Ever notice how religious references permeate life here in New Orleans? Of course you have. How could you not notice all those streets named for saints, all those churches everywhere, in some neighborhoods as numerous as corner bars. Even so, all through the Bible Belt we are known, and probably will always be known, as Sin City, a modern-day Sodom where street evangelists set up oversized crosses at Mardi Gras as if the French Quarter were some weird surrealist version of Calvary.
Local artists are not immune to this uneasy dialogue between sin and redemption, so it comes as no surprise when such issues reverberate in their work. For instance, State of Grace co-curator Dan Tague can point to his West Bank Catholic school background as a source of inspiration for, well, probably many things, including this show. And if State of Grace (showing at The Big Top) covers many bases, it typically does so with a light or philosophical touch rather than simply hitting the viewer over the head. Yet, for every generalization there is an exception, and here the most glaring is Dan Tague's own signature piece, Slugger, a wooden bat studded with what at first looks like spikes, so it resembles one of those fearsome spiked clubs favored by medieval enforcers. Up close the lethal-looking spikes turn out to be little statuettes of the Blessed Virgin Mary, turning it into a commentary on the Inquisition and its political legacy of using religion as a weapon to bludgeon perceived enemies into submission.
But most of the show is more oblique. Ian Campbell's The Godbarber is a photo of a neighborhood barber sign in which a mysterious hand descends from on high bearing a comb and scissors. As ethereal as The Godbarber is graphic, co-curator Ann Zatarain's painting For Gabriel depicts a mountainous landscape where a pair of odd floating oblong things hover like hallucinatory baroque blimps, stray visions from some peyote-inspired Carlos Casteneda story. Rendered sketchily in thin washes, the look is diaphanous, but Zatarain rather mysteriously explains that the painting stems from the time St. Gabriel came to her in a dream, which only goes to show you how convoluted local metaphysics can be.
But it all goes back to Genesis, at least, according to the major Western religions. Excepting, of course, the religion known as "science," in which everything goes back to genetics. Indeed, the debate between Genesis and genetics is a major metaphysical flap these days. Chicory Miles touches on this in her painted cast-iron wall sculpture series called Transgenic Miracles, each of which appears as a gracefully formed hand holding a flower. But, look again, and each "flower" turns out to be comprised of human eyes, noses, ears or lips. Even subtler is Jessica Goldfinch's series of three large glass jars, each with a vertical, horizontal or diagonal seam cut into it. Meticulously stitched with wire laced through pre-drilled holes, these somehow resemble freshly stitched human wounds replicated in glass. (And how many did she have to break before ending up with these three?) Titles like Biogenic Dislocation of the Soul only barely begin to suggest what these are really all about, but they are mind-boggling.
Allah Lite Brite, a lighted sculpture panel by Tim Forsythe continues his exploration of illuminated signs and icons, in this case an Islamic mosaic created from patterned, perforated metal sheets inset with luminous Lucite rods and lit from behind -- all of which might sound banal, but is in fact quite ethereal despite all the op- and pop-art ramifications. Another venture into the exotic East is seen in Rick Heno's How Many Licks Does It Take, a photo of a jolly fat chocolate Ho Teh, the Japanese god of good luck, being licked by a young lady with a nice long tongue. Some people mistake Ho Teh for the Buddha, but no, the Buddha was never fat, so if you see a jolly fat Buddha, rest assured it's really Ho Teh. Be that as it may, neither was known to either advocate or prohibit being licked, and, in any event, it may never be known how many licks it might take to get a chocolate Ho Teh to generate good luck. Like all things religious, it is inevitably a matter of interpretation. -->
- Chicory Miles' sculpture series Transgenic Miracles is a bait-and-switch where a flower held in hand is actually composed of human eyes, noses, ears or lips.