Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sacred Wild : Opening to Shakti at apexart

J.T. Kirkland of Thinking About Art was kind enough to post this yesterday.

Another in a series of rather belated reviews of shows I saw while in New York last month...

Spirituality in art seems to go in and out of fashion cyclically. Currently it doesn't have the bad name that, say, straight figurative art has - but neither is it a topic you see represented often in the major galleries. Surprisingly, spirituality has percolated beneath the surface of the last three major shows at the Hirshhorn - in the earthy paganism of Ana Mendieta's ritualized multimedia work, the contemplation of eternal forces in Isamu Noguchi's sculptures, and most recently the underlying interest in Theosophy and eastern religion that ties together many of the artists in Visual Music.

In the Hirshhorn exhibitions the art comes before any concept, and spirituality is referred to tangentially. They may have been a motivating force for the artists, but an understanding of their specific beliefs is not necessary to appreciate the products of their explorations. Suzi Gablik's Sacred Wild : Opening to Shakti fails in this essential way : the essay that accompanies the show is more interesting than most of the art it describes, and the art in turn often undermines her concept.

Click the "Read More!" to read on.


I've been a fan of Gablik since I read Has Modernism Failed? during college. I don't always agree with her theory that making art for art's sake in the age of impending environmental catastrophe is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but her writing always makes me think more deeply about art and its place in our culture. Over the past twenty years Gablik's work as a critic has focused on theorizing an art that is responsible, community-based, interactive, and that fulfills the spiritual needs of society. Gablik works toward the re-enchantment of art - a call to bring back the "ability to feel the divine in all things" to Western culture.

Gablik's exhibit at apexart features the work of artists Hank Foreman, David T. Hanson, Kathy Pinkerton, Jane Vance Siegle and collaborators Fern Shaffer and Othello Anderson. With Opening to Shakti, Gablik intended to highlight art that is
"worldcentric": it embodies an expansive and nuanced spirituality, liberated from rigid ideologies and the stultifying dogmas of organized religion.
While the influence of the various strains of Catholicism in the altars of Foreman and Pinkerton and Hinduism in the photographs of David T. Hansen and Jane Vance Siegle's paintings are obvious even to the casual viewer, Fern Schaffer is the only artist who gives the impression of working from such a liberated position. The other artists merely riff on various cultural traditions - constructing art out of the imagery of an existing religion.

The creation of personalized altars is not unique to these artists. The practice is common in both Latin American Catholicism and Wicca. The altars in Opening to Shakti remind the viewer of the work of outsider artists such as James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly without the unexpected beauty and the intensity of divine conviction.

Hank Foreman's Madonnas have been installed in a crammed corner of the exhibition, making it difficult to differentiate the four separate altars. His Tsunami Madonna, while formally attractive, lacks the sense of gravity the subject begs for. His choice of materials adds to this - the altar is hung with plastic sea creatures and other flotsam. A more compelling approach would have been to strip the altar of everything but the central lawn Madonna. Foreman has covered this familiar figure with sparkling salt crystals, giving it an impenetrable, deathly beauty. The symbols Foreman has chosen for his altars - snakes in particular - are at this point common cliches in art respresenting the Goddess, emptied of their mythic significance.

Kathy Pinkerton's large altar occupies one entire wall of the exhibition, a sprawling collection of objects of obvious personal significance to the artist. An attempt to show the "presence of the divine in all things," the alter comes across as a display in a curio shop rather than a spiritual emanation. The objects may have significance to Pinkerton, but the very size works against it for the viewer, ruining any intimacy.

Like Foreman's work, Jane Vance Siegle's paintings never rise above the decorative surface. Composed of layers of imagery from Eastern religions, the paintings swirl with intense color and incorporate the occasional aged piece of hand woven fabric. Any sense of the transcendent is overshadowed by the unavoidable impression that this is a Western artist borrowing the beliefs of another culture (in this cast mostly Hindu) to take a stab at creating "spiritual art."

Photography, hardly a medium commonly referred to as spiritual, makes up the most compelling offerings in the show. David T. Hanson has contributed two sets of photographs of shrines, while collaborators Fern Shaffer and Othello Anderson's images of Shaffer's ritual performances occupy the gallery's back wall. Both installations are filled with a sense of spiritual reverence that the other artists fail to create - Hanson by photographing spaces heavy with the accumulated worship of countless believers, Shaffer and Anderson by creating their own ritual rooted in the archaic beginnings of worship.

David T. Hanson's images of sacred shrines are exquisite in their depth of color and shadow. Too expressive to be merely documentary, Hanson manages to peer beneath the sometimes shabby physical presence of the spaces and lets the sublime glimmer through. However beautiful, in the end Hanson's photographs fall into a similar trap as Siegle's paintings. The viewer cannot escape the notion that however lovingly he captures the spirituality of the spaces he photographs, Hanson is an outsider recording the faith of another culture.

Fern Shaffer's ritual work was featured in Gablik's The Reenchantment of Art, a book which heavily informs the essay to Opening to Shakti. Shaffer and Anderson's photographic stills of these rituals best embody Gablik's curatorial vision for the exhibition. Shaffer is shown wholly covered in a sheath of wheat colored raffia that echoes the shapes of the roots of the huge swampy trees she dances among. The images carry power even without the essay's explanation that the artists "view the earth as sacred, invoking it as an altar and transmitting healing energy to specific landscapes under threat." The echoes of Ana Mendieta's performances in nature made me wish that like Mendieta the artists had filmed the shamanic dance, to better get a sense of the movement which the photographs can only hint at.

In the end the problem of much "spiritual" art comes when the imagery becomes either too personal or too universal. Too personal and the work fails to engage the viewer in any way, spiritual or aesthetic. Too universal and the work loses any specificity, becoming merely an indicator of the spiritual instead of an embodiment of it. The best spiritual art across cultures and time, the work that still enthralls us, combines the personal touch with a greater sense of something beyond the individual - not universal but transcendent.
Of all the work in Gablik's exhibit, that mystery is reflected in Hansen's photographs and made flesh in Shaffer's rituals. With Opening to Shakti Gablik hoped to bring together the work of artists
who work from a different level of consciousness - a consciousness of inclusivity and interconnectedness that appreciates and honors the contributions of all cultures.
While most of the artists in the exhibition succeed in honoring several cultures by appropriating their imagery, with the exception of Shaffer and Anderson's photographs the art never overcomes the old cliche that imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Sacred Wild : Opening to Shakti, curated by Suzi Gablik, was at apexart from May 25-June 25, 2005. All quotes in this review are from Gablik's essay in the accompanying brochure.

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