artbeat (2006-36)

Physical Life and Spiritual Reality

The Body Sacred takes the human form to angelic heights

by Kevin Crowe

For the appearance of the lectern was as if it had been a sunbeam [of red, gold, white] …. And when I looked upwards, I might not comprehend the length and breadth of the lectern; and looking downward, I might not see nor comprehend the greatness nor the deepness of it. After this I see a Book on the same lectern, shining like most bright gold. Which Book, and its Scripture, was not written with ink, but each word in the book was alive and spoke itself, and soon it was done with speaking of the Word. No man read the Scripture of that Book, but whatever that Scripture contained, all was seen on the lectern. Before this lectern I see a king ….

This living king appears to you as if in as it were a vessel of glass, for his life is but as it were frail glass and suddenly to be ended, but the writing is blankly gone from the part that should have proclaimed his love of God.

These words, written by Saint Birgitta of Sweden in the 14th century, are an attempt to explain ineffability, to traverse the gap between the physical and spiritual worlds. Almost 700 years later, we’re still asking the same questions. Always again, trying to bridge that gap, often using the language of spiritual ecstasy and dithyrambic indulgence. And at a new exhibit, on the ground level of The Mason’s building on the corner of Summit Hill and Gay, 12 female artists are asking some age-old questions, with a distinct modern edge.

“If you look at history, a great percentage of the great masters that we go to see in museums all over the world were working with the human figure,” says Lynda Evans, artist and curator of the Body Sacred exhibit. “Either in historical, religious pieces or portraits. Think of the things we see all over the world, and how much of that has been founded by study of the human figure.

“I think there are many reasons why we as a culture have become so separated from our own bodies. We live in these bodies, but we treat them as tools, rather than thinking and behaving as cultures did centuries ago, which was honoring the body as a sacred vehicle for the spiritual energy that we are.”

Alison Oakes Harb, one of the artists whose work will be on display, describes the experience of painting the human form as a very personal—perhaps the most personal—form of expression. “I want the model to feel comfortable,” Harb explains, “but I want the viewer to feel uncomfortable. The ones who take offense usually take offense because they wouldn’t be comfortable with nudity. They project their discomfort onto the work.”

The impact that female artists have made in just the past 50 years is astonishing. Annie Liebovitz, Cindy Sherman, Jennifer Saville and Judy Chicago have worked to change cultural attitudes towards the female figure, successfully mind-tripping the art world and changing the status quo alongside Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.

“All of the artists in this show are asking the most basic questions,” Evans says. “Why am I here? What purpose do we have here? For each artist in this show, there is no separation between the physical life they live and spiritual reality.”

Another local artist spotlighted at Body Sacred, Denise Sanabria, describes her works as focused on personality, as an admixture of individual identities both past and present. Sanabria’s work attempts to depict how her subjects fit into the world around them, often addressing the absurdities of cultural norms and, at the same time, the miraculousness of everyday life, as she did with her life-size portraits of downtown personalities a couple months back at the Tomato Head.

“The reading of a picture is able to contact us in ways that the written word cannot,” Evans says. “It bypasses certain brain functions that the written word demands…. Body Sacred to me is a reminder. I believe that pictorial language actually is able to bypass the normal brain.”

I saw an altar and a chalice with wine and water and bread , Saint Birgitta once wrote, and I saw how in a church of the world a priest began the mass, arrayed in a priest’s vestments. And when he had done all that belonged to the Mass, I saw as if the sun and moon and the stars with all the other planets, and all the heavens with their courses and moving spheres, sounded with the sweetest note and with sundry voices.

“What started this thing for me,” Evans explains, “was having my sister, who’s my best friend, diagnosed with breast cancer, and having to go through extensive and very difficult treatment. The pieces that evolved out of that treatment are what I’m showing. That is the ‘Emergence’ series, a group of drawings and photographs.

“There is a belief system in all of this. This is the experience of artists, the experience of people, and however they came about it—one person comes at it from a different angle than other people—each one of them is expressing in tangible form their journey. Their human journey in a woman’s skin.”

What: The Body Sacred