by Mark Van Proyen
Easter Morning is the title of Bruce Conner’s final film, made in 2008. It’s featured in Rituals of Devotion, an exhibition containing works from about 30 artists highlighting the devotional aspects of artistic practice, curated by Amanda Nudelman.. Easter Morning runs for a little over ten minutes. It is a spectacular re-make of an earlier film, the only one in which Conner used digital editing software to achieve and exaggerate his trademark jump-cut syncopation of filmic fragments. Terry Riley’s In C provides a haunting soundtrack, performed by an ensemble of musicians using antique Chinese instruments. The film’s camera glides about a San Francisco room overlooking the East Bay at sunrise, gathering and generating psychedelic effects.
The exhibition features several Madonna-themed images. The oldest is a famous 1895 lithograph by Edvard Munch titled Madonna, depicting a bare-chested woman who looks like a vampire, half alive and half dead. To the figure’s left are indications of sperm cells dropping down to a fetus that looks apprehensive about its prospects. William Eggleston’s Untitled (Two Girls, Memphis Tennessee) (1974-76) provides the viewer with two contrasting Madonnas, one blond and the other dark-haired, the former looking colorful and jubilant, the other dour and grim. An early 1959 photograph by Lee Friedlander captures his wife Maria looking out an open window during the first year of their long marriage, a harbinger of many such portraits to come. Mary Carlson variates on the same theme in two small porcelain sculptures with playful ceramic renditions of famous female saints, St. Catherine Reading and Virgin and Demon (both 2020). The fanciful glazing on these works makes them look like they are in a state of Tammy Fae-esque meltdown. A final Madonna-related image, Mother, Flower, Secret of the Flesh (2022) by Sahana Ramakrishnan, a large oil painting, depicts a mother figure sitting atop a flowering lotus holding a child who takes nourishment from a tree. Both are menaced by a sinister-looking crocodile at the bottom of the picture and protected by a divine mother figure at the top.
In an early photographic work from 1974, Robert Mapplethorpe sanctifies rock singer Patti Smith as the saintly subject for a small triptych, capturing her right before fame knocked on her door. The flanking wings of the triptych feature two reverse-facing prints of Smith’s visage viewed from below eye level, half-tones obscured. The central panel is tinted with a reflective, lurid purple. Nan Goldin’s 1986 triptych reprises images from her earlier series titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (initially presented in 1977), which are re-printed and tiled in groups of nine onto a trio of large format Cibachrome outputs. In this format, the original images of Goldin’s pansexual, heroin-addicted demimonde come across as a sequence of film stills adding up to a grim story of ruined lives. Susan Treister expands the idea of a singular work executed on multiple supports with 14 of her imaginative reworkings of Tarot sword cards, titled Hexen 2.0/ Tarot/Swords — Cybernetic Séance (2009-2011) — giclée prints that have been modified and elaborated upon with watercolor, bringing in additional references to such things as colonization and mass surveillance. Zanele Muholi’s Being (2007) is another multi-panel photo. Each of the three prints (two black and white, one color) features two young African women in a homoerotic embrace, almost but not completely nude.
Several works directly deal with shrines or altarpieces. The largest and most complex is Portia Munson’s Bound Angel (2021), an altar-like table covered with well over 100 porcelain angel figurines sourced from flea markets, almost all white, the majority bound. These are intermixed with disheveled piles of bridal attire and a few dozen electric lamps. It is a visually satisfying work, but I couldn’t help but think of its close resemblance to some of the late works of Ed and Nancy Kienholz. Outside of the previously mentioned Bruce Conner film and the Edvard Munch lithograph, the single most compelling work in the exhibition is Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Hall of Thirty-Three Bays (1995), a modestly sized gelatin-silver print that peers into a dimly lit shrine near Kyoto containing over a thousand statues of the Buddha in his Boddhisatva manifestation (“the Buddha of Compassion”). The image harks back to the bygone time when photographers had to earn their artistic stripes by mastering the subtle interplay of mid-tones, which
Sugimoto’s photograph does with a rare and resonant virtuosity, blending denotation and connotation with perfect elegance. A kindred group of photos by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg also evokes a commitment to the nostalgic spirituality of its subject, that being a medieval church at San Esteban de Viguera in northern Spain. With exquisite subtly, these images show the uninhabited interior of the church at different times of day, illuminated by sharp beams of sunlight that appear to be of divine origin.
Another group of works whose gestures suggest penance, deep reflection or obsessive-compulsive behavior depict the idea of ritual more literally. Baseera Kahn’s Lunar Countdown (2017) shows over a dozen clusters of five marks, each stitched upon a handmade prayer rug, looking like a record of passing days made by an incarcerated person. The work’s title tips us off: it represents the recording of menstrual cycles made under the auspices of several crescent moon shapes, a potent metaphor for the extreme tension between Islam and Feminism. Tacita Dean’s Line of Fate (2011) operates through five vertically stacked photographs of a hand clutching a pen, writing in what appears to be a journal. The hand is that of art historian Leo Steinberg, captured while writing his final manuscript in longhand.
Rituals of Devotion comes at a time when the art world seems mired in a tiresome banality camped out at the intersection of narcissism and money, pointing viewers in directions that are in no way new but nonetheless uncanny. It also revives irony, banished about 30 years ago for being exclusive and pretentious, after being elevated to an intellectual fetish during the prior decade. Three decades later, post-irony is now the thing that has become tiresome, even more so as the world falls into chaos while the post-ironic artworld insists on reprising Neronian violin sonatas. Dare we say that Rituals of Devotion points us toward a revived sublime? Obviously, it is too soon to tell, but at the very least, it puts some unusual cards on a table that match our troubled moment.
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“Rituals of Devotion” @ McEvoy Foundation for the Arts to May 27, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.