3, 1993, Sunday
Intensity of Devotion
PHYLLIS BRAFF (NYT)
"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
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
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.