During most periods of pre-Renaissance recorded history, religion was a major — and sometimes the only — topic of art.
Now, apparently out of nowhere, comes a profusion of religious art in Asheville. And while it’s true that a few Asheville artists, like Carol Bomer, have made paintings about their faith for many years, the new local work is somehow different, evincing a more all-encompassing spirituality.
The Egyptians covered the walls of their temples and tombs with scenes depicting their gods/pharaohs. Greek statues of the inhabitants of Mount Olympus are unsurpassed. The Romans followed the Greeks’ example, and in medieval Europe, only religious art was allowed. Sculpture adorned the doorways of the mighty cathedrals, and paintings and stained-glass windows provided visual instruction for an illiterate populace.
Meanwhile, back in Asheville, Ananda Hair Studio and dirt and Sky People Gallery are showing hubcap shrines dedicated to the Virgin of Guadeloupe (the first Virgin Mary apparition sanctioned by the Roman Church, she appeared to a young peasant native in conquered and demoralized Mexico in 1531).
Ask Julie Masaoka, the shrines’ creator, if she’s religious and she falls silent, slowly working her way around to the word “spiritual.” At first glance, Masaoka’s colorful wall shrines are pure kitsch — but on closer examination, the anticipated irony dissolves into history.
Masaoka was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church and spent a great deal of time in the bedroom of her grandmother’s Mexican cook. This room, filled with richly decorated altars and shrines to the Virgin Mary, held magic for Masaoka. Her present goal, she says, is to make her works both sacred and mystical.
These altars shine in stark contrast to Masaoka’s workmanlike abstract paintings. Resonating with hidden yearnings, the Madonna figures are always veiled, sometimes with cheesecloth and sometimes with wax. Most are traditional, but a few exhibit a contemporary, J. Lo sort of look. Centered on different kinds of flea-market hubcaps, many from big rigs, the Virgin, in each, is surrounded by the kinds of tributes found in shrines worldwide: beads, artificial flowers, vivid ornaments.
The fearless color combinations are certainly influenced by Mexican art. Likewise, in every piece, Mary reigns supreme as Queen of Heaven.
At ION Art Gallery, a beautiful new space at the end of Lexington Avenue, hang Ryan Ford’s explorations of mysticism. The young local painter began his spiritual inquiries when a friend told him about Plato’s theory of “gold” men — those who burn with a white-hot passion but must settle for short lives in exchange. Three of Ford’s paintings feature these gold men; these works’ structure foretells his obsession with early Sienese painting, which forms the basis for the biblical paintings in the exhibit.
In “Power Trippin,” Ford acknowledges wide-ranging influences: the Renaissance masters, but also the early, cartoonlike paintings of Phillip Guston. Jesus stands up through the roof of a jalopy — hand raised in benediction, cigarette smoke obscuring his halo. The road and the car are pure contemporary cartoon, Jesus and the bleak landscape pure 11th-century Italian.
“St. Anthony Beaten by Devils,” though, is the work most reminiscent of the early Italian masters. Ford, who’s now reading the Bible, says he loves the visions these stories inspire.
He’s particularly moved, he reveals, by the Book of Job.
“Hold On” blends modern icons with those of the early church. The devil in this work is masterfully done — red as can be, and clearly evil. A priest offers blessings, but on his back is a disturbing protrusion — an alien attachment hinting at sexual perversions. On a nearby road, a costumed, transgendered person tries to play cymbals — but with no hands. To the right, helpless children walk toward a priest, paying to view an enshrined rabbit.
The children leave this experience as green, Jell-O-molded figures. In the sky above, the heads of John the Baptist and a rabbi whiz through the air on platters, avoiding collisions with the Virgin Mary, who sits serenely on a rocket, cradling the baby Jesus. Other anachronisms include a roadside McDonald’s sign and a robot strolling down a pathway.
Can spirituality survive the corruptive technology symbolized by Ford’s robot? Did that 16th-century Mexican boy really take his bishop out-of-season red roses from the Virgin of Guadeloupe? These two bodies of work are quite different in almost every way, but if a commonality must be forced, it’s the way both local artists leave the viewer with plenty of wiggle room — and more questions than answers.