A HUMAN KIND OF HOLINESS
by Alana Shilling-Janoff
Bonni Benrubi Gallery | July 31 – Spetember 6, 2014
It is fitting that the Bonni Benrubi Gallery’s curators eschewed modern languages, reaching back instead to Koine Greek for tà hierá (roughly, “sacred things”), the title of the current group exhibition of 17 photographs by seven artists. Both the title and exhibition require translation; both suffer its imprecision. tà hierá purports to be a series of reflections on the sacred—but it is not about divinity, not really. Photographic deliberations on the transcendent are instead excruciatingly intense meditations on the mundane, the human. Though the works featured in tà hierá channel the infinite, the infinity they evoke is not numinous. Instead, it is small and imperfectly defined, the humble plenitude of the human heart. The works are studies in the kinds of sentiments that are predicated on absence and lack—untidy emotions such as hope, longing, and uncertainty that are bounded by perennially suspended gratification and thin promises of perpetually delayed resolution.
Some works express this seemingly endless yearning for fulfillment by historicizing it. In Laura McPhee’s “3 Portals, 16th Century Terracotta Temple, Attpur, West Bengal, India” (1998), monumentality masks fragility. “3 Portals” captures its subject with a direct approach. There is no framing, no background; the temple fills the composition and surges beyond its borders. The powerful compulsion once felt by its makers to memorialize beliefs, narratives, andparables is made manifest in the enigmatic skirmishes, triumphs, and theophanies still preserved, carved on the temple’s face in vertical and horizontal registers. Yet, wonder is qualified by a nagging sense of incomprehension. The dignity of impassive columns and the grace of archways do not shield the temple from temporality, from the centuries that have scattered its allusions, rendering its stories unreadable to so many now who, in a world that shrinks as it expands, might encounter it. Even tributes made in stone are not invulnerable.
Elsewhere, it is the continuity of how architecture has signaled holy spaces that exposes the frailty of a tradition of worship codified by centuries. Simon Norfolk’s “Large Hadron Collider no. 6” (2007) represents the interior of the Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which recalls the coffered domes and oculi of so many spaces for worship, from late antiquity onwards. The parallel is strengthened by the simple cross perceptible at the center of the Collider’s “oculus.” Of course, the “dome” is a series of plates and a warren of wires; the “cross” is merely part of the infrastructure. The superficial similarity in architectural design reveals an unsettling concordia discors: Physics may have taken theology’s place as our Rosetta Stone poised to make sense of the world, yet the Collider’s design reminds us that whether we embrace science or spirituality, we are still gazing anxiously upwards in silence, anxiously awaiting the miracle of meaning-making.
Even more poignant are works that reveal more intimate versions of the dialogue between mortal longing and the fantasy of a divine answer to it. Jeffrey Milstein has a particular gift for unfolding these dialogues. The subject of Milstein’s “200 Saints, Trinidad, Cuba” (2009) is a bedroom bristling with Crucifixion icons—small, large, enameled, wooden—which crowd the walls, the cabinets, the tables. And yet, this exaggerated devotion is qualified by signs of earthly indulgences that remain—slightly worn—like vague memories. The bed, its headboard made of ivory satin, is crowned with a Rococo design, all scallops and flourishes, a cluster of English roses at its center, an unexpected frivolity in a room dominated by gloomy crucifixes. The faded but ornate décor placed in conversation with the austerity of devotional zeal is more than an asymmetry; it creates an allegory of a spirituality born from fear of mortality. Those roses are a relic of an earthly caprice that has not been abandoned but instead written over palimpsestically, replaced by a tetricity that expresses itself in an almost morbid obsession with Christ’s temporary mortality. The absence of real reassurances about death is filled by religious symbols, which stammer the same message in figure after figure.
tà hierá does more than document the vulnerabilities and longings of others—it also challenges us to contend with the same inconsolable emotion by presenting works that demand a narrative but offer none. In a series by Jed Devine, religious objects set in central focus—a bible, a skull, an organ—are severed from context, often set against a blurred or darkened background. The unnatural solitude into which these familiar objects have been cast creates an almost oppressive need to salvage their significance. And yet, there is a sense we too are adrift, left to tell only our own stories.