Bone deep

The holiday exhibit Altars of Alternative Religions enhances Asheville’s reputation as a mecca of diversity.

Some of the installations at dirt & Sky People Gallery are kitschy, glitzy and brightly colored; others are quiet and somber. But a surprising number feature common materials: candles, incense, feathers, bones, stones.

Michael and Kitty Love leave very little to chance in their choice of household deities. Their installation contains all the elements found in most of the other works, plus figures of saints, gods and goddesses from several faiths. Perhaps the most poignant part of the whole exhibit is the torn pomegranate at the foot of this altar.

Julie Masaoka’s “Reaching for Grace” departs only slightly from her usual format (her last show consisted of a collection of festively decorated hubcap shrines dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe). The work, mounted on what looks like a small car radiator, includes double pairs of Barbie-doll arms that reach for a featureless baby Jesus made of white plastic. The piece is bordered by a Barbie head, plus bottle caps and wing nuts.

Altars also features a number of other wall pieces. Terry Taylor shows several of his brilliant “Objects for Obscure Rituals and Mysterious Veneration,” and E. Avergon presents contemplative, minimalist wood-and-stone constructions in subtle, earthy colors.

But Nicole Tuggle’s multilayered wooden boxes are among the show’s most sophisticated works, both formally and conceptually. “Guardian” is an almost-square box containing pieces of dark wood, layered with others and topped with a cutout of a black-and-white photo of a young woman. The figure floats above the background; the detached head stands out in front of the body. Half-hidden behind the figure peeks the wing of an angel.

Tuggle’s “Girl,” contained within a horizontal box, is smaller. A piece of sand-colored paper forms a horizon line in back, and a diagram of the nervous system is mounted between the sand and some illegible vertical text. As in “Guardian,” the figure of a little girl, suspended from the back of the enclosure, floats into the center of the piece.

Her face is pensive, encircled by a sphere. She is beginning to learn the things she will need to know.

Kelly Brady’s “Altar for an Idyllic Childhood,” on the other hand, is crayon-blue with stark white clouds. The interior is encrusted with rose petals, and a cutout dress — painted with the same ebullient sky pattern found on the box’s exterior — hangs front and center on a tiny clothesline.

“Altared Books” is simply beautiful. A bird shape perches on a tree branch, wrapped in text. A platform below the bird is made of small books, the one on top reverently covered in soft white fabric held together with intricate stitching. The piece, a joint effort by artists Daniel Essig and Wonder Koch, incorporates two distinct aesthetics, though they read as one.

Another collaboration, by John D. Richards and Claudia Dunaway, suggests a bit more struggle in its creation. “We Are All One” is assembled, collaged, painted, layered and encrusted. The construction enshrines a female clay figure covered with bits of costume jewelry. She wears delicate slippers made from primly folded bottle caps, but she is not lonely: A row of plastic superheroes cavort along the bottom of the altar base.

Michael Lemmon’s “The Santeria Altar to Oshun” is the show’s brightest offering: A tall pedestal draped in bright-yellow, gold and white fabric is topped by a fabric-covered object resembling the Eucharistic chalice. The drape is embellished with gold braid and a cross of cowrie shells, and the “eyes of God” peer out from a fan of peacock feathers in a vase at the base of the pedestal.

Other deities are of more recent vintage. A narrow shelf forms Michael Hatch’s altar memorializing the late, great Johnny Cash. The shelf holds a “little brown jug” — made of black, blown glass — a scattering of pills, and a guitar pick with a cross inlayed in mother-of-pearl. Cash’s image is painted in reverse on a small piece of glass in a black, rough wood frame above the shelf.

“Mary, Tara and Kuan Yin, Three Great Mothers of Compassion” is a tightly composed installation by Koriander in which a wreath of fake roses surrounds a shiny blue backdrop. Three rows of pink, rose-shaped candles are tiered before figures of the venerated women.

Erecting a shrine to one’s forebears can be a tricky business, but Willow Rose Fotorny manages to avoid a number of potential pitfalls. True, there’s lots and lots of, well, stuff in this piece — “Ancestor Altar” could have ended up a confusing hodgepodge. But Fotorny focuses tightly on her topic. She escapes maudlin nostalgia by arranging carefully chosen objects expressing sincere respect for those who’ve gone before: a tattered photograph of an elderly couple, a pile of buttons, an oblong tray with a mysterious lace-wrapped object in the center (crowned with a dried white rose), and a little bowl with rice.

But the most impressive aspect of “Ancestor Altar” is a strip of black fabric on which, beautifully arrayed, sits a cluster of tiny bones.

Altars of Alternative Religions shows at dirt & Sky People Gallery (51 N. Lexington Ave.; 281-3478) through Wednesday, Dec. 31.

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