Art as a messenger of belief is nothing new. From the obvious ostentatious examples like the Sistine Chapel, to the much more ephemeral Buddhist sand mandalas, faith has often driven artistic creation. Yet, can art be a system of belief in itself? The artists in Architecture of Devotion at the Gowanus Ballroom definitely put a lot of faith in their own creative views as they all respond to this history of artistic devotion.
Curated by Josh Young, Ursula Viglietta and George Sferra, Architecture of Devotion sprawls through the two stories of the former steel mill with art that is disorientating in its variety. There is a little bit of everything attempting to rise above the chaos of artistic belief systems: conceptual sculpture, a Fluxus-influenced installation, oil paintings, straight forward photography, metalwork, stained glass and even an entire house. The Gowanus Ballroom is cathedral-like with its reaching ceilings, with one floor overlooking another a bit like a church balcony, and Sheena Rae Dowling, Eric Gerhard Winzer, and Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels built a whole creepy cottage on its upper level.
I say creepy as a compliment, as they put so much detail into the structure that you feel like you are intruding into someone’s private place of unsettling worship. There was a bird’s cage full of broken egg shells and candles lining the wall, as well as a tree house you could climb into and lace hanging down from the wooden walls where light slanted in.
The other standout for me in Architecture of Devotion was Peter Waite, who had also built amazing structures, although these were much smaller and more post-apocalyptic than the 19th century-minded dwelling above. Waite is exhibiting several monuments in honor of himself modeled on structures like a Greek temple and the Tower of Babel, using studio detritus, paint scrapings, found objects, personal artifacts and junk.
Miniature people and animals wandered around or work on the miniatures, and there is even an entrance for tourists in his “Temple” that included posters for his previous gallery shows. This could have been annoying egotistical, but Waite added a heavy dose of humor, like in “Tomb,” a “monument to the known artist,” where “semi” is spray painted in front of “known” and a question mark is painted below Waite’s name. Tiny people also appear to be getting arrested for defacing the trash-strewn tomb. Each one of Waite’s pieces was accompanied by a label text of extensive analysis by Michelle Yee.
I would have liked some of that analysis for these works by Julie Janicek. While the conceptual sculptures had a visceral appeal to them with their overturned tables wrecked by debris, seemingly after some sort of storm, I couldn’t quite figure out how they related to the theme of the show. Yet, I felt that in terms of belief in artistic materials, Janicek had the most faith, throwing the viewer in the distorted collision of steel, wood, clay and cloth.
An exhibit responding to sacred art is obligated to include some stained glass, and Robert F. Rodriguez had representations of the icons of New York. However, beyond the technique of stained glass having a deep connection with the religious history of art, I would have liked them to have been taken a step further to really elevate the subjects, to raise the buildings to their rightful places as the architectural saints of the city.
David Aronson did this well with his portraits that exalt his modern subjects with radiating Byzantine rays of color and gold behind the realistic nude busts.
Andrew Smenos used his endearing belief in the relics of childhood to build shrines to a toy tiger and whale. The repetition of creating the same tiger in wood, fabric and paint projected a faith in the beloved and obsessed over toys that populate the lives of children.
It was a shame that some of the lovely two-dimensional work was set adrift in the shadows of the cavernous space. There were detailed drawings by Amy Consolo and Cristina Rose, and some softly beautiful graphite works by Matthew Shelley that I would have liked to have seen in better lighting.
As the Gowanus Ballroom doubles as the home of Serrett Metalworks, it was not surprising to find metal art, notably the huge horse that dominated the center of the bottom floor. The life-size sculpture by Adrian Landon had the untamed presence of a Marly Horse with a frenetic energy that made it appear to be bursting apart.
I regret that I was a little early at the opening for the real party, which included people swinging from the ceiling from metal rings encircled by fire. But there are more performances this weekend, and if you go after sundown you’re likely to see performers putting their faith in air and fire over the works in silent prayer below.
Architecture of Devotion shows through July 3 at the Gowanus Ballroom (55 9th Street, Brooklyn). Performances will be on Friday and Saturday evening with a $10 cover starting at 7 pm.