An anthropologist once told a Yanomami tribesman that he should watch out, because his hut was infested with termites. The tribesman shrugged off the warning without worry. When the roof finally fell in, though, he blamed it on witchcraft.
“But I told you about the termites,” the anthropologist uttered in disbelief.
“It was witchcraft,” the man persisted.
“But the wood was chewed through months ago,” asserted the anthropologist.
“Perhaps that was why it happened,” the stubborn tribesman said. ” But why did it happen now?“
“Chance?” ventured the anthropologist.
“Black magic!” exclaimed the tribesman.
And so it is: We all lead our lives, sensing the presence of termites nibbling at our days, and brace ourselves with various explanations … which brings us, in a roundabout fashion, to Images of Faith, currently on display at Blue Spiral I, an exhibit certainly capable of speaking to anyone, be they tribesman or anthropologist, Christian or heathen.,
This annual group exhibit, featuring the work of 27 artists, endeavors to explore a difficult intellectual terrain — one of muddled heritage and moth-eaten mythologies, which, though they are played out in Sunday services across the nation, are often absent from the larger cultural theater.
Perhaps the exhibit should be called Images of Images of Faith, because the most salient sensation the show imparts is an eerie deja vu: Haven’t we seen all these images before somewhere? This is not to judge the works’ originality; but rather, to remember that most art has been religious in nature. In the last couple millennia, only the most recent three centuries have seen the secularization of painting and sculpture.
In Scott Rayl’s “Jesus Raising Lazarus,” it’s the stylistic play of this oft-painted fable that grabs you; the depicted story of the fortunate beggar seems incidental. Using pigmented clay tablets as canvases, Rayl reconnects the story to its long-ignored Middle-Eastern ancestry. By returning to such original forms — media reminiscent of those in use when Jesus lived — his Christian subject becomes inescapably reframed. His Jesus, represented in lateral view with Egyptian eyes, is a very different-looking fellow from the one we’re accustomed to seeing.
Christian spiritual art did not take hold until the third and fourth centuries, when Byzantine emperors began erecting large churches that begged for adornment. Kevin Grass’ work hearkens back to this period (and later ones) — the frames around his religious images using elements of Byzantine architecture and Ionic pilasters (a form later revived by the Renaissance artists).
In the fifth and sixth century, cosmopolitan Italian craftspeople created the fantastic mosaics of Ravenna. Bobby Wells’ work directly reflects this period of Byzantine creativity, but places copper-leaf and tile-mosaic Buddhist and Hindu images alongside those of Christian angels, suggesting a contemporary American orientation (that would have been heretical in a different age) in which we’re free to pursue a spiritual life that works for us.
Something in the facial aspect of Becky Gray’s raku-fired figurines brings to mind the Dark Ages, when scientific advancement stalled, religious life retreated to cloistered monasteries, and Christian imagery withered. Gray’s dark, cloaked figures — faces twisted with despair, eyes void of hope — stand in raw contrast to the brighter images of hope and spiritual depth that hang on the walls around them.
Gray’s brilliant “Chrysalis,” however, is partitioned from her other works, displayed on the opposite side of the gallery. This ceramic raku piece, featuring a human face emerging from an urn of layered leaves, is — despite the face’s desperate grimace — one of the most inspiring pieces in the show. “Chrysalis” will stick in your mind, not merely for its symbolism of soulful rebirth, but for Gray’s precise execution in a medium that might otherwise seem a little out of place here.
The collage work of Roscoe C. Conn recalls the reawakening of the Renaissance. His ambitious “Last Supper” is a luxuriant, colorful and surprisingly jovial rendering. And yet, its dual, ghostly Christ images, taken from the famed Shroud of Turin, loom in the background, echoing art’s early Christian imagery, and forecasting what’s to come on Calvary Hill.
These eerie images of Christ remind us that Conn’s work, and many of the others in Images of Faith, explore the meanings of religious imagery as much as expressing a simple faith.