Artnet: American Spirituality


"Half Air," July 8-Aug. 29, 2003, at Marianne Boesky Gallery, 535 West 22 Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

With an exhibition titled "Half Air," the temptation is to talk about spiritualism. Spirituality in art has of late been so overwhelmed by Eastern ascendancy and Stonehenge incantations that it's hard not to chime in with some down-home American flaky-isms. "Half Air," however, is not about anything so constricted as organized theisms. The show invokes an awe more fundamental -- one that precurses religious dogma.

Seven small oils on canvas by the reclusive visionary artist Forest Bess (1911-77), spanning an eight-year period, form the backbone of the show, which also includes works by Glenn Branca, James Bishop, Charlemagne Palestine, Jack Smith and a double film projection by Ken Kobland and the Wooster Group. The curators -- Clay Hapaz, Elisabeth Ivers and Jay Sanders -- have gone in for a curatorial cross-pollinating of artistic eras, mixing work from as early as 1949 (Bess) to as late as 1993 (Bishop). In a sweltering August quarto, "Half Air" pursues themes of death, sexual identity, prayer and ceremony.

The pioneering Lower East Side film artist Jack Smith (1932-89) has had a certain presence in Chelsea this summer, with one of his trademark costumes on display in a group show at Matthew Marks Gallery as well as sculptures and photographs here. Smith's sculptures -- faded Polaroids attached to white-painted wooden cubes, arranged casually like a kid's blocks -- though dated ca. 1962, have an emerging presence, and prophetic wisdom. These artifacts make a stark introduction to "Half Air's" meditation on mortality -- faded, cracking photos hold forth on ephemeral memory, while rough wood evokes, by way of tree rings, the pattern of the living thing bisected.

Belied by their abstracted serenity, Forest Bess' simple, runic paintings can be harrowing. Their staying power in the memory is remarkable, and indicative of their own concern with, if not the hereafter, the after. The pictures can imply heaven or hell, or simply the mystical nature of decay.

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