Guest curator Eleanor Heartney selected submissions of work from five Southern states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida. Selections were made from works exploring "the many borders inherent in religious belief and practice, among them the borders between life and death, body and soul, matter and spirit, past and present, public and private." What resulted is a short, full overview of the revelatory, sometimes confounding, diversity of religious expression available in the vernacular of contemporary Southern art. Tuck that Bible tight under your elbow — your old-time religion is in for a ride.
Pantheism, Buddhism, Santeria and Judaism are all represented here, but Christianity dominates. That's to be expected, considering the demographic draw. What's unexpected, and incalculably refreshing, is the broad personal expression given voice in these paintings, drawings and sculptures. Traditional icons, visions of Heaven and Hell, portraits of the Virgin Mary, illustrations of Bible passages and symbolic idiosyncratic interpretations attest to the vigorous continuing reassessments contemporary regional art confers on the Bible. A blessing or a curse, depending on your pulpit posture.
Pick up the excellent exhibition guide on your way in. The catalogue provides artists' statements concerning their work and their spiritual moorings. Their own words are instructive. First, they provide connective tissue, shared territory (the English language) between us and the work. Secondly, the words give voice to the men and woman behind the work. It's amazing how fully formed a person can blossom from a few words and a painting. Praise the Lord.
In the spirit of the show, a confession: My own tastes in spiritual or religious art favor the apocalyptic. I'm a sucker for Armageddon, chaos or entropy in any form. The book of Revelations kicks ass. That good old End Time reality seems to elicit an artist's emotional volatility and, in turn, salts my grits.
Kurt Zimmerman feeds my errant appetite with his painting "Universe #9 End Times / Extraterrestrial." Zimmerman delivers the end as a turbulent, expressionistic calliope of prehistoric and fantasy critters swimming and flying through a maelstrom of sky, water and torched earth. Seems reasonable to me. The school of thought which takes the spirit of the Biblical word literally — which makes the word flesh through visions in paint on canvas — is well represented here.
Zimmerman's swordfish, seahorse and flying pterodactyl inhabit a torrential background of hard rain, dark clouds and fire in the sky. Beneath his childlike and frightening vision, the artist has written in finger paint a descriptive rant which starts "At the beginning" and ends with "the light creatures turned material and took on many forms, each contained lightness and darkness and were now in space and time. Since then all creatures have yearned to return to all-space and all-time." Could L. Ron Hubbard have said it any better? Zimmerman's frenetic celebration of the end time is as intoxicating as watching a child dance alone in the backyard singing to herself in her own made-up language.
"The Four Horsemen" by William Thomas Thompson illustrates the famous four messengers of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations. His silver, black, red and white horses fly down from the heavens to earth. The horses are labeled on the canvas — Sickness, Death, War and Anti-Christ. Each horse eyeballs you, the viewer, and sticks out his tongue. The rider on the far right, the Anti-Christ, wears a crown, wields a bow and arrow and bears the clueless gaze of an imbecile. This is a sensational painting, both fearsome and comic.
On the floor below, over the rail behind me, is a man who has fallen on his back. He is made of wood and wears a carved out suit borrowed from Elvis Costello. The creases in his suit, his tie, belt loops and eyelids are impossibly carved from a single block of wood. From up here, he appears to have fallen from the rail I'm looking over. He is "Poor Paul," by Robert Trotman. The placard tells me the sculpture draws on Caravaggio's painting of St. Paul knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus. I wouldn't have guessed that. His arms reach out and his calm hands are positioned as if he anticipates levitation any moment. His eyes are closed. He is in a trance. He has been seized by the spirit; his position is both embarrassing and enviable.
An ally in spirit with Trotman's fallen ecstatic man is the painting titled "Expectation," by Daud Akhriev. The painting transfers Paul's enviable trance to us. The piece is hypnotic; its effect is difficult to explain. The painting shows a man and a woman sitting quietly on opposite ends of a table. A white cloth covers the table. The cloth is an inverted triangle which hovers between the two seated figures. All the surfaces — cloth, fabric, feet, hands, heads, shadows, all muted browns, reds and whites — are infused with a profound silence and substance. An arc of dim light falls over the table and figures. The artist tells it better:
"We experience spiritual events in our life, but they are fleeting and cannot be seen. We have profound emotions, but likewise, they are invisible and often pass quickly. Artists struggle to create a visual essence of spiritual truth, through the desire to have time to contemplate and share the joy."
Akhriev's struggle paid off. The artist painted this in memory of his father. He tells us the bowl of water on the table between the two figures is put there for the departing soul to drink following his exhausting journey away from his earthly loved ones. Very few paintings confer the palpable mystery and power of the spirit. This one does.
There's the power of the spirit and there's the weakness of the flesh. Pentecostal Christian Ronald Cooper vividly describes the wages of sin with his depiction of Hell in his painted sculpture "In Competition." Inside a wooden container the size of a middle-class TV set are the burning fires of Hell. The box is open at the front and top so we get a close look at the torments which await those of us who are wicked and wayward. Painted flames, white and red, and black embers cover the walls and floor of Hell. Inside the inferno are serpents, devils and the unlucky fallen denizens of Earth, tiny hand-carved figurines bleeding and burning. Devils with beast heads and man bodies smile and laugh at their human playthings from their perch on the top row of the box. The devils all sport tiny happy penises. Hand painted testimonials are written below the eternally unhappy guests: "I never liked to go to church"; "I hope my wife is here, she treated me like hell on earth"; "I thought I would go to heaven."
My hope is Mr. Cooper's vision speaks only figuratively.
In her excellent opening essay, Heartney notes that in our current times, "religion too often seems to be wielded as a divisive force... especially when melded with nationalism, it can become toxic — a pretext for war, a justification for intolerance." She closes that thought emphasizing, "Religion can also be a healing force when embraced in the spirit of love and mutual understanding. That is the hope which is imbedded in this exhibition."
That hope will live or die within the heart of each visitor to this show. Come see what God hath wrought.
The exhibit Thresholds: Expressions of Art and Spiritual Life continues through August 13 at the McColl Center for Visual Art, 721 North Tryon Street. Hours are 11am-4pm Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. For more info, call 704-332-5535.