Would Jesus drive a ’64 Chevelle wagon? Would Judas pilot a ‘60 Ford Starliner? Those were a few of the choices conceptualist Lewis deSoto grappled with in assembling a contemporary take on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, one of 15 pieces that figure prominently in a 36-year survey that
includes photography, sound installations, sculpture and prints . At a distance, one might reasonably wonder what the connecting thread is between these works. After all, deSoto is perhaps best known for transforming a ‘65 Chrysler New Yorker into a vehicle of historic re-imagination in which the truth about his namesake, the Spanish conquistador Hernando deSoto, is revealed. Here, in a tightly focused, elegantly mounted retrospective, Before After, the artist demonstrates that regardless of media, his work revolves around three themes: desire, mortality and transcendence. The result is a portrait of a hydrocarbon-powered, millennia-straddling Zen Catholic whose quest for meaning roams from the earthly to the ethereal.
The show opens with an olfactory blast from a room strewn with cocoa hulls, End of Desire (2008). It functions like a Zen joke: You can salivate or resist the overpowering odor of chocolate, but either way you’re trapped in a cycle of competing desires that do not, in the Zen scheme of things, lead to enlightenment. Pakhgan-gyi (2003), a collage of tiny pornographic images inserted in and around outlines of the Buddha’s footprints, makes the same point by appealing simultaneously to voyeurism and whatever its opposite is. Fittingly, the exit image of a nearby grid of 24 black-and-white photographs, Basho (1977), was of a hearse. This montage, dominated by memory-laden images, leads viewers into a gallery filled with op-ish, computer-generated prints and sculptural representations of the artist’s deceased father.
The latter homage, which plumbs the mysteries of corporeal existence, takes several forms: an aluminum torso outfitted with a motorcycle gas valve, which was (presumably) opened to fill the cavity with holy water; a wooden armature covered with fabric in the shape of the deceased’s body; and a suit of armor arrayed on the floor that emitted ticking sounds that the artist compares to those of a cooling engine. By likening the life force to things vehicular, the artist demonstrates how we anthropomorphize machines and how automobiles become objects of quasi-religious devotion that are woven into the fabric of our existence.
La Cena Pasada (2002) goes even further by replacing the above-referenced dramatis personae of Da Vinci’s 15th century Last Supper with 13 scale models of ‘60s-era muscle cars. These appear in a glass vitrine. In a similar spirit, the artist updates Vermeer with The Restoration (2005), a back-lit transparency in which a baby-blue ‘64 Pontiac Grand Prix appears on the parquet floor of a suburban kitchen, attended to by a mechanic who looks a bit like Jesus and a maid who could have walked off one of the Dutch master’s canvases. ICA Director Cathy Kimball writes in a superb exhibition brochure that deSoto was strongly influenced by Vermeer’s sense of color and light and by his practice of inserting symbolic objects. Yet it’s the car at center stage that dominates. What it and similar references point to is the syncretistic mix of car culture and religion that pervades much of deSoto’s output. And it’s this reflexive, irony-free combination of the two that gives the work its power.
Elsewhere, The Site Projects (1981-83) document deSoto’s forays into environmental photography. These were inspired by Robert Smithson’s earthworks. But instead of bulldozing dirt, deSoto photographed moving light sources at night with long exposures. Of four examples on view, Tideline resonates most strongly. A crepuscular image made under extraordinary natural lighting conditions, it combines the time-lapse effects of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) with same feelings of infinity generated by Richard Misrach’s pictures which came two decades later. The idea, that humankind is just a spec in the universe, is a consistent theme throughout.
The exhibition concludes with two powerful installations. Zenith (2000), a wall-mounted hi-fi cabinet, feels as if it’s being levitated by the drone of an audio loop from the minimalist composer Terry Riley, but is really an unrecognizable snippet from the Jackie Gleason Orchestra. Lament (2009), situated in a narrow, nearly dark corridor, reverberates with the recorded voice of opera singer Erin Neff, who improvised a haunting melody to words from Herman Hesse’s 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game, about a life that starts promisingly and ends tragically. It’s a remarkable piece of acoustical alchemy that turns a small space into something cathedral-like. Penetrated by a dim ray of blue light, the space serves as a metaphor what lies ahead for all of us.
Like so much else in this show that is transporting, Lament whisks us out of ourselves with a dissonant, bittersweet message: that while life does have an endpoint, there is also light at the end of the tunnel.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Lewis deSoto’s Before After closed March 28 at the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art.
Learn more about Lewis deSoto.