Celeste Dupuy-Spencer has religion on her mind – not individual faith, which is based in spiritual apprehension, but the equivocal structural systems that grow up around it. Those systems today define much of American life, even if they are rarely considered in art. She seems determined to break the silence.
At Nino Mier Gallery, bracing new paintings ricochet off religious fundamentalism, employing vivid formal messiness that clashes productively with strict assumptions of moral purity. The stimulus for this new body of work, her first to be shown since a standout presentation at the recent Hammer Biennial, was a shocking press photograph of conservative evangelicals and “prosperity gospel” preachers with presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, engaged in an Old Testament ritual of “laying on hands.”
In her searing small painting, Dupuy-Spencer altered details of the picture to clarify context, such as emphasizing a looming, sash-draped cross in the background and the spangled jacket of boxing promoter and ex-con Don King, thrusting in from the side. The most chilling revision, however, is a spidery, grasping hand on the president’s chest, closely juxtaposed to an enlarged lapel pin of the American flag.
The laying-on of hands, a superstitious gesture that supposedly transfers spiritual holiness to the recipient (or sins to a designated scapegoat), is rendered as a grim and imminent capture of the state by the fundamentalist church. Dupuy-Spencer paints in a wet, brushy, darkly Expressionist style, familiar from German painting, which adds cautionary historical resonance to the topical scene.
Pressing a loaded brush of oil paint onto linen is the artist’s own version of laying on hands. The combination turns up again in a second picture of the subject, this one featuring a worshipper whose chest glows white-hot from the clamoring touch of the surrounding crowd. Gray smoke rises from the figure’s gaping mouth, forming a dingy smog across the top filled with monstrous faces. Is the worshipper cleansed, or is he releasing horrors upon the world?
Nearby, a painting of a young man in a black T-shirt shows him prepared for baptismal dunking in a swimming pool. The face of a grinning congregant is slashed with scratch marks, perhaps from the stick-end of a paint brush, as if in a futile attempt at graffiti-like erasure. Below the water line, where the blurred face of Jesus floats as a vision, animals maraud.
A partially clothed couple of indeterminate sex cavorts on a monumental canvas, engaged in enthusiastic oral copulation. Titled “The Chiefest of Ten Thousand (Sarah 2),” a line about love from the King James version of “Song of Solomon,” the composition of a conjoined couple conjures an unexpected apparition of an angel on bent knees. The miracle is quietly observed by cats.
The exhibition includes 17 paintings – some as large as 11 feet wide, others just 9 inches – as well as five pencil drawings. Many, such as a riveting wooded nighttime scene of lovers amid wild animals fleeing raging wildfires, are apocalyptic.
In clipped graphite markings, Dupuy-Spencer trades in voluptuousness for vulnerability in a fractured graphic drawing of painter Antonio da Correggio’s famously wild, Mannerist Renaissance vision of the god Jupiter as a dark cloud sensuously enveloping a nude nymph. The drawing’s billowy cloud is less a dramatic caprice than an ominous fog-bank, however, its representation of lust less a playful sin than a fraught occasion for possible violence.
Dupuy-Spencer has a skill for impassioned political commentary absent simplistic posturing, something exceedingly rare in art today. (The gifted Nicole Eisenman was among her painting teachers at Bard College, which may partly explain.) Emblematic is a small oil sketch, “Grand Panorama of the Wave (Fall on Your Knees).”
A tiny couple stands on a radiant, grassy hill at the seashore to watch the sensational gathering of an enormous swell of frothy blue and white paint. A blue wave is coming, the composition suggests, using landscape as a metaphor to illustrate a familiar prediction for this November’s elections.
But in Dupuy-Spencer’s concentrated pictorial telling, things are never monolithic. This wave could break two ways – one a cleansing crescendo, another that just might sweep the innocent little couple away. Après nous, le déluge.