NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith

P.S.1, New York

Through January 26, 2009
by Nicole J. Caruth

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      Amalia Mesa-Bains
      The Curandera’s Botanica
      2008
      Dimensions variable
      Mixed media
      Collection of Richard L. Bains
      Photo: Matthew Septimus. Courtesy P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

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      NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith is unusually calculated. Like a good Sunday morning sermon, I’m convinced that all is as it should be. But my conviction is based on aesthetic alone, impression more than understanding, sentiment above fact. The exhibition's lack of didactic material (a rarity in an exhibition so steeped in history) cultivates an experience that is not of knowing but feeling. What is there to gain from an exhibition about spiritual practice, particularly concerned with cultural tradition, that doesn’t set out to contextualize but simply offers an encounter?

      Curated by Franklin Sirmans of both P.S.1 and the Menil Collection, NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith explores multiple meanings and manifestations of spirituality in contemporary art through nearly 50 works of sculpture, photography, assemblage, video, performance and other media. Sirmans draws on the work of distinguished poet Ishmael Reed who adopted the 19th-century term “HooDoo” to explore the idea of spiritual practice in contemporary literature and art outside of easily definable faiths, creeds and rituals. In this cross-generational gathering of artists from both American continents, approaches to spirituality diverge and intersect, sharing a penchant for the decorative and the use of found and utilitarian objects.

      Installed in the broken spaces of P.S.1’s second floor, the various rooms, nooks and crannies of the Center are both its strength and weakness. At times, it’s tricky to hold viewer attention and pull a narrative through the twists and turns of public school hallways, restrooms and staircases, though it works well for this show. Creamy white galleries and curved passageways read as chapels and spaces for meditation; video rooms speak to the semi-private, dark retreat of confessionals.

      Upon entering the main gallery, the eyes are drawn through an archway to Michael Tracy’s Cruz de la Paz Sagrada (Cross of the Sacred Peace) (1980) as if to silently announce that this is a space of worship. (That is, if you recognize a cross as more than geometry.) Layers of tin and brass milagros nailed to its surface evoke both nkisi figures and Crucifixion. Not surprisingly, spikes, thorns, and pins pierce objects throughout the exhibition in works by such artists as Kcho, Robert Gober, Pepon Osario and Jose Bedia. An emphasis on the symbolism of shapes, such as circles—an ancient sign of unity, wholeness and infinity—is apparent in the union of James Lee Byars’ The Halo (1985), a gilded brass ring over 7 feet in diameter; David Hammons’s Untitled (1989), a circular sculpture of green-tinted and transparent wine bottles; and George Smith’s Spiral to the Next World (1990), a funnel-shaped black steel sculpture.

      Rites of passage are portrayed in three short videos by Regina José-Galindó. The same petite woman submits to the jolt of a stun-gun in 150,000 Voltios (150,000 Volts) (2007); endures the forceful spray of a water hose while standing naked in the open air in Limpieza Social (Social Cleansing) (2006); and in Confesión (Confession) (2007) is repeatedly held underwater. Sequentially, these videos make me laugh, wriggle in my seat and hold my breath. When I begin to inhale, wafts of sage and pine pass me, which I presume to come from The Curandera’s Botanica (2008), a full-room installation by Amalia Mesa-Bains. Botanicals, a prayer book, and tools of modern medicine comprise this unsettling piece. The central surgical/lab table serves to cast a lifeless chill across the entire installation. Created as a way to get closure on a troubling period in the artist’s life (including a severe car accident, family illness, and the death of her parents), the piece is symbolic of the wobbly line between healing and loss.

      Bedia’s installation Las Cosas que me Arrastran (The Things That Drag Me Along) (1996/2008) is the high point of NeoHooDoo. Piles of loose cigarettes, bottles of alcohol and other paraphernalia, some adorned with Vévé, are toted by toy trucks resembling military vehicles and wooden boats. From here, thick iron chains rise up to pierce a painting of a double-headed figure just where vintage photographs of African and Native Americans are adhered. Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991) by Felix–Gonzalez Torres, a shimmery box lined with small light bulbs, comes to life in this Youtube video, but seems incongruously secular in sight of Bedia (a priest of Palo Monte)—a reminder that religion is fundamentally a matter of interpretation. More subtle forms of spirituality appear in photographs by Adrian Piper (known for living out Kantian and yogic doctrine in her work), Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Rebecca Belmore. The sensuality of Belmore’s light box image Fringe (2008), shows the backside of a woman resting on her side. A familiar composition in the history of art, here, beauty is disrupted by a sewn gash across the subject’s bare back, and then reinserted in a cascade of red beads run along the threads of her stitches. It appears that healing will eventually come, but not without the experience leaving its mark.

      Pepon Osario skillfully deconstructs and melds snow cone cart and altar with Lonely Soul (2008), a shrine to the Virgin of Montserrat in Puerto Rico. This small wood-paneled house with wheelchair wheels mounted on both sides sits at eye level. Precariously supported by several wooden crutches, the piece suggests the very fragility of faith.

      “Neo-HooDoo believes that every man is an artist and every artist a priest,” wrote Ishmael Reed in his 1972 collection of poetry, Conjure; this sentiment is effortless and eloquent (like the exhibition) and precisely the root of my dilemma. Having lost my faith in exhibitions to teach me anything new about looking, I anticipated a manuscript as opposed to a happening. At points, I desired instruction on how to look and dig deeper, but found that I was fully open to create a narrative for spirituality with only objects and pictures to guide me. Funny, how that seems like a novel concept.

      Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator based in Brooklyn. A regular blogger for Art21, her writing has been published by the Studio Museum in Harlem, Taipei Fine Arts Museum and Gastronomica. Her personal blog, Contemporary Confections, merges two of her greatest loves: art and sweet foodstuffs.

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