Cloaked characters, burning branches, mystical symbols and desolate landscapes comprise the evocative paintings of Asheville artist Chris Sedgwick, on display this month at Gallery Minerva on Biltmore Ave. Linking themes of spirituality and science, what is most remarkable about Sedgwick's paintings is the indecipherable era they inhabit. While the characters perform what appear to be ancient rituals, their clothing looks like something from the future.
The realist manner in which Sedgwick paints contributes to the spiritualized presence of his paintings. They reference 17th century Baroque painters like Caravaggio, who were encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church to use dramatic light and emotive content to convey religious ideas. Instead of biblical themes, however, Sedgwick's work blends current scientific theories to ancient occult traditions. He often deals with the Roman idea of the “auger” — a character who was thought to have a direct relationship with God and therefore influenced cycles of the natural world.
“The Alchemical Divination of Soul Synthesis” serves as the focal point of the gallery, stretching nearly 10 feet long. The painting depicts a central figure who is levitating while six augurs surround him. A small shoot of poplar is beginning to sprout on the ground, its leaves aflame. Candles burn on the rocks that surround the figures. The viewer feels here like she has wandered into a mystical situation — the force of the moment is captivating.
To see another example art inspired by ideas of yore and the natural world, visit Nicole McConville's show Specimens at the Pump Gallery in the River Arts District's Phil Mechanic Building. For her multimedia assemblages, McConville has pieced together things like bird wings, old photographs, bugs and starfish. She crafts these found relics into meticulous shrines that incorporate contemporary applications of encaustic (wax) paint.
McConville's work calls to mind the Cabinet of Curiosities of 16th- and 17th-century Europe, rooms belonging to wealthy people that housed collections of random biological, archaeological, geological and religious artifacts. In such rooms, it wasn't unusual to see whale bones displayed next to biblical texts, stuffed birds, ancient architecture and precious gems. While these rooms were originally intended as displays of affluence, they later served a more scientific purpose.
The Cabinets of Curiosities later influenced a social trend known as wunderkammers (wonder boxes) through which people began collecting and displaying personal and exotic relics in little boxes to serve as mementos. McConville has taken the idea of the wunderkammer further by assembling her relics into sculptural works of art — paying close attention to detail and the poetic relationship between objects. In “Submerge,” a dried octopus lays before a black-and-white photo suggesting an offering to ancestral spirits. “Surrender” depicts the face of a woman with two bird wings gracefully pointing downward.
Each diorama, with its careful placement of elements, command reflection and introspection. Specimens will be on display until June 30.