New York

“This Side of Paradise”

Concord Contemporary Art

At a time when style is vexed by the specter of its own superfluity, artists’ impulses toward universality must find some other anchor, some other point of departure from which to speak. Religious mythology provides a foothold in tradition, arbitrating the artwork’s passage from personal to public speech. Though Western art in this century has spoken a primarily secular language, it longs to carry the cultural and psychological weight provided by the narratives and symbolism of the Old and New Testaments, as this recent show amply proved. The six artists exhibited approached their subject in a variety of ways; overall, though content rather than adherence to a group esthetic was the curatorial starting point, the dominance of intense color and frequently awkward execution (there were, of course, exceptions) suggested an expressionistic revivalism carefully spiced with kitsch and pop. Nonetheless the work managed to remain individual, avoiding subjugation to arbitrarily constituted isms.

The stereotyping of women resulting from Christian lore was dogmatically treated in Katherine Sherwood’s installation of about 30 small paintings. One wall of the gallery was covered in daubs of dark red and siena; here Sherwood hung her would-be primitive paintings of “Saints and Aggressive Women” in allover 19th century salon fashion, unifying these schizophrenic hagiographies within one frame (the wall itself). Many of the paintings contain inscriptions telling their subjects’ stories in language appropriate to their categories. The saints, of course, are all virgins (or victims), and the “aggressive women” thus sinners by implication. The latter flaunt their sexuality; many of them are portrayed seminude, or attired in the accoutrements of male pornographic fantasies, and they are identified by numbers to ironically reinforce the object status to which they have been relegated as well as to suggest criminality. Some of them indulge in sordid role-reversing fantasies of domination (No. A286 says “I believe in female supremacy over all men. Your place is on your knees as my slave.”), which occasionally reach humorous extremes. The saints bask in the serene light of anonymous submission. While the ironic intent of the piece is clear, Sherwood’s exploration of the virgin/whore dichotomy which has exploited women and plagued their vision of themselves for centuries verges on its own form of reverse fetishization. The striking, ambitious installation seemed to be trying to annul the dichotomized stereotypes by sheer force of obsession. Yet, just as an oppressed social group can be hindered in its liberation by having to use the language of its oppressor, Sherwood runs perilously close to succumbing to the simplistic syntax of the mythology she seeks to destroy.

If fetishization is only implicit in Sherwood’s installation, it is all too apparent in the work of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, who makes devotional objects (crowns, Bible covers, chalices, etc.) from nonart materials. In his Grace and Original Sin/Saints and Sinners (Two Seconds before the End of the World), 1980, which he exhibited two years ago in New York, Lanigan-Schmidt engaged us in a compelling apocalyptic fantasy that was all the more convincing for the sparkle of the cellophane and tinsel of which it was comprised. Removed from the context of an installation, his Eastern Orthodox kitsch icons fail to transcend their adept imitation of the real thing. Deprived of their former unity of vision, his objects and altars are the lifeless artifacts of a private shrine to which we have no entry; they are merely the fool’s-gold raiment of the Church’s dogma. They may glitter, but the spark of spirit has gone out of them.

The obsessive fussiness of Lanigan-Schmidt’s work was underscored by the stark landscape of Italo Scanga’s metaphysical totems. Each of the three consists of an unevenly shaped wood panel set on a wood column/pedestal, both of which are covered with thickly applied daubs of dark surrealistic-hued paint. Each panel displays either a sun or a moon and a stick-figure crucifix below which, respectively, a fork and spoon, skull and crossbones, and a tree are keys to a symbolic terrain. These metaphoric totems suggest the terror of a lineage less than sublime: civilization and its struggle for survival; death; and unattainable dreams of Eden (the “garden” implied by the lone tree has left the picture panel to rest on the pedestal). The crucifixes faced outward into the gallery space, and on the back of each panel were painted the crudely delineated features of a human face—transforming the panels into mirrors reflecting a human image through this heritage. These eloquent, agitated sculptures located the Passion in a modern psychological landscape far removed from dramas of divine transcendence.

If Scanga’s pieces expressed a metaphysical asceticism, Steve Gianakos’ stylized, cartoonlike, black-and-white paintings of Christ possessed an esthetic sobriety unique amid the clamorous color of the other work in this exhibit. Three of the paintings show only Christ’s face, the head surrounded by a halo and crowned with thorns. In one Christ wears a sort of Groucho Marx mask, in another rays shoot from the black holes of the eyes, and in the third the face is covered by a pie/target which splatters either blood or sweet filling. The other two pieces portray Christ bent in cross-carrying position, traveling through the present, first as a waiter and then walking a dog on a leash. The irony of these works, though obvious, is deceptive; if at first sight they appear to be satirical pop renditions of Byzantine icons, their crisp execution and extreme simplicity of means convey an unexpected intensity. Parody turns back from humorous effect, estranging it through the victimization Christ seems to be suffering. In a curious reversal, Christ is no longer the object of parody—parody itself is under attack.

In two lyrical collage paintings which internalize the triptych form within one frame, Milo Reice makes modernized allegories of Lucifer’s fall and the life of Moses. In each piece irregularly shaped grounds—often suggesting fragmentary architectural forms, and decorated with floral and mosaic patterns—frame three narrative elements. In the first section of Monument to Lucifer the light-bearer is cast out of the frescolike womb of heaven by Saint Michael. We see him next in the center of the “triptych” under the sign of Aries the Ram, tumbling through the dark toward a vast, blank landscape, depicted as a superhero terrified by the loss of his power. Lucifer disappears in the third image, which is of a dark, figureless horizon. In Moses the central image, of Moses as a young man beholding the burning bush, dominates. He wears a shirt which is a contemporary version of fool’s motley; the dark woods around him recall the mythological forest of Botticelli’s Primavera, while the white picket fence behind which the revelatory bush burns evokes the Americana of Tom Sawyer. These works are rife with art-historical allusions, all carefully and painstakingly integrated by a cautious estheticism.

The work of the Reverend Howard Finster stands apart from that of the other artists, and clearly raises the issue of the state of religious art in the modern era. He is the exception that proves the rule; whereas the other artists here make secular use of the stories and symbolism of Christianity, most frequently with irony, the Reverend Finster’s paintings are truly devout. They are covered with inscriptions explaining the meaning of the images and are the most eccentric pieces in the show—truly naive, entirely devoid of the self-consciousness induced by a knowledge of art history and a desire to stand in its tradition. These are entirely personal illustrations of faith, thanksgiving tributes to God (the artist writes on one painting, “I have grateful [sic] enjoyed painting oh God.”). Finster has developed his own quirky iconography, most provocatively manifest in his The Great Spirit of Hubert Humphrey, but its elucidation belongs to disciplines other than art criticism. There is a genuineness and a sense of joyful celebration in these paintings that verges on an ecstasy which might be the envy of many artists. Finster’s canvases claim painting as a private act, one possible way to celebrate faith—his is the only work that seems to look on both sides of Paradise. But his vision is not vouchsafed to the unbelieving viewer. For us, as for most of the other artists, if paradise is even the question, it remains on the other side.

Jamey Gambrell