presence. Readers can purchase a copy from DAP, tear out the stickers and paste them in while sitting in their living room. Though one might be less inclined to complete the redistribution of the stickers when the book was paid for, rather than being pulled from the pocket in the gallery, The Mushroom Collection is more satisfying as an experience and as a visual object when the color images pop up beside the black and white ones – plus, one can’t really read the book without covering the “X”s and associating the forms into new ideas.

03/19/2008

Colleen Mullins’ Elysium: Urban Canopy Loss in Post-Katrina New Orleans at the Hand of Man

This text on Colleen MullinsElysium was originally written as a gallery essay and later published on mnartists.org.

Colleen Mullins, Untitled (7:2007)

Colleen Mullins’ Elysium: Urban Canopy Loss in Post-Katrina New Orleans at the Hand of Man

When visiting my parents after the destruction caused by Hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Dennis (2005), I was stunned at the transformation of my childhood home. Crews worked to remove wreckage and to replace the debris with new construction. But this was expected. The transience of buildings, especially suburban shopping centers and other recent construction, seems natural. What was truly disorienting was the extent to which the forest landscapes lining highways and abutting neighborhoods had been altered by the storms. It was shocking to see what little remained of hundreds of years worth of natural growth, shredded in a matter of a few short hours. Trees were twisted and torn in unnatural ways, fallen, or just absent. Previously filled space was opened, the tree line thinned. Now, my family’s home is no longer surrounded by thick forest. The yard is all but empty. The few remaining trees seem dislocated by their isolation. This culling of trees has shifted my experience of the space; it no longer feels like the place I grew up. In the absence of the familiar foliage, it is a new place.

A parallel depletion took place in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina (2005). The photographs of Colleen Mullins’ exhibition Elysium: Urban Canopy Loss, on view at Bethel University’s 9th Street Entry Gallery, depict this loss. Her portraits of trees, survivors of an intense battle with a storm they could not escape, are supplemented with newspaper clippings, personal testimony, and smaller images for context. The damage is, sadly, evident throughout. In Mullins’ photographs, the trees appear as amputees. Limbs are conspicuously absent, and we are left to imagine how the phantom foliage once filled out the canopy within these neighborhoods. The mournful quality of this loss is balanced against the strength and perseverance of the remaining umbrage. It is easy to see these photographs as surrogate portraits of the people of the city, but one should be careful not to diminish the way in which the images are truly about the trees and places they inhabit.

Mullins is particularly attentive to the context of her subjects. Her compositions reflect the intertwining of the trees with their urban environments, just as the trees’ locations bind their fate to the destructive expediency of cleaning crews. In one image, winnowed treetops appear to emerge from the painted tree trunk on a retaining wall. The fullness of the painted tree serves as a haunting counterpoint to the actual tree’s lack of lateral limbs. Several photographs show trees surrounded at the base by a peculiar mulch of rubble and scrap. This does not nourish the tree. Instead, the tree becomes a much-abused tool, serving as a backstop for bulldozers scraping up the debris.. In another image, only trunks remain, sawed off at the top, so that power lines can run unhindered overhead. The trunks become two-story stumps, as tall as the adjacent apartment building. Their severed pine branches rest at their feet like clippings under a barber’s chair, ready to be swept away. In the end, the four trees pictured are reduced to likenesses of the utility poles beside them. Other photographs reveal a “y”-shaped canal cut from the top-center of trees to allow wires to pass freely through. These paths carved through the trees by workers restoring power and utilities to the remaining homes and residents may be necessary elements of reconstruction. Unfortunately, they put a priority on speed and human convenience that comes at the expense of further damage to these leafy residents. Mullins’ careful framing of these images accentuates the geometric, ordered, and systematic removal of limbs. This kind of cutting is everything that the storm was not, except merciless.

The decision to carve through the remaining canopy recalls how use and misuse of the land around the city magnifies the damage of the storm to both human and non-human citizens. Mullins’ photographs highlight the complexity of social and environmental choices that lead to this kind of savage pruning. The ruins of the flora reveal the priorities of the human culprits behind their demise. While the trees are often treated as obstacles to recovery efforts by city workers, Mullins lays bare our intimate connection to them as part of our sense of place and home. The most ubiquitous image in post-hurricane photography is that of the house branded with the brightly colored “x,” indicating the search status of the property. Similar markings show up in some of her images – spray painted neon circles and “x”‘s on trees. The symbol is generally foreboding not unlike the death toll tallied in the quadrants of the “x” on the home markings. It is portentous that the mode of address for house, tree, and the occasional utility pole might be so similar. In one photograph, a tree stands in front of an empty lot, bearing a blue ribbon and a handmade sign that is simultaneously evocative of a roadside memorial and a yard sale notice. The sign recounts how the trees are all that remain to enable the owner to identify the former location of her house, now just an empty yard. The blue bow becomes yet another new color in the litany of memorial ribbons. Another photograph offers the inverse: a tree stands surrounded by bright pink structures, placeholders for future houses. The sign in the front of this yard, a remnant of Paul Chan’s 2007 staging of Waiting for Godot, recounts the stage setting from the play – “A country road, a tree, evening.” The sign, though antecedent, remains on the lot as a kind of counterweight (Godot, after all, never arrives) to the promise of the Project Pink houses. These bold colors and markings stand alongside the trees as both memorial and hope for the future of this place to become home again. But Mullins’ pictures bear witness to the fact that the structures and their surrounding natural elements will remain forever changed

Mullins’ photographs and supplementary materials, along with a web presence that offers the specific geography of these sites using a Google satellite map, direct us to the particularity of this space: as a place of (un)natural ruin, of environmental instability, and as a beloved home. New Orleans is famous for its above-ground cemeteries, built so that burials are not disturbed by the proximity of the water table. In a photograph of one such cemetery, a high brick grave with its top smashed out serves as a bed for the growth of a new tree. The small tree is a sign of hope and life amidst this tragedy, yet its branches separate into a “y,” recalling the shape of trees with canals cut through their canopy. The hope of this photograph and the city are marked by the travails that razed and reshaped the homes of its inhabitants.

Urban Canopy Loss in Post-Katrina New Orleans at the Hands of Man, photographs by Colleen Mullins
9th Street Entry Gallery, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN
Feb 29 – April 12, 2008; gallery hours: Wed-Fri 3-6pm, Sat 12-5pm

01/17/2004

100 Artists See God – A Review

This article was originally published in:

Religion and the Arts, “100 Artists See God,” Lex Thompson, Vol. 8, No. 4, ed. Dennis Taylor (Boston, MA: Brill 2004).

100 Artists See God

Far too often, religiously themed exhibitions result in a fine collection of pious, sentimental, and modestly crafted pieces brought together for a festival of religious and artistic mediocrity.  It is right to approach such events with cautious skepticism.  But, with regards to 100 Artists See God, it is worth swallowing that initial swelling of pretense in order to experience the varied strengths of the works included.

This exhibition opened in the spring of 2004 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.  The show is traveling nationally over the next two years, and is also available as a print catalogue.  Sponsored by Independent Curators International (ICI), art world veterans John Baldessari and Meg Cranston have assembled a rare confluence of artists dealing with subject matter that is typically shied away from in contemporary galleries.  But as the curators point out, the world is profoundly influenced by concepts of God, concepts held by believers and unbelievers alike, and especially  in our current political climate.  As Baldessasri describes in the pitch for the show, “God is news.” (100 Artists, 6)[1]  With this in mind, the show asks a natural question: as voices of expression in our culture, what do artists have to say about God?  The answer is a mixture of the irreverent, irrelevant, silly, serious, pious, considered, and possibly revelatory.

Just over a hundred artists were approached and asked to create new work, or submit existing work, in response to the theme “artists see God.”  The curators were quite clear that this was about representing God, not about their own belief.  And so, the artists were chosen not according to their own faiths or lack thereof, but because the curators knew and respected their work.

Many of the people involved have impressive résumés: Chris Burden, Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Roy Lichtenstein, Paul McCarthy, Gerhard Richter, and Ed Ruscha.  The list of over one hundred artists is filled with quite a few recognizable names.  Interestingly enough, a great many of the prominent artists who often use religious iconography are absent: Andreas Serrano, Robert Gober, Bill Viola, to name a few.  While a single art show cannot be all-inclusive, one does suspect that there may have been some attempt to draw representations of God from people who are not likely to offer them up on their own.  While denying that any conscious attempt was made in this direction, Baldessari did confess that such a motive was implicit in the request made of the artists.  “It was a bit like fishing…to see if they would take the bait.” (Baldessari, 6 Aug.)[2]  Maybe it takes something like this to get these artists to speak on this touchy and unfashionable subject.

Before examining the particular works in the show, there is one more curatorial issue to be addressed.  Alongside each of the images, in an unfortunately large font on the wall label, is a category to which each piece has been assigned.  They follow a set form, “Artists see God as ___________,” with the blanks filled in with such categories as Architect, Everywhere, Ineffable, Light, Love, Tyrant, and the Extraordinary Force of Nature.  It is nearly impossible to look at the works without these categories looming large.  Baldessari confided that neither he nor Cranston wanted to pigeon hole the work, but ICI and the exhibiting venues requested this parsing of the exhibit. (Baldessari, 6 Aug.)[3]  Purportedly these groupings are there for the benefit of the viewer, to help them grapple with and assimilate the work.  But the categorization does little more than spoil it.  And, even more dumbfoundingly, some of the works do not seem to make any real sense in relation to their assigned category.  Must it be that the devout are too dull to understand art, and the artistically erudite are too heathen to understand the transcendent?  In the catalogue, these categories appear as chapter headings, and are slightly less invasive.  After turning the page of the chapter introduction, the reader no longer has to be reminded of the ways in which she is asked to classify the pieces.  Even if the categorization was done with the best of intentions, it is insulting, and has a nasty tendency to force or limit interpretations of the works.  The heavy hand of the curator should have left more to the subtler hand of the creator and the discerning eye of the viewer.

If we manage to look past the labels, we see very little work that borders on the pious and sentimental.  Although a couple of pieces do tread lightly into that territory, even if only to defuse it.  Simon Patterson’s Landskip (2000), where shafts of light filter through trees and colored mist that turns out to be an army gas grenade test, is a good example of this.  There are also works that, quite frankly, appear to have been chosen as a random response to the theme of the show, exhibiting no coherent relationship to “seeing God.”  Some of these seemingly desultory works can be better understood by reading the artist statements, but these statements are only found in the catalogue, and are not present in the exhibition.  The most common revelation is that the work is an allusion to some sort of pantheism or panentheism.  While these expressions are likely genuine, they are not particularly innovative, as in the case of Chris Burden and James Welling’s photos of their dogs.  And more tragically, they are not compelling representations of the ideas they convey.

The painting Gray (Grau) (1973) by Gerhard Richter is characteristic of two prominent types of work shown by artists in the exhibition.  It is gray.  Richter says, “A monochrome gray painting, oil on canvas, in any common size, is simply the only possible representation/image of God.  That is obviously very simple, too simple; of course when I made this gray painting I neither intended to express a conception of God nor would I be able to make such a painting.” (100 Artists, 56)[4]

One of the obvious characteristics of this work, and many others, is its intention.  As one studies the collection, it is clear that a great many of the works were not “intended” for this context at their inception.  Andreas Gursky’s Love Parade (2001), an aerial panoramic photo of the massive crowd gathered at a park festival, comes to mind.  The artwork has been repurposed and reinterpreted for this exhibit.  In cases such as the Gursky photo, this adds a new layer of meaning.  In others, such as Roy Liechtenstein’s Mirror #8 (1972), which is a screenprint of two mirrors made in his signature style of enlarged Benday dots, this recontextualization feels forced and even confused.  For whatever reason, each artist has contributed their piece and presented it as a vision of God.  But in some instances, it seems that  the artists did not look too hard or too carefully for God.

The Richter painting is also characteristic of the form of other works in the show.  Several artists present solid color minimal works or some variety of non-representational abstraction that find their spirituality and reference to the divine in their ineffability and openendedness.  It is somewhat disheartening to see these types of work in a show that otherwise feels contemporary.  The disinterested contemplation of abstract works, either as a secular surrogate for religion or fundamentally akin to religious practices and goals, feels as though it has long been played out.  Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg worked out these ideas, and they were brought to a pinnacle in the Rothko Chapel.  There is little or nothing added to our understanding of art or artists perceptions of God by perpetuating these kinds of art in these kinds of contexts.

This is not to say that exploration of religion and art’s commonalities: shared or similar experiences, goals, and ways of operating is now fruitless.  By no means!  It does, however, demand that artists do this in ways that bring something fresh to the table.  Religious and artistic traditions and practice continue to intersect in their drives, concerns, and relationships, both in historical and contemporary practice.  New congruencies join historical overlaps and beg for current address.  The following four pieces from the exhibition engage the intersections of these arenas in a contemporary fashion.

Christian Jankowski complexifies the association of art and religion in his fifteen-minute video, The Holy Artwork (2001).  We are presented with a charismatic worship service at Harvest Fellowship Church.  The artist, who emerges from the congregation with camera in hand, comes onto the stage and collapses on the ground at the pastor’s feet.  While this might appear as if the artist has been slain or crushed with the hands of religion, it is not that simple a signifier.  In the context of this charismatic style worship service it is not uncommon for parishioners to fall to the ground, or be “slain in the Spirit”, by the power of God.  Rather than death, this physical reaction represents a coming of the divine to the individual.  It is a sort of commingling between Creator and Creation.  As described by the pastor in the video, Jankaowski’s falling is an emptying of himself to allow others, the audience, to participate in the artwork.

The service continues with a short sermon by Pastor Peter Spencer about contemporary art bridging the gap of art, religion, and television.  Spencer’s sermon uses the language of both art and religion, moving back and forth between the creation of the world and the creation of art.  The world and art together become The Holy Artwork, slipping easily and unknowingly between each other.  Art becomes a collaborative work between creator and viewer, in both the realm of the divine and the human.  Jankowski remains prone as the Praise Band steps around him to sing a chorus.  At the end, the Pastor says a prayer, and Jankowski rises, thanking God for making this possible.  The familiar comparison of artist to God, and of art to religion, is given a facelift with televangelism and contemporary praise and worship songs.  More importantly, though, Jankowski’s collaboration with an evangelical pastor to create the piece allows for a rare level of commingling between the religious practitioner and the artist.  Typically the words of critics brought these two worlds together.  Now Jankowski joins them in the practice of creation and does so in the immediate context of a Christian worship service.  Humorous and prodding, The Holy Artwork plays pleasantly with language and with the role of creation and creator in a form that, from its inception, brings the two worlds together.

jankowski02

Christian Jankowski, The Holy Artwork, 2001, DVD, 15 minutes 47 seconds, Collection of the artist. Courtesy Maccarone Inc., New York. Commissioned by ArtPace, San Antonio

Another way to strengthen the relationship of religion and art is by identifying their common concerns.  Veronica’s Veil has a rich presence in religious artwork.  To some, it is one of the earliest representations of Christ, and so one might expect it to persist in contemporary work.  Jeffrey Vallance’s Relics From Two Vatican Performances (1992) has become a part of this history.  While on pilgrimage in Rome, Vallance approximated the process of the original veil’s creation.  He splashed espresso on his face and then pressed his face into a silk handkerchief.  The coffee-stained cloth is presented to us in matt and frame.  Vallance gives us the relic of his performance, just as Veronica gave us the relic of the act of Christ.  With some performance work, all that is left is an artifact or documentation of the piece’s occurrence, with the rest of the piece having passed into the ephemera.  This is true for Vallance’s re-enactment of the sixth station of the cross.  In the performance, he presents a familiar equation relating art to religion, suffering, and redemption.  The artistic act has become hallowed and sacred.  Yet, it stands apart from most instances of this concept.  The coffee-stained cloth brings into play the notion of the potency of the act remembered by the remaining artifact – an issue in the art world with regards to the nature of documentation of performance works, and in the religious world with regard to relics and sacraments.  This dimension is a welcome addition to a well-worn discussion.  However, it may become more difficult to take seriously the liturgical and sacramental implications of the work when the blood of Christ becomes a double espresso, but, then again, perhaps no less so than when it is Welch’s grape juice in a plastic shot glass.

Still lingering in the territory of the Passion is Paul Pfeiffer’s Fragments of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon) (1999).  Projected closely against the wall, so that the image size is only a few inches high, Fragments of a Crucifixion is a short video loop of a lone basketball player, dressed in a white uniform, screaming in apparent torment while flash bulbs ripple through the crowded stands.  Other players, team names, numbers, and logos have been digitally eliminated from the frame, so the figure stands alone, mouth open and arms tense, in an expression of anguish.  The short duration of the video, which is only a few seconds, traps the player in the scream, and in the spectacle that he has become.  It is unclear why he cries out, but it exudes anger.  The work certainly has ramifications in a number of arenas, but in this context we are asked to bring it straight home to its title.  We are asked to look at the reference to Bacon’s screaming pope, another spectacle in his bulletproof bubble, and to the display of the Crucifixion itself.  The spectacle, isolation, and eternal Sisyphusian sense of the work make the video writhe with contortions of pain.  Seeing the loop of pain, begs the question of purpose and authenticity of the suffering.  Pfeiffer has made a multimillion dollar job seem void and meaningless.  Is this the price of fame?  Is isolation amidst a crowd the tradeoff for a star’s messianic status?  If so, this might be something hypothesized for Jesus as well.  And, more importantly, is there something redemptive in this basketball pain?  Pfeiffer implies nothing more than emptiness and repeatedly relived affliction – a truly fragmented Crucifixion.  The use of the language of the Cross in the work offers more cultural indictment than religious insight.  But, one could also argue that, from the beginning, the Cross was cultural indictment as well.

Pfeiffer_jpg

Paul Pfeiffer, Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon), 1999, DVD and Sony CPJ200 projector, Courtesy the artist and The Project, New York

One of the more decorous and grossly beefy works in the show, Victoria Reynolds’s For the Carnal in Dante’s Hell (1999).  The painting appears as a roof of red flesh with the pink and white tears of insulating fat hanging from the beams of muscular fibers.  The detail and realism of the image are sublime in the transformation of the freshly cut meat into a transcendent ceilingscape.  The corpulent painting is evenly matched with its opulent framing.  Chromatically the same, the frame is ornamental to excess and as lush as the bloody flesh that Reynolds has bequeathed to Dante’s Carnal.  Having given into the flesh in life, the Carnal are offered flesh in death.  Is this flesh the light of God and reason that Dante says the Carnal so desperately need?  Christian rituals of Eucharist might say, yes.  Reynolds offers a visceral and bloody reality that is beautified and given a sense of abundant luxury in both its framing and rendering.  The qualities of the painting and the association with the text of The Inferno provide a considered and substantial reflection of the portrayal of the flesh in regard to both sin and redemption.

Reynolds

Victoria Reynolds, For the Carnal in Dante’s Hell, 1999, Oil on panel in artist’s frame, Framed: 28 1/4 x 32 1/4 in. (71.8 x 81.9 cm), Collection of the artist

In this show, slightly more prevalent than work addressing the commonalities of art and religion is the sarcastic work.  Given how the art world regards religion, it is not surprising that many of the works in the show are delivered with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  While the dripping sarcasm and irony of contemporary art is not limited to religious subject matter, it does find a ready target there.  Thankfully, the works are often clever and well executed, thereby engaging the audience in a way that entertains and provokes.  What may come as a bit of a shock is how often the work transcends the gag and provides some genuine insight.

Terry Allen’s Jesus (upside down and backwards) (1993) is just such a work.  At first glance the sign, scripted in blue neon, does not read right – familiar but incorrect.  The title instructs.  In one’s mind’s eye, the viewer must rotate the neon around.  Flip it over.  “Elvis.”  Elvis?  Jesus?  Jesus upside down and backwards becomes Elvis.  Or, Elvis, when turned and spun around, becomes the Christ.  Certainly a large portion of Americans behave as if this might be true.  Pilgrimages to Graceland receive as much reverence as those to the Promised Land.  In the words the artist, “The only difference I can see in how the culture regards ELVIS son of Vernon and Jesus son of God is, to my knowledge, JESUS never recorded anything called ‘DO THE CLAM.’” (100 Artists, 88)[5]  He has made a simply play, and one that has been made before, but one we can still enjoy.  The salvific power bequeathed to celebrity and popular culture is a familiar theme, but when expressed well, it can refresh the notion in our consciousness without seeming to be old news.  It is even more satisfying when one pays too much attention to the wall label and notices that this piece is on loan from the collection of David Byrne, a rock music icon and conceptual artist most famous as the front man for the Talking Heads.

Allen_jpg

Terry Allen, Jesus (upside down backwards), 1993, Neon, 4 x 12 in. (10.2 x 30.5 cm), Collection of David Byrne and Adelle Lutz

Walking under the King, through the doorway, three fish lay still, possibly dead, on the floor mat of a car.  Cast in bronze, they are painted blue, green, and orange with what is distinctively automotive paint.  The fish look as if they have just flipped their last flop.  Jonathan Furmanski has branded each of his Bumper Fish (2002) with an automobile logo: Nissan, Ford, and Honda.  He provides us with a clever inversion of the prevalent bumper symbol war.  This little battle was begun by the application of the ancient Christian symbol of the Ichthus, a simple outline of a fish that encompasses the Greek letters for the word “fish” which doubles as an acronym for “Jesus Christ, of God, the Son, the Savior”, to the back ends of cars and trucks.  A prevalent smart mouthed reply was soon to follow.  The inside text was replaced with “Darwin” and the little fish sprouted legs.  Evolutionists took their stand and, now, numerous variations of these icons exist.  Through Furmanski’s work, the creation-evolution debate that has raged publicly through automobile appliqués has been called out in the absurdity of its form, if not the shallowness of the discussion itself.  These floundering fish each trumpet their own brand loyalty through corporate symbology.  Furmanski, pointedly reduces this volatile subject to the level of the classic Ford vs. Chevy debate  – a point those involved in the creation-evolution controversy would do well to consider.

Furmanski_jpg

Jonathan Furmanski, Bumper Fish, 2002, Cast bronze, metal, automobile paint, and floor mat, 3 x 16 1/2 x 25 in. (7.6 x 41.9 x 63.5 cm), Collection of the artist

In another instance of the comic character motif, an egg with small plastic orange chicken feet and two black dots for eyes floats in the center of an oversized black field, making up Luciano Perna’s God Luck! (2002).  The piece is cute in a Sanrio “Hello Kitty” sort of way, a touch unsettling due to the black, but otherwise unremarkable.  The egg is surely a loaded symbol for new birth, fertility, and the like, but here is seems more that the little chicken-footed-egg is an absurdist picturing of God.  It is possibly a visual tossing up of one’s hands at the nature of such a request.  The point of interest arises from Perna’s artist statement in the catalogue.  His explanation becomes a more compelling performance/experiment than the image.  It betrays common contemporary understandings of how God is supposed to behave, with the cynical assurance that God will fail to behave at all.  Perna writes:

I asked God to help me write a statement for this catalogue by guiding my fingertips over the computer keyboard.  I closed my eyes, let go, and this is what came out: nklxnonx’fk n4po4po9imc[‘23\r0mcri4jjo4hcgm00it-00iiu6tbl.hv lv…(100 Artists, 51)[6]

The nonsense characters continue for about twenty times the length reproduced above.  Nestled in the middle of the gobbledygook, one can pick out the words “sorry, I am too busy, god luck!”  In the title and in the keyboard revelation, “God” is exchanged for or equated with “good,” by way of transposition into the common well-wishing sentiment.  Yet, it seems that this fortune-cookie like message must be meant ironically, as no benefit is received.  In fact, the certainty of inaction is reinforced by the addition of this revelation from the digital Ouija divination.  While Perna, seems to find God largely close-lipped and far too overburdened to assist in the composition of artist statements, one might wonder if maybe God has guided his fingertips in just this way to reveal our sardonic nature.

perna

Luciano Perna, God Luck!, 2002, Digital print, 35 x 35 in. (89 x 89 cm); framed: 36 1/2 x 36 1/2 in. (92.7 x 92.7 cm), Collection of the artist

Meg Cranston remarked that part of the intrigue of the theme of this show is that “religion typically only manifests itself ironically in contemporary art.  Sincerity is regarded with suspicion.” (Cranston, 6 Aug.)[7]  Thankfully this show has provided us with both types of responses.  It is possible to dialogue with the culture in ways that are genuine, probing, and compelling, in ways that are more layered.  Such symbolic works often take a narrative form, by relating a personalized experience combined with the experience of tradition.  The multidimensionality of this way of questioning provides a richness that moves into a realm of exploration reaching beyond the work itself and into a new experience.  It is subtler.  No bludgeoning is necessary, with either wit, idea, or religious conceptions.

Challenging one’s own tradition is a burden for any individual, but it is certainly the responsibility of the artist.  Kim Schoenstadt does this in Freckle Series: Adding Lake Nagawicka (2002).  She got a freckle-sized tattoo in the shape of Lake Nagawicka, a body of water that she called home.  The pair of photographs record the before and after states of her freckles.  Schoenstadt has made a tiny alteration to her body that technically could prevent her from being buried in the Jewish cemetery with her family.  A prohibition from Leviticus, “you shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves” has lead to a policy at many traditional Jewish cemeteries and mortuaries that prevents burial of tattooed individuals (Tanakh, Lev. 19:28).[8]  Schoenstadt’s alteration, though, is so small that it may be overlooked by those preparing her body after death.  Yet, she also challenges, “We will see if g-d notices.” (100 Artists, 122).[9]  Alongside this sly venture, slipping a freckle past the All-Seeing, Schoenstadt reveals an homage to Jewish tradition by dropping the vowel from “god.”  This coexistence of adherence to and deviance from religion is a subtle and personal act that pits the attention and regulation of our culture against that of a god whom Schoenstadt implies is less preoccupied with such matters.

Schoenstadt

Kim Schoenstadt, Freckle Series: Adding Lake Nagawicka, 2002, Two digital prints, 10 x 10 in. (25.4 x 25.4 cm) each; framed: 14 1/4 x 13 3/4 in. (36.2 x 34.9 cm) each, Collection of the artist. Courtesy lemon sky projects + editions, Miami

The most enchanting work of the show is an unassuming mystery.  Paul McCarthy, best known for his work emphasizing the shockingly abject, proffers a single photograph of two men in the woods.  One, bearded and wearing Buddy Holly glasses, lifts a pile of bush off the ground using a stick.  The other, balding and holding his glasses in hand, bends at the waist to get a better look at what is being revealed under the bush.  The image is well composed, engaging, and humorous in an endearing old man sort of way.  In the book, McCarthy accompanies the Untitled (1998) photograph with the statement, “Looking Under Every Bush.” (100 Artists, 31)[10]  Maybe, the men are searching for God, looking everywhere.  The work implies a certain cynicism, since, after all, such searching must mean that God is elusive or perhaps wholly absent.  But searching also suggests the hope and conviction that there is something to find.  The two men look intently.  The photograph delves into contemporary existential dilemmas and desires with a quiet nod to the language of tradition, invoking the symbol of the bush.  What better place to look for God than in the place God first appeared to Moses?    “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush.  He gazed, and there was the bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.” (Tanakh, Exodus 3:2).[11]  One can return to McCarthy’s photograph and almost hear the fellow with the stick saying, “Aaron, I’m telling you, yesterday, this thing was on fire and talking.  I mean it even turned this stick I’m holding into a snake.”  He pokes it to try to turn it on again, and investigates its undercarriage  for some sort fire-starting of mechanism.  This is an attempt to understand, to locate, to see.  There is an ineffable satisfaction of discernment emanating from this work.  Though one might never have guessed based on such works as The Garden, where an animatronic fellow humps a tree, Paul McCarthy has delivered astute human and theological insights in the form of a seemingly simple, quiet, and mundane image that generates far more than it uses.  The bush is not consumed.

mccarthey

Paul McCarthy, Untitled, 1998, Chromogenic print, 20 x 29 1/4 in. (50.8 x 74.3 cm); framed: 22 x 31 1/2 in. (55.9 x 80 cm), Collection of the artist. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, and Luhring Augustine, New York

Cutting through the brush of 100 Artists See God, one can find artists speaking relevantly in a still, small, and alluring voice.  It is a voice that addresses both culture and tradition, and, sometimes bitingly.  It uses their language so that we may understand, and occasionally accesses something just a little bit mysterious in quality.  It is something we cannot quite name.  This virtue makes both the show and catalogue an important move of theological grappling among contemporary artists and exhibitions.  Let us hope that more artists will bring us these sorts of visions of God.

 

100 Artists See God can be seen in its catalog form or at the following venues.

Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California, July 31 – October 3, 2004
Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, Virginia Beach, Virginia, June 9 – September 4, 2005

Albright College Freedman Art Gallery, Reading, Pennsylvania, September 19, 2005 – January 8, 2006
Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee, February 4 – April 16, 2006

For information about booking 100 Artists See God for a museum or gallery exhibition, contact ICI at (212) 254-8200 or email at info@ici-exhibitions.org.

 

Works Cited

Baldessari, John. Personal Interview. 6 August. 2004.

Baldessari, John and Meg Cranston, eds. and curators. 100 Artists See God.  New York: Independent Curators

International, 2004.

Cranston, Meg. Personal Interview. 6 August. 2004.

Tanakh: The HolyScriptures. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.


[1] John Baldessari and Meg Cranston, curators, 100 Artists See God (New York: Independent Curators International, 2004), p.6.

[2] John Baldessari, Personal Interview, Friday, Aug. 6, 2004.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Baldessari and Cranston, 100 Artists See God, p.56.

[5] Ibid., p.88.

[6] Ibid., p.51.

[7] Meg Cranston, Personal Interview, Friday, Aug. 6, 2004.

[8] Leviticus 19:28 (JPS)

[9] Baldessari, 100 Artists See God, p.122.

[10] Ibid., p.31.

[11] Exodus 3:2 (JPS)