by Julia Couzens
It’s not possible to walk into Al Farrow’s Divine Ammunition without feeling both awe and soul-deep dismay. Farrow’s somber, menacing vision is ideally suited to the fear, horror, and moral dissolution that seems to permeate contemporary life. The hatred that religions can breed is the blood-soaked ground upon which Farrow constructs models of mosques, synagogues, cathedrals, and reliquaries using munitions—a perversely incongruous counterpoint to the gospel of peace, love and tolerance we hear coming from pulpits.
This exhibition is the final stop on a national tour that originated at the Crocker Art Museum and that here debuts The White House, Farrow’s one-ton ode to presidential megalomania and the current political malaise. His painstakingly fabricated scale models are composed of weaponry: bullets, shell casings, shot, and firearms, as well as steel, bone, and glass. Farrow has been working with these elements since the mid 1990’s, and the skillful engineering with which he builds his constructions makes his astonishing materials seem almost obvious, so cunningly are they deployed. Nothing more perfectly articulates the dome of a mausoleum than shell casings, or the spires of a church than Farrow’s grouping of rifles retrieved from the battlefield of Verdun. It is a perfect marriage of medium and message.
Lit in a dystopian gloom, the exhibition gleams with rich autumnal patinas of gold, brass, turquoise and verdigris. Our realization of what composes the works is a slow unfolding of visceral amazement and apprehensive dread. Several are modeled after actual edifices such as the Synagogue of Brussels, the Samanid Mausoleum, Temple Emanuel and The White House. Others, such as the reliquaries, burned churches, and temple doors are the artifacts of Farrow’s informed reflection, based on his extensive study of medieval architecture.
In 1995 he was mesmerized by a single curved finger preserved in a display of sumptuous reliquaries on view in the crypt of the Florentine basilica of San Lorenzo. It’s frozen in the deathbed phenomena called stenosing tenosynovitis, commonly known as “trigger finger.” The conceptual associations became the springboard for a decades-long body of work. Trigger Finger of Santo Guerro II, (1996), one of the earliest pieces in the show, employs guns, bullets, shells, steel, and bone; it’s echt Goth in its fetishistic representation of a medieval reliquary, sanctifying the trigger finger of Farrow’s invented Saint of War.
Through his engineering process and meticulous design of religious temples, Farrow came to appreciate the significance of doors as portals to and symbols of emotional, physical, psychic and spiritual space. He also recognized that they are targets for desecration and hate-fueled graffiti.
That led to the Vandalized Door series (all 2016). While Farrow’s architectural models for these pieces are no more than five to six inches high, the doors themselves measure three or four feet high. The enlargement allows us to see details (like ammo boxes and rifles) that couldn’t be incorporated in the models. Using red spray paint, Farrow scrawled satanic invocations — 666, inverted crosses and a hexagram — across Vandalized Church Door. Vandalized Synagogue Door is splashed with what appears to be a bucket of red paint, calling to mind the recent horrors of Pittsburgh. Here, for the first time, Farrow fired a gun, splattering the door with bullets. Albeit theatrical, such actions spell out the language of unchecked hatred and inconsolable sorrow.
The White House (2018), Farrow’s newest piece, is arguably the highlight of the exhibition. Set in the center of the gallery, surrounded by elaborate mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals, it’s almost nondescript in comparison. Faithful to the architecture of the original, its rusty steel walls and porticos bracket open windows revealing an empty interior, filled only with a flickering light that suggests a television. It is a hollow iron shell, a Gothic horror. Like a massive architectonic skull, it issues a bone-chilling, silent scream: the sound of democracy disintegrating.
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Al Farrow: “Divine Ammunition” @ Museum of Craft and Design through February 24, 2019.
About the Author:
Julia Couzens is a Sacramento-based artist and writer whose work has been widely shown, most recently at Transmitter in Brooklyn. Her hybrid objects were featured in an exhibition at Patricia Sweetow Gallery that closed December 1. Her work is held in museum and public collections throughout the U.S. These include the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts; Berkeley Art Museum; Oakland Museum; Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina; and Yale University. She lives and works on Merritt Island in the Sacramento River delta.