Many art historians consider the shift of focus of Western arts from the sacred to the secular to be one of the most significant cultural features of the modern era. While some contemporary artists still make religious imagery the centerpiece of their work, today such artists are the exception rather than the rule, and their treatments of sacred symbols and saints tend to veer well off the mainstream. That is certainly the case with Seattle artist Lauren Grossman, whose show of sculpture opening tonight uses Christian imagery in highly unconventional and provocative ways. The lamb of God, the burning bush, and the texts from the Song of Songs are just some of the inspirations for these unusual works. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin has previewed the show, and he joins us with his thoughts.
It’s not news when a contemporary artist strives to invest their work with the glow of spirituality, attempting to wake the modern world from its materialist slumber. It’s what Dan Flavin is up to with his deceptively simple neon light shrines, or James Turrell with his sky spaces, art experiences that seeks to reveal the lurking transcendence behind the façade of the ordinary.
Once upon a time religious artifacts served much the same function for society. The objects associated with the traditional Christian church, for example, were seen not just as relics or mere depictions of saints and deities. Instead, as objects, they themselves were invested, like the communion wafer, with the aura of the sacred, a direct connection to the divine Other. When statues of the Virgin Mary wept, or crucifixions bled, it was more a confirmation of what many believers already felt than a sort of angelic bolt from the blue.
For Lauren Grossman, it is the mechanics of this system of belief, the means by which we invest images with the godly, that provides her with the subject for her art. Rather than try like Flavin or Turrell to sanctify the ordinary, she wants us to look again at objects (and texts) which many might consider the formerly sacred, and consider how their meaning and power has been constructed. Rather than religious art, her work is art about religion, a very different thing. As a result, her work, though it treats of traditional Biblical subject matter like Christ’s body, the divine lamb, and Lot’s Wife, the various sculptural constructions in the current show, are much more at home in art gallery than they would be in a house of worship.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Grossman’s spectacular interpretation of the Burning Bush, appropriately titled, "Not Consumed." Grossman has imagined the biblical shrub as a seven-foot iron cactus on industrial rollers with a nearby propane tank powering two dozen gas flames that rise from its surface, burning brightly, but without visible effect. The dark, cast iron plant, like many of the other sculptures, is entirely composed of cut-out block letters, which we are given to understand (they would take a heroic effort to read) are taken from the Moses and the Bush episode in the book of Exodus – the text made visible, as it were.
The good news about this piece, and most of the others in this concept-heavy exhibit, is that it succeeds in engaging us as an artwork long enough for us to want to explore the various strands suggested by its construction. And many strands there are: Grossman the inventor is as much a presence here as Grossman the artist, and complicated mechanical contrivances are a natural part of her aesthetic. In the case of "Not Consumed," the working apparatus includes various hoses, valves, and spigots; the latter carefully labeled and numbered with discrete buttons and stamps, the better to guide the user. Viewer interaction, in fact, is implied in many of the sculptures, which like the burning bush (turn it on, light it, wheel it into place) invite or even require our participation. Church ritual we are reminded, particularly the Catholic version, is a full-body experience, engaging us physically (touch, sight, smell) as well as emotionally and intellectually.
Grossman also employs humor as a tool in her deconstruction of the religious artifact. In the wall-mounted sculpture, "Shiny/Shiny," for example, two gleaming chromed-brass sheep, their bases fused, are set into spinning motion by a Rube Goldberg arrangement of belts and pulleys. Even at relatively low speeds the sculptures blur into an unrecognizable but glittering blur, a low-tech but seductive apparition that we watch ourselves create. Aside from the employment of the highly-freighted Christian symbol of the Lamb of God, "Shiny/Shiny" could be taken to refer to religious faith in general, where – Grossman suggests – we can be aware of the mechanism of our own belief while still totally accepting that belief as true.
A further layer of irony comes from the story of the lamb’s creation, one of a number of similar pieces in the show cast as part of an artist’s residency at the Koehler plumbing fixture factory in Wisconsin. The artist reports watching her various Lambs of God emerging from an industrial oven surrounded ranks of shower heads, faucets, and drains, a wholly appropriate metaphor for the marginal place of religion in a secular age.
My favorite work in the show also owes its existence to the world of the modern bathroom. In "Radiant Lamb," the featured animal is made from cast iron rather than chrome - a rough and rusty cast iron, at that. The radiance purposely comes not from the lamb itself (as in "Shiny/Shiny"), but from an aureole of sturdy chromium rods radiating from its body, each terminating in a brass ball. Here is a visual pun that even a secular humanist might appreciate. One of the hoariest visual clichés in all of religious art is the aura effect created by surrounding an object – the sacred heart of Mary comes to mind – with closely-spaced, radiating lines. There is something highly amusing about seeing the same concept realized in three dimensions, with what turns out to be a set of pull rods for high-end sink stoppers instead of holy rays. Here the balancing act between the sacred and the secular, the industrial and the artful, reaches its apex.
The timing of this provocative show is most interesting, appearing as it does at the height of the furor in the Islamic World over disrespectful Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Whereas in the West we require someone like Lauren Grossman to remind us of the nearly-lost power of the image there are parts of the world where physical embodiments of the godly can still move millions – for better, or for worse.