Friday, February 27, 2009

Stations of the Cross at Xnihilo Gallery

For at least the last two years, I've made a point of seeing the annual Stations of the Cross art show at Xnihilo Gallery, which is part of Taft St. Coffee House and emergent worshiping community, Ecclesia. The opening reception for the 2009 edition was tonight and I went and had a peek.

Each station is done by a different artist, and so immediately you know this is not a body of work really intended to "hang together" in the traditional sense of the stations you might find in a Roman Catholic church. Some are very literal in their interpretation, some are very abstract. Some have religious significance only in the context of the show itself. This is a strength of the show each year, a way of getting the viewer to see divine significance in non-religious subject matter and artistic interpretation to traditional religious subject matter. It also makes the entire enterprise a crap shoot, as invariably one piece will be wildly arresting, demanding attention while next to it is something that is . . . not so much. But maybe this is also the point.

I'm not going to go through piece by piece or even in order of the stations, but I made some notes on about half the pieces. Here's some thoughts and responses. I hope they encourage you to go take a look at the work, too (assuming you're in Houston, of course). (I'll provide links to webpages of the artists where I find them or can verify them.)

Station 2: Jesus Takes Up His Cross by Jack Potts. I start with this one because it is the one that I know least what to do with it. It is a photograph of a young man, short cropped hair, shirtless, wearing what looks like a towel, very much sporting a 21st Century gym body, and he has a cross on his back. He's bowed under it's weight, but the strain in his arms tells us he is lifting it. He is sweaty, but very clean. His head is down, but his eyes are looking at the camera. He is sexy. He could be selling perfume in a fashion magazine. The artist's statement said that he was going for an image of the beauty of Christ and the strength to go willingly to the cross. The model is clearly beautiful and strong, but in the end the image is, to slip into theologese, a bit to triumphalist for my christology. Furthermore, while artists have pushed the eroticism around the naked Jesus on the cross image for centuries, I've never been comfortable with that trip. Torturous death isn't sexy to me. But that's my thing. Insofar as art is made to illicit a response, I suppose this is a success. I'm just not sure it's a response the artist would appreciate. Truly, the image belongs in an issue of The Wittenburg Door with a tagline like: Golgotha Fragrance for Men.

That's as negative as this gets, folks. And I don't consider the above negative. Just an honest response.

Station 1: Jesus is Condemned to Die by Delores Comstock. To back up one station, this is a piece that demands some time. It is a large giclee print on canvass, manipulated photos and scribbles with many layers to look it. The predominent color is red and we clearly see a head crowned with thorns and wrists in shackles, but it's the smaller details that require attention. Very arresting.

Station 5: Simon Helps Jesus Carry the Cross by Wayne Leal & Allison Smythe. This is a simple and elegant piece. The media listed on the wall are "earth, sand, wood and acrylic washes." The background is the sand, that grainy sandbox color---something comforting about it, I think. On top of that is a layer of wood chips, slightly charred. It is in the same shape as the sand, but much smaller, making the sand something of a broad border. (I should say the whole shape is something like a freehanded doodle of South America.) Across the top of the whole piece is a plank of wood. It's a quiet piece. Powerful in it's silence. Reminds me of some Asian altar pieces I've seen. I could easily see this as a focal point for a prayer space.

Station 8: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem by Billy Hollis. This piece is the one that is probably the very least religious in the whole room, and as such, captures the attention. It is a very large, graphite on paper drawing of a single, battered, leaf. The only hint of religion is where light (sun, presumably) is shining through a tear in it. The scripture reference is Luke 23:27-31, where Jesus asks the women of Jerusalem not to weep, and says if this is what happens when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry? In other words, Hollis says, this is bad, but it'll get worse than you imagine. This leaf (which, by the way, I thought was a photo at first), speaks to our fragile life, to the fragile moment between Jesus and some weeping women in a subtle way.

Station 11: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross by Jessica Adams. This piece, to me, was the one that I found absolutely brilliant. It is a shrouded and bound human torso and head, full of darts. The darts are labeled with words like "sin," "guilt," "burden," and the Seven Deadly Sins---the only piece of this project I could have skipped (a bit heavy-handed, if you ask me). The darts were all over the head and shoulders of the figure and the white linen shroud was soaked in red. Reading the artist statement and attendant photos, you discover the piece was a collaborative effort at Adams' High School for Peforming and Visual Arts class. Under the shroud were what looked like Ziploc bags full of red paint. After shrouding the figure, she handed out darts to the class, who started out with a rather lighthearted approach, even trading off "sins" like baseball cards. But once they got to the business of throwing the darts and as the figure "bled" into the linen, she said the room became somber and a heavy discussion followed. Granted, this piece falls under the category of postmodern art where the documentation of the performance of the artmaking is what's most arresting about the piece, but it's powerful all the same. When I go back to the show, this is the piece I'm likely to look at more closely again.

And I will return to the show. As is the annual custom, there remains one more piece, shrouded for now, that will be unveiled at Easter, to complete the journey of Christ from condemnation to resurrection. But for now, I hope the above will give you some idea of what you might find at this show---and be encouraged to check it out yourself. I hope the Xnihilo site will eventually put up a few images from the show, as my descriptions no doubt fail to convey what I saw.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

tetris by Toni Leago Valle

When I first moved to Houston 5 years ago, one of the first artists to whom I was drawn was Toni Leago Valle. I met her in Fieldwork, where she was showing work that incorporated storytelling and dance---which was exactly where my head was at the time. I was especially drawn, however, by her choreography. She uses an interesting and often surprising movement vocabulary, especially when partnering with another dancer. There are images from the first piece I saw of hers in Fieldwork that remain in my head, simply because the partnering work surprised and delighted me.

In the intervening years, Toni has become a friend and sometimes collaborator. She hired me as director for her last evening-length work, Cracked (2006), during the last two weeks of rehearsal of which I had the poor judgment to have a "heart event" and have since felt guilty that I wasn't there to play more in the final moments. (Oh, but wait, this isn't about me, is it?) She also worked with me on a short movement piece I made for a Fieldwork showcase (along with another friend and sometimes collaborator, Misha Penton of the new Divergence Vocal Theater).

So, last night, I went to see Toni's latest full-evening show, tetris. I'd seen a lot of photos from the show, had her bring a snippet of it to the neoNuma Arts Holiday Salon back in December, and even wrote a preview piece about it for OutSmart's January issue. So going in, I knew this piece was about a young woman's fractured identity and all the dancers around her were the many voices inside her head---from internal critic to inner child.

What I saw last night was a surprise.

First of all, this is the first piece I've ever from Toni that didn't use text. All the storytelling was accomplished via the movement, music, and news and pop culture video and audio clips from the 1980s. Not relying on text makes for more ambigous storytelling, but that's not a bad thing. In fact, that's the most appealing thing about this show. Back when I was helping Toni on Cracked, one of the things I remember saying to her more than once was, "cut this bit of text---you don't have to explain everything, we get it---or if we don't it's still there and it's not your fault that we don't." By doing away with the text---and I'm speaking of this piece in the context of Toni's larger body of work---it feels like Toni took a big personal risk, to let the storytelling happen or not, according to the audience's ability to look at dance.

But second, and perhaps most important, it works marvelously. Even when I wasn't clear on every dancer's role in the main character's head, I was enthralled. Even when I wasn't syncing up the video to the movement, it was never dull and never looked thrown together. If I wasn't "getting" every moment, I was getting that there was purpose and thought to every moment.

The evening itself is a bit of roller coaster, starting as it does with video of the Challenger crew boarding the shuttle to the tune of Peter Schilling's "Major Tom." I hadn't seen that video in years and it was a sucker punch to the gut, especially how Toni reminded us of how often we saw that explosion, over and over, with stops to point out where it begain and diagrams that gave us nearly second by second explanations of it.

But it's not all doom, as Toni's sense of humor is evident throughout the evening. A highlight of that being a duet wherein each dancer is trying harder than the other to pose for the flashing cameras about them, occasionally pointing out someone out in the audience and motioning "call me." Very funny stuff, expertly played by the dancers.

And speaking of the dancers, I want to mention two in particular. Priscilla Nathan-Murphy was also in Toni's Cracked. She was mesmerizing then and she's no less so now. She is able to fill the theater with her presence and deliver the goods on her movement ability. From her toes to her fingertips, everything is articulated and everything moves with purpose. I have no idea if she thinks so, but when I watch Priscilla dance, I feel like she's aware of every movement she makes. Some dancers get by with occasional tossing off of unfocused movement. Priscilla never lets you see those, if she makes them at all.

Also of amazing stage presence was a dancer making her contemporary dance debut, 9-year-old Bianca Torres-Aponte. I've never seen a child on stage be so focused and in the moment of the performance. When she first appeared, I was drawn by her presence, but then when she actually danced, I realized here is a little girl with no little ability. I half expected her to do mostly pedestrian movement, but Toni gave her some more complex choreography and it was lovely. At her age, any number of interests might come her way before she makes grown-up decicions about her life, but if she's able to maintain the focus she displayed last night, there's little doubt she'll grow up to do well, whatever she does.

Go to Toni's website and see if you can still score tickets for her last two performances. tetris is an evening in the theater well spent.

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