Beasts of Revelation, Nixon Pilgrims and Rastafarian Israelis

Kehinde Wiley’s “Abed Al Ashe and Chaled El Awari (The World Stage: Israel)

My visit to Chelsea a couple of weeks ago turned up a surprising number of shows with religious content, presented in vastly different ways. I’ve already pointed out the quasi-Gnostic overtones of the Joseph Strau show at Green Naftali, which seemed to be a sincere attempt to produce art inspired by the German artist’s personal spiritual awakening, but at least three other exhibits approached religion in three distinctly different tones. At D.C. Moore, Beasts of Revelation offered a variety of interesting work, but the tone of the press release created a snarky lens through which it was nearly impossible to see any of the work as a genuine attempt to visualize religious faith in a non-judgmental way. Christopher Hitchens, if you’re watching, you should be grinning. The release was more than a bit pretentious, heralding that the show would break new ground into content heretofore taboo for contemporary art. Oh, that again. (Is that even remotely possible anymore?) The fact that, simultaneously, three other exhibits elsewhere in the city were infused with religious content offered a deflating reality check to this bit of bloviating on contemporary art’s ability to “pose uncomfortable questions and provoke disturbing answers.”

What the show appears to be is the gallery’s attempt to visualize what it calls . . . wait for it, wait for it . .  the “insidious aquifer of metaphorical power” exerted by “religion” but what’s clearly meant is right-wing Christianity. “Political issues that might have been considered personal during another era have become rallying cries for various religious groups.” It isn’t hard to translate what that means, and some of the idiocies of the Christian right-wing are easy targets for anyone who wants to pound the drum over their knuckle-headedness. Yet a show about “religion” that might have been far more interesting and resonant would have been one with images from Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist artists, as well as Jewish and Catholic, or maybe even a die-hard Taoist. Or a Rastafarian, anyone? A show that contained sincere images about personal faith: now there would be something that felt like a violation of a more genuine taboo, since we’re talking about contemporary art. This show comes across as a distanced, slightly jaundiced take on a group often identified more by its political action committees than the foundational elements of its faith—such as, say, loving one’s enemies. It might have been more intelligent to target institutionalized religion, or Christendom as Kierkegaard referred to it when he was trying to bring it down in his own sardonic way. What distinguished his attack was that he was also promoting genuine Christianity, even though he seemed unable to find anyone who actually bothered to practice it.

Though its tone was nearly as sardonic, the religious mockery I found at Meulensteen was done with a much lighter and more winning touch, less aiming at religion than using it as a crossbow, as it were, for shooting arrows at various other targets. The exhibit of work by Jeffrey Vallance was ruefully funny, ostensibly about Lutheranism, but just as much about the contemporary worship of undistinguished personal experience that runs through reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, and most other blathering social media. (Such as this blog.) It also targeted a notable historical figure or two. The wit here is gentle and sidelong, corrosive without being jaundiced. I was treated to what was, in effect, a tiny solo show of Vallance’s work, in one corner of the gallery. It was a series of small Cornell-like boxes configured as shrines for mundane objects, such as a can of Paul Mitchell hair product, with small mini-short stories, like diary entries, about the personal experiences surrounding the objects in the shrine. One example was the Nixon Pilgrim Shrine. It was meant to be taken along, as spiritual self-defense, while visiting historic locations associated with Richard Nixon. The ornate box contained, in a central small alcove, a sort of doll’s head of Nixon painted red and distorted to look like a protective Buddhist demon. It was a subtle, ironic touch of homeopathy that you needed this little dose of a spiritual ex-Nixon to protect you from the looming historic figure spread out all over the map. Here’s the text, which started out straight-faced and then had me grinning and finally laughing out loud by the time I got to the word “Checker’s”:

Widely recognized as a symbol of blessing and protection for travelers, the Tibetan gau box is a portable shrine that has been an important part of Tibetan culture for hundreds of years. Each gau box has a window through which you can view the carving of a divine being who serves as the locus for meditation and prayer, and helps provide guidance, insight and hope in one’s travels. The shrine’s interior may also hold various holy items, including prayer flags, mantras, relics, amulets, incense, as well as herbs and medicines. Using belts or shoulder straps, pilgrims carry these shrines across vast distances and through difficult trials. At home, the gau box is commonly displayed on an altar. At the bottom of the bas-relief ornamented front is a depiction of a frightful spirit, said to be the protector of dharma. The spirit on the outside of this particular box—with its elongated nose, heavy eyebrows and prominent jowls with stubble—resembles Watergate-era caricatures of President Richard Nixon, whose countenance has been deified within. Pilgrims might wish to carry the unique shrine to such important Nixon historical sites as the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, Whittier College, the White House, San Clemente, Key Biscayne, the Watergate Hotel, Checker’s Grave, Nixon’s Tomb, and the People’s Republic of China.

There’s a nice built-in ambiguity built into the image of Nixon as a menacing but now protective spirit. More typical is the deadpan way Vallance justified a shrine devoted to a can of sculpting mousse with text that accompanied the devotional Paul Mitchell Road Trip Mousse box:

In August 2002, Vicky and I were leaving San Antonia, moving back to Los Angeles after 10 years on the road. Vicky drove her gold 1983 GMC Sierra pickup and I drove my 1971 Pontiac Firebird 350. As we cruised across the baking desert, there was a record heat wave, with temperatures reaching 117 degrees. Neither of our cars had air conditioning, so we drove with our windows open to avoid getting heat stroke. With all the windows open, the air mercilessly whipped our hair into our faces and eyes. We quickly remedied the situation by obtaining a can of Paul Mitchell Extra-Body Sculpting Mousse and plastering the content onto our heads, sculpting our hair with solid hair-helmets. In this manner, we drove in style through the desert. Here, preserved in a Lutheranesque reliquary, is that treasured can of Paul Mitchell mousse.

This time the laughter began with “our windows open” since I could foresee what was coming after having glanced at the box. The wit, along with everything else, gets wonderfully dry in the Mojave Desert.

The last show I saw on my visit to Manhattan was one of two excellent exhibits at The Jewish Museum. The first was Vuillard, who will get a post all his own soon, and the second was the collection of portraits from Israel by Kehinde Wylie. I’ve enjoyed his work for years, with a slightly skeptical reserve. As the museum’s website puts it: “The men in this series—Ethiopian and native-born Jews and Arab Israelis—express a modern sensibility that supersedes religious and ethnic affiliations. Distinctively, he places them against vivid, ornate backgrounds inspired by Jewish papercuts, an intricate form of folk and ceremonial art.” Wylie typically shoots a photograph of a subject mimicking a pose employed in an historic work from the tradition of European painting. While doing a photo-realistic image of his subject, he merges it into an ornate patterned background, which apparently he hires a team of painters to execute. (He doesn’t talk about how much of his paintings he actually paints now, and it isn’t hard to believe he has a trained team to execute a large part of the square footage he needs to cover in short order, given the size of this one show, among many.) There’s no agenda in this show other than to portray contemporary individuals in moments of what can only be called high self-esteem, but in a visual environment that evokes the beauty of tradition, in this case the background patterns happen to be from Jewish religious tradition. Obviously, the images, as a whole, portray unique individuals who appear to be thriving in a web of cultural history that makes their lives possible without, shall we say, entirely making them feel welcome. The beauty of these portraits can be dazzling, and the power of what the museum calls “decorative pattern”—secularizing what is essentially sacred images whose function is in a class similar to Indian mandalas—is a large part of how Wylie’s art works. He creates a lively tension between the visual interest of a unique individual face and physique, set against patterns that evoke timeless order. Some of the subjects look as if they are about the jump down onto the gallery floor and head for the exit. The challenge of living in Israel as an exile from Africa can’t be entirely pleasant for many of them. Yet it’s interesting to see the Rastafarian colors and hints of the Lion of Judah (a symbol of the political leader and incarnation of God, Haile Selassie, in reggae culture) in some of these portraits: it shows how an immigrant religious faith is actually returning to its roots when it flees to Israel (where the rastas trace Selassie’s geneology back to Solomon.)

These patterns Wylie uses from Jewish ceremonial paper cutouts create a decorative effect yet, in the process, they also happen to embody the spiritual environment of his subjects. From a site on paper-cutting:

…it is believed that Jews were familiar with the art for some time because of the travels of Jewish merchants and the close ties between Jews and the Ottoman sultans.

During the 17th and 18th centuries the papercut became an important folk art among both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, especially in countries where this folk art was practiced by the general population. Requiring only simple and readily available tools—paper, pencil and knife—papercutting was available to all, even the poor. Few of the early papercuts survived, however, because their construction was fragile (acid-free materials did not exist) and their purpose was usually short-lived. A papercut would be hung on the walls of homes and synagogues and served a range of spiritual and ritual purposes in the Jewish calendar and life cycle. They were hung on eastern walls to indicate the direction of prayer; they were used as holiday decorations and . . .  they were created to commemorate deaths in the family . . . .

On its website, the museum has posted a video worth watching, either at the exhibit or on YouTube, where Wylie describes his approach, summing up his purpose, toward the end of the video, in textbook postmodernist terms that essentially says the paintings don’t mean anything specific: “Every viewer has a different response to those paintings. You’re bringing your own contingent set of values and beliefs and histories that will then engage that painting. What is the truth being told? Well there is none, it’s a story of a story of a story that attempts to approximate a lived moment.” (A good way to void all criticism is to let your work mean whatever individual viewers want it to mean . . . )

Seems to me that all painting is an approximation of a lived moment, isn’t it? But whatever. Yet in this case his postmodernism gives him an ability to celebrate both his exiled subjects and the Jewish culture surrounding them. He talks about a moment when he went into a reggae club in Tel Aviv:

You saw young white Israelis with dreadlocks down their backs fraternizing with Arab Israelis and Ethiopian Jews. This is not what I see when I turn on the television and see what a night in Tel Aviv is like.

The merging of cultures in a common love–one love, in Bob Marley’s terms–and  a common devotion, in a reggae club also seems to be what Wylie attempts to do: to marry past and present, this culture with that culture. The patterned background in some of his paintings reaches around to sneak like a vine into the foreground and begin to entangle the figure he’s portraying. In the video, you hear from a Rastafarian hiphop artist, Kalkidan. Born in Ethiopia, he came to Israel when he was four years old. Kalkidan says: “It’s very hard to live daily life as a black person in Israel. When I got the hiphop I’m fearless.” The suggestion of alienation and possible discrimination don’t find any expression in the work on the walls, though, for better or worse. Instead, Wylie is promoting spiritual and social unity. Even the frames around the paintings hint at a common spiritual root for both the immigrants and the culture. On its website, the museum describes Wylie’s frames, which contain symbols for the Lion of Judah, without pointing out that the Lion of Judah is both a Jewish and a Rastafarian symbol, a nice merger of two traditions that claim a common origin in Jewish history:

The hand-carved wooden frames are crowned with emblems borrowed from Jewish tradition:  . . .  the Lion of Judah, symbolizing blessing, power, and majesty. Each supports a text: for the portraits of Jewish men the Ten Commandments are used. For Arab men, Wiley chose the plea of Rodney King, victim of a police beating that sparked race riots in the artist’s home city of Los Angeles in 1991: “Can we all get along?”

Wylie has gotten rich off his work. It’s easy to see why, because it’s so easy to like, which also makes it easy to dismiss. It doesn’t help that the YouTube video shows him wandering through a public market saying, “We’re going shopping. We’re looking for patterns,” I thought for a moment I was watching one of the home redesign shows my wife loves. His background patterns may have sacred origins but he knows they have a decorative function as well, and the human brain loves patterns. His work is meant to reach as many people as possible. And the fact that it goes down easy doesn’t mean it isn’t excellent. His purpose remains universally appealing and respectful of all cultures and, in this case, religious traditions. The indigenous hiphop soundtrack to the museum’s promotional video is one of the best reasons to watch it, and for Wylie, hiphop is “about” what his art is striving to be about, everyone’s struggle to find a way of being in the world:

There’s a certain essence to black American culture that’s become globalized, something that started in the early 1970s in the Bronx. It’s about “dealing with how one puts oneself gracefully into the world.”


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