New York


Harm Bouckaert Gallery

The decline of the saints as subject matter for painting has hardly been precipitous. It would seem that sainthood itself has been eroded by the forgetfulness of folk memory as well as by Vatican debunking—Saint Christopher is now in the same league with Santa Claus. And the admission of new members to the saint population has slowed to a trickle. Well, the “Saints” show is not going to stir up a sudden revival of religious painting, but it did show that sainthood is still an excellent source of subject matter for art.

Twenty-nine artists depicted more or less as many saints. There was also a demon or two, a few Christs, and one Cathedral, 1983. The latter, by Mike Bidlo, is for no saint in particular unless it is Saint Jackson. It consists of a facsimile of the 1947 Pollock painting of the same name, framed in a shrine construction, with steps below the canvas to hold votive candles and the small change given for their use. The shrine/frame is covered with marbled contact paper, a trompe I’oeil bargain. This is a shrine enshrined. It evokes the combined pain and ecstasies of Pollock and his peers, and the similarities of the canonization process wherever it takes place. Finally, this is one of those rare sights that is as witty as it is pretty.

I think that mocking the saints is in bad taste, but some of the artists here may be professional mockers whose work ultimately mocks only themselves. Claudia DeMonte’s The Martyrdom of Saint Claudia, 1983, for example, resembling the work of an amateur pastry icer, leaves me doubting that sincerity can be found by playing the babe, and cuteness certainly can’t. Stephen Lack takes something out on the Pietà, but again becomes his own victim. Actually, though, the majority of the works here were surprisingly respectful and beautiful. Cynthia Suerstedt’s Saint Francis, 1983, depicts him as a wounded soldier, seemingly of World War I. Her airbrush has made him prettily handsome though sad, his head bandaged, a tear on his cheek, and his stigmata appearing as a war wound. Edgar Franceschi’s Saint Cecilia, 1983, is striking and mysterious; in her hand is a harmonium-type instrument, indicating her patronage of music, and the colors of this painting and its archetypal strength and serenity honor that patronage.

Joel Handorff’s Saint Theresa in Ecstasy, 1983, bears more of a resemblance to a Disney heroine, Cinderella maybe, than to conventional visions of this saint. Her mouth forms a sensational oval, perfectly conveying ecstasy, and she has the best halo in the show—not a floating circle but a jagged streak of Dayglo lemon, outlining her bottled red hair. The best-humored saint was William Morales, Patron of Prison Breaks, 1983, by David Wojnarowicz. In one frame of this diptych Puerto Rican revolutionary Saint William walks through the wall of his cell, in the other giant arms ending in hooks move toward a break in the yard wall, a reference to Morales’ loss of his hands.

Appropriately the most striking pieces among the saints were the devils. Andreas Senser’s Archangel, Sickly, 1983, consists of a lopsided set of demonic wings with a broken catcher’s mask as a head; the wings are a composite of many paper rectangles, triangles, and semicircles, painted with devil-may-care precision in watercolors shading from red to blue to black. Carl Apfelschnitt’s contribution was The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold, 1983. This Assyrian is no saint, he’s a devil—all silver and gold with jagged wings, horns, a goatee, and a tail that seems to have a hand on its tip. He’s poised in rampant profile on a ground of purple, violet, and magenta that looks just cooled from a molten state. If intensity made saints, this Assyrian batman would have been the holiest here, but he looks like he’ll settle for controversy and glamor.

Glenn O’Brien