Kathryn Brennan Gallery, Los Angeles September 9 – October 10, 2009
I didn’t ask, but I have no doubt the title of Jeni Spota’s recent exhibition, Fool’s Small Victory, was borrowed from a compilation album by Faith No More that includes various B-sides and live recordings, five of which are different versions of a song called “A Small Victory.” Spota’s paintings are significant small victories, but even more they are pure Faith No Less, jam-packed containers of devotion that even make room for doubt if not disbelief, objects that despite their smallish-ness are “heavy” in both senses of the word. Even in my most secular moments it’s impossible for me not to consider these pictures as tangible miracles, if only because their manifestations of spiritual faith are intensified rather than devoured by their painterly gluttony, raising Jasper Johns’s “‘Looking’ is and is not ‘eating’ and ‘being eaten’” to another level.
Spota emerged two years ago (fully-formed, it seemed) with a series of 12 by 14 inch paintings that made use of the format of the compilation album, or, better yet, the box set: collectively titled “Giotto’s Dream,” each piece’s name was sometimes extended and then extended again with a parenthetical label similar to those given to remixed dance or pop songs (for example, “Giotto’s Dream, Holy Mountain (Nightmare version)”; “Giotto’s Dream (Hierarchies of Desire version),” both 2007). Spota’s categorizing is authentic and accurate in both personal and spiritual terms: every one of these paintings is an unyielding remix of material (impasto paint), method (as much a depositing as a manipulation of the thick paint), and personal memories (some of the works that are called “The Hour of My Birth” include a depiction of said event), all worked and reworked at the service of her overriding source of the Crucifixion, usually Christ’s, but sometimes that of several anonymous figures. True to the playful re-sampling character of her practice, however, the fixed nature of this imagery is from a cascading, destabilizing (some might say blasphemous) source: a scene from Pasolini’s 1971 film The Decameron depicting Boccaccio’s allegory of a dream of Giotto’s, in which his religious visions are annihilated by a those of a pagan orgy. Eating and being eaten indeed. Unlike, for example, Chris Ofili when he would offer us a glimpse of his ongoing interest in the Catholic tradition in which he was raised—embodied most infamously in his painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996)—Spota doesn’t hand us the easy target of pornography in its photographic (or cinematic) form. Her use of paint may be playful or perverse, but more than anything it is protective, and looks as if it is more than able to withstand (absorb?) an assault.
Four of the five paintings (all from 2009) in this current exhibition are at least slightly larger than these earlier canvases, and no two are the same size. This has the effect of opening up the work, even when the largest canvas is more packed than ever: “Framed” is literally a painting-in-a-painting, with the larger one underneath so crowded that it seems to embody a procession carrying the other framed painting (with a prominent depiction of Christ’s Crucifixion) through a town square. Two other paintings remain closer to Spota’s original format: “San Damiano” includes several heraldic shields that appeared in earlier paintings (derived, as it happens, from an actual home, which she named “The Polish House,” in Spota’s neighborhood when she was living in Chicago), and, more unusually, “Teeth” arranges a series of Crucifixions as if they were in the bottom row of a gaping mouth, bringing us back to eating.
I also have no doubt that this exhibition is in many ways a tribute to Johns. This is made explicit in the remaining two paintings. Both “Flag” and “Stripes” minimize and almost forego most of the imagery and the impasto, replacing the former with the format of the American flag, and the latter with another method of construction that introduces strips of canvas to make the support (I’m also tempted to see this as a nod to Rauschenberg). Made up mostly of linear arrangements of patterns (including some of her shields), both works fulfill the painting-as-object criteria that both Johns and Rauschenberg reestablished and reworked again and again. However, upon closer examination, Spota returns to the scene of the crime—I mean devotion—in her “Flag”: the alternating stripes that do have impasto turn out to be accumulations of tiny “heads,” which she makes out of paint on her palette and then carefully transfers to the canvas, attaching them to their waiting bodies. Such a disembodiment in this last painting extends Spota’s outrageous and droll commitment to the grotesque in a way that brings to mind no less than the likes of Flannery O’Connor, who, we should remember in the face of Spota’s provocations, once said, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
ContributorTerry R. Myers
TERRY MYERS is a Professor of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art of Chicago.