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Sin + Redemp-tion @ SFMOMA Artists Gallery

Cynthia Wallis’ photo of the "Cruci-Fiction Project", 1994
Mounting an exhibition about religion is always a fraught proposition because, invariably, somebody always gets hurt. The problem with Sin and Redemptiona group show built around this theme, is that almost nobody does.  
It feels like a missed opportunity. In a media-driven culture where criminality and celebrity intermingle, and where bankrupt institutions (religious, civic, political, financial) reward or ignore crime rather than punish it, it would be satisfying to see a strong show on this subject.
Instead, the exhibition tiptoes around the issues, substituting benign displays of religious and spiritual iconography for explorations about what sin and redemption might actually mean in the current climate. Granted, images of churches, crowns of thorns, temples, flowers and ancient icons are capable of triggering spiritual longings, but they do not, by themselves, explicate the the matter at hand. 
That said, several works in this show of 25 artists are worth going out of your way to see.   
Cynthia Wallis’ photo documentation of Guillermo Gomez Peña’s and Roberto Sifuentes’ mock crucifixion of themselves on a Marin County beach – a performance staged to protest U.S. immigration policy – comes close to hitting the mark. It consists of a trio of images just inside the gallery’s front door. The event, known as the Cruci-Fiction Project, took place in 1994, but its relevance to the political grandstanding now taking place in Arizona and in Washington couldn’t be stronger. An artist pretending to die for society’s ills is heady stuff, particularly if said actions ignite serious debate about the racist underpinnings of U.S. immigration policy. Unfortunately, the pictures only whetted my appetite for a reenactment of the performance or, perhaps, a video of the event.    
Enrique Chagoya, a close cohort and one-time collaborator of Gomez Peña’s, both "sins" and redeems himself in one fell swoop with Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals, a 12-panel comic/codex from 2003 in which Jesus is shown, with bulging female breasts and long red fingernails, receiving a same-sex blowjob. The lithograph, it should be noted, is about more than just transgression.  It is a brilliant, scathing piece of satire: a cross-cultural mashup of comic characters, Mayan iconography, Mexican pornography, religious symbols and skewered stereotypes, both contemporary and historical.
Details from Enrique Chagoya’s "Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals", 2003, 12-panel lithograph, 12 x 93"
But the idea that the Son of God might be queer was apparently too much for 56-year-old Kathleen Folden, a truck driver from Kalispell, Montana.  She shattered a glass case with a crowbar, and then ripped up the print while it was on display at the Loveland Museum in Colorado in 2010.   That kerfuffle, which was entirely predictable, made national news.  
In defense of the work Chagoya told "My intention is to critique religious institutions…I address the role of the Catholic Church (among other religious groups) imposing its credo on Native American cultures all over the Americas. I also critique the Church’s position against same-sex marriage while allowing pedophiles to exist within its ranks for decades and keeping it quiet."
David Best, "Temple Study", 2012, wood, computer-generated cutting, collaboratively assembled, 22 x 8 x 8′
Claire Pasquier and Mary Powers must have been thinking along similar lines when they created a confessional booth in which the voice of a woman emanates from an old radio. To hear it, you have to lean in close, just like a priest. When you do, you hear a tale of sexual abuse told with acute psychological insight. It, too, hits the nail on the head by making you wonder: how can clergymen in the same position listen to such stories and then perpetrate the acts described?
David Best’s astonishing plywood temple, a scale model of the ones he builds and incinerates each year at Burning Man, is reason enough to visit, if only to behold the intricacy of his filigreed carvings, which he and his team build up in layers to replicate the look of ancient Asian temples.  Beyond presenting us with an grand spectacle, the structure also holds out the promise of redemption (or at least catharsis). You get it by grabbing one of the large wooden discs available and inscribing on it whatever sentiments you like, knowing full well that they, like the temple, will go up in flames at some yet-to-be determined time and place —  presumably to be deposited in some universal karma bank. I wasn’t motivated to participate, but I was moved by the fact that so many others did; the large pile of discs at the base of the structure attests to their desires.
Then there is Victor Cartagena, who emigrated to the U.S. from war-stricken El Salvador during the height of that nation’s civil conflict. Judging from El Cadejo y la Capuerucita, his graphically arresting take on Little Red Riding Hood, I’d say he knows exactly what it means to face down a hellhound, animal or human. His picture, which pits a red-hooded man against a snarling black dog, is as visceral a representation of the conflict between good and evil as you are likely to find.    
Elsewhere, there are fine works by Donald Farnsworth, Alen MacWeeney, Kara Maria, and Christian Peacock that, in a different context, would be commendable. Here, they only bump up against the stated theme; and so the show drifts.  A more focused selection would have given the exhibition the bite demanded by the title and by the historic moment in which these white-hot issues burn.
“Sin and Redemption” @ SFMOMA Artists Gallery through August 23, 2012.
Cover: Victor Cartagena, El Cadejo y la Capuerucita, block print, 30 x 40"


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