The New York Times

January 3, 1993, Sunday
The Emotional Intensity of Devotion

"WORSHIP", an exhibition at the Renee Fotouhi Gallery In East Hampton, comes at a time of year when many people have either been participating in the experience or questioning it. Subtitled "Through the Eyes of Many," the selections explore icons and images of traditional, personal and substitute belief systems.

Modest in scale, with about 40 examples by 21 artists, the exhibition's value is in the range of issues it raises. There are no didactic ambitions in the installation, however. Visitors jump from votive objects to tongue-in-cheek paintings to abstract signifiers in a mix that looks like a jumbled glossary of ideas.

Contemporary revisions of worship offer some of the most memorable pieces. One highlight is Bert Stern's well-known photograph of Marilyn Monroe, her mouth open and pressing a rose against each nude breast. As a comment on idolatry of stars, Mr. Stern has turned his hand-colored print into a shrine and placed a row of glass candleholders along its ledge.

Meghan Boody's modern adaptation of an altar piece blends classical Madonna and Child reproductions with a central photograph of an un-clothed young woman holding a cat. Script overlays in the multimedia construction discuss teen pregnancy, illegitimate children, abortion and miscarriage in harsh street terms that sharpen the social message.

Brown stains on the principal photograph suggest it has the kind of age that warrants respect, adding to the solemn tone of the statement.

Contrasts sometimes make the show seem to be treading a fine line between serious faith and deliberate iconoclasm. Alfonso Ossorio's "Crucifix Sacred Heart," featuring a thickly painted Rouault-like figure, represents one extreme, while Pat Gorman's "Our Lady of the Happy Hour" represents the other in its depictions of a Madonna with a cigarette and cocktail glass. The Gorman painting obviously deals with sarcasm, but it also questions believers' double standards of behavior.

Pointed statements of another sort are implied in Karen Finley's "God Is a Woman" and John Wellingston's "St. Sebastian." "Sebastian," painted in a modern superrealist style, is charged with symbolism. In what seems to be a comment on the AIDS crisis and the position of the church, St. Sebastian, patron saint of the Plague, turns a passionless face away from its frontalized, muscular body.

A number of the major pieces deal with spirituality in a more direct way. Sheila Isham's four-section painting "230 Cosmic Myth - (Elements)" has the appearance of the allegory of divine forces. In both tonality and the actions of universal, generalized figures, the pieces allude to heat, ice, fire, happiness and the birth ritual. A snakelike form near a large standing Eve in the all-green first panel suggests an intended reference to the Garden of Eden.

Mystical, cosmic space is also implied by the configuration of pigment in works by Cynthia Knott and Frank Roth. Wide antique frames, one arc-shaped, in Ms. Knott's paintings add the aura of something sacred, but at the same time they seem postmodern in the way they twist and use visual components of history. Mr. Roth's huge deep-blue field is covered with semiabstract notations of an undefined universe energized with electronic charges. The principal shapes are ovoid disks, one golden yellow and one black. They are balanced by a large purple cross that immediately becomes a specific holy icon, in spite of its abstract surroundings.

The question of when a shape becomes a religious signifier is addressed by Rex Lau in a handsome group of cut steel objects. The viability of objects as carriers of devotional meaning is touched on in "Worship", although not as thoroughly as the subject warrants. Randall Rosenthal's four-foot-long basswood menorah, intricately carved with leafy tracery, is one example.

Three-dimensional images that are small and contained can serve as powerful carriers of belief, in part because of their intimacy and psychological accessibility. Dixie Friend Gay is a master of this intimacy, and her fantasylike assemblages, including several using candles and candles wax, have the ability to invent convincing myths. One untitled example places a generalized, cloaked saint or Madonna on a gold background with a bed of real fur below. The fur delivers a feeling of warm comfort. Emotional richness of the caliber found in Ms. Gay's work should be considered basic to the success of the show's theme.

Ellen Frank's use of large silhouetted goddess from antiquity is another strong contribution, for it recalls timeless deities, elaborate belief structures and the need humans have to make connections with ideas that have some sort of profound sensibility. A gold background helps to remove the figure from reality and is important to the effect.

The inclusion of several devotional pieces from Mexico raises issues about how cultural diversity functions in a show like this. Certainly they reinforce the universality of worship. Yet there is the risk that their placement in this mix of contemporary commentary is such a distancing from the intended context that the result only parodies worship and can seem disrespectful.

The show is on view till Jan.31. The gallery at 16R Newtown Lane.