ART REVIEW : 'Mystical Objects, Sacred Places' on Display

Whether the world seems like too much to handle or not quite enough, spirituality is one of the devices that allows us to adjust it to a tolerable volume. Investing the unseen with palpable power and organizing consciousness into a coherent, manageable system, the idea that the universe is governed by forces greater than those possessed by man has been central to every major civilization in history. Just how compelling an idea it is can be seen in the fact that the sacred relics of various cultures--Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Mayan ruins at Palenque--continue to resonate with a mystery and magic that's made them a reference point in much contemporary art.

In "Mystical Objects, Sacred Places," an exhibition on view through Nov. 26 at Security Pacific's Gallery at the Plaza, 11 American artists attempt to tap into humankind's psychic past via modern artworks exploring ancient spiritual systems. It's a moving idea for a show, and "Mystical Objects" takes on added poignancy in its' struggle to be heard in the bustling lobby of a corporate high rise. It's hard to imagine a setting less conducive to the kind of reflection this work attempts to engender, but a valiant effort is made, and some of the work is solid enough to transcend the setting.

It's not surprising that the strongest work in the show is also the most simple. The central theme here is so rich and grand that to be ostentatiously "creative" would be gilding the lily. Consequently, the straight photography by Marilyn Bridges, Macduff Everton and Grey Crawford walks off with top honors.

New Jersey artist Bridges is a pilot-photographer who takes stunning aerial shots of sites that have held people in thrall for centuries-- Greek temples, the Pyramids at Giza, Stonehenge. She also includes a shot of the Manhatten skyline's Chrysler Building, suggesting that all us networking maniacs are living among the ruins of tomorrow. Everton shoots lusciously colored panoramic landscapes illuminated with an eerie light that lends them a supernatural quality, while Crawford's black and white images focus on holy sites and hieroglyphs. A shot of a disturbing stone formation in England looks as though it might've been the setting for the Peter Weir film "Picnic at Hanging Rock."

Richard Felix, Ian Green and Charles Pebworth explore the belief systems of the Indian cultures of the American Southwest. Green's mixed media pieces, artificially aged to resemble scavenged relics, read as sad memento mori to the tragic history of the American Indian rather than the simple dignity of their religious beliefs. Felix's mixed media valentines to the spirit of the Southwest--sometimes constructed in the manner of Japanese screens--are too tricky by half; his work feels busy and craftsy. Pebworth's small, impeccably crafted totems made of metal and semi-precious stones are so beautiful they go beyond being about religious fetishism--they become the thing itself.

Patterned after the homages to imploding consciousness perfected by Joseph Cornell, Janice Lowry makes glassed in wooden memory boxes jammed with the collected ephemera of a lifetime--antique toys, cut-outs, and souvenirs. Jo Whalley photographs old santos figures positioned in the foreground of haunted landscapes, and reminds us with these battered relics of Catholicism that suffering is central to many spiritual traditions. The lurid landscapes of George Green (they put one in mind of work by Green's fellow Texan John Alexander) employ the bright colors and symbols associated with Mexican folk art to create a malevolent view of nature; in Green's world of hysterical anthropomorphism, the flora and fauna is strangling and over-ripe. Also on view is work by Christopher Tanner who paints on animal bones, and photographs by Laura Parker that involve fragments of ancient relics arranged on a backdrop of sand.

All told, "Mystical Objects" does a good job of drawing our attention to the feelings of pity, fear and awe that are central to many spiritual systems, however, the emotion of ecstasy--the big pay-off in many religions--is in surprisingly short supply here.

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