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After the sardonic humor of Anat Ebgi’s Worshipping Sticks and Stones registers, the show’s deeper interests begin to emerge: violence toward the body and the rituals that negotiate it. The artists of this group show approach these themes with various levels of seriousness and diverse subject matter, a fact that complicates the exhibition as a whole.
In oil paintings and plush totems, Jay Stuckey’s figures baptize and assault one another with the same gleeful faces, creating intentional dissonance between the cartoonish surface and serious archetypes of human behavior. The contorting bodies of Pierre Knop’s Suspicious Dance (2018) and Pyre (2018) raise their hands while standing in a blood-red river or circling a ritual fire (what or who are they burning?). Penny Slinger’s collage works transfigure slick female bodies into goddesses, as in Solstice (1976-1977) where wrathful deities, astrology references, and animal masks are recontextualized to depict temple worship. Frederik Næblerød paints and sculpts shamanistic masks by hand; three sit aflame in on-canvas still lifes, and the stoneware masks—The Four Seasons (2018) and Sea Urchin (2017)—positioned on pedestals silently observe the gallery like exquisite corpses. Rendered in loose mirage-like brushstrokes, the intersex figure in Angela Dufresne’s Froth Dive offers a double-vision: what seems like a placid smile above the surface becomes a glowing face below that seems to drift between lustful and threatening impulses.
To be clear, these works are less about ritual qua ritual and more about the latent powers of religion to incite social violence or visceral self-transformation. As Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Fly put it, “You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you?” With the exception of Knop’s ritual scenes and Slinger, who’s celebration of the divine feminine might jolt the viewer with its earnestness, the artists exhibited approach these fearful questions indirectly through humor or ambiguity.
Combined with the gallery’s exhibition and wall texts—a hodgepodge of spiritual phrases like “the blood red ocean of ecstasy” and “the temple of yore”—it’s not always clear which works might actually function as ritual objects or within religious settings, which express serious religious motivations, or which appropriate the subject matter for other ends. It somehow both frustrates viewers looking for a more cohesive statement and evokes the complicated struggle of engaging religious issues in contemporary art.
“Worshipping Sticks and Stones” runs from November 3–December 8, 2018 at Anat Ebgi (2660 S. La Cienega Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90034).