New York

Alex Grey

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

Recently it seems that antinuclear art has been proliferating at a rate surpassed only by the megatons of destruction that occasion it. This is as it should be. There can be no such thing as media overkill on this subject, the dangers of media sensationalism and trivialization notwithstanding. But those dangers do exist, and if such work is to avoid them it must cut through the dulling layers of packaged metaphors and images produced by the mass media.

Though it was part of a show entitled “Space Invaders,” there was no futurist fantasy involved in the subject matter of Alex Grey’s installation at P.S.1. On one wall of the room Grey hung a large oil painting of Christ crucified on a mushroom cloud, while below him the seemingly miniature cities of the earth are engulfed in conflagration. The painting seems to radiate a fiery orange light which takes on a sickly quality in the graphic glow of Christ’s face. His huge figure is executed in painstaking detail (Grey has worked at times as a medical illustrator) and his body is covered with scratches; blood flows from his wrists and from his forehead, where a particularly menacing crown of thorns seems to be growing out of the flesh.

The wall opposite the painting Grey transformed into a black-on-red map of the world, and covered it with a black web strung with wire to create a barbed-wire effect (which seemed to explain the scratches on Christ’s body.) Centered on the map was a three-dimensional, hideous, human-spider figure with seven heads—one human skull flanked on each side by three animal skulls. Six of the creatures’ legs held rifles, guns, or knives—the two others were the skeletons of human feet. Painted in black, the mark of the Biblical beast of the Apocalypse—the number 666—dripped down just above the skulls, and a black pool of water lay on the floor in front of the beast. During the opening the artist, dressed in army camouflage, sat at a small black desk and stamped the number 666 on viewers’ hands.

Though Grey’s installation might not have seemed to belong under the rubric of “Space Invaders,” it was not altogether unfitting. While clearly well intentioned and informed by a sense of the swaying powers of spectacle, the work was victimized by its own seriousness. It fell prey to the kind of quasi-religious romanticizing that is the stuff of Hollywood horror flicks. Without critical distance, such images as a crucified nuclear Christ and the beast of Revelations can be relegated far too easily to the status of apocalypse kitsch, losing any impact the artist sought to achieve. The most ominous part of the installation, one far more eloquent than the other images, was Grey’s uniformed presence at the black desk.

Jamey Gambrell