by Allen Bishop
Small Acts of Devotion– Frank McEntire’s recent assemblages and paintings – is the featured exhibit through November 15 at David Ericson Fine Art in Salt Lake City. From the looks of this show, it is quite clear that he continues to roll, and gathers no moss since leaving as director of the Utah Arts Council.
McEntire scours garage sales, thrift stores and salvage yards for discarded things magical, miraculous and spiritual. Angels, crucifixes, miniature temples, vestments, scriptures, prayer and hymn books; small figures of Christ, Hindu gods, the Virgin Mary, the Angel Moroni and Buddha; also things banal: wooden boxes, farm implements, lenses, mirrors, pop icon figurines, mannequin parts, feathers, embroidered cloth, traps, cages, sticks, stones, old typewriters and bones; and things not so banal: a bird wing, a stuffed rabbit head, a World War II gas mask and a divining rod. These crowd his studio until they whisper a voice of spiritual renewal, inspiring an assemblage of objects sacred and ordinary, born again in exultant layers of the undogmatized divine: meditations, incantations, visions, blessings, celebrations, imaginations, divinations, salvations, exaltations.
McEntire’s artist statement says he uses “the material culture produced by Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and other religious traditions.” It continues: “I alter found material into something other than its initial intended use. Such juxtapositions and reconfigurations form the basis of my work – the use of constructed imagery as commentary on economics, politics, and the environment. Such unconventional use of familiar objects of devotion typically poses unanticipated questions about our times. Although my assemblages are personal explorations about current events, they none-the-less challenge others to reexamine their deeply held beliefs and assumptions and become participants in the creative process.”
I sat with McEntire in his studio and discussed the workings of his mind and art. He is sorry to see so many sacred objects “callously tossed aside” when once esteemed of importance to people and to their sense of the divine. His task is to assist these objects in regaining their spiritual voice, and in unexpected recombinations, allow them to speak again – to stimulate, to challenge and to renew.
Opening night of Small Acts of Devotion featured interactive performances by sonosopher Alex Caldiero (“a sonosopher is to sound,” says Caldiero, “as a philosopher is to thought”), bassist Harold Carr and violinist Flavia Cervino-Wood (a masked angel, complete with wings, dressed in white and a sheer black veil). Carr and Cervino-Wood’s music, though loosely structured around Caldiero’s readings, have a beautiful and haunting quality of their own and richly complement Caldiero’s guttural vocals. These included pieces as quirky and off-beat as: “Facial Hair,” “Training Bra,” “I Bite My Tongue,” “No One Will Get This Joke” and “That That That is That That’s That.” His expressive gestures and enunciations highlight his oddball narratives and unexpected word placements. In “I Bite My Tongue,” these shift from English to Spanish for much of the piece, then back to English again. Sometimes Caldiero’s crisp, rhythmic vocalizations morph into pure non-verbal sounds. If you think this all sounds funny, you’re right; and the music, along with Caldiero’s vigorous presentation, carries the humor into the ether, giving it a quirky, sublime quality. Ethereal, sublime humor? Hmm… Well, yes; and that is just what ties it so strongly to McEntire’s art.
McEntire’s piece “Temples Triumphant” consists of an oilcan stupa on the left, an antique toaster in the shape of a Meso-American temple on the right, and a silver-plated “rubber ducky” bank in the middle. This central placement and the twenty-dollar bill stuck in the slot mark this as the truly triumphant “Corporate America” temple. (Would Ernie consider this blasphemous?)
“Great Basin Kingdom” is a glass-covered cast iron sink basin, the bottom lined with rock salt around a small ceramic Salt Lake Temple. A blue rubber drain leads to the front of the piece, where we find a small driver diligently maneuvering the kingdom through turbulent waters. A separate piece, “Melchizedek,” oversees the whole affair from above, the small plastic high priest enclosed between the jaws of a woodworking vice.
“Transcendental TV Guru” features a resin Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (from the artist’s Hare Krishna days) presiding in meditation over a small, painted black and white TV which is on and displaying whatever trivia happens to be traversing the ether.
Combining a vast range of objects and associations, the range of meanings in McEntire’s work is not only vast, but also open to the probings of individual viewers. Thus, they become endowed with the intricate and layered complexities of personal experience seeking the sacred in a beautiful, painful universe.
“Small Offerings (9)” includes a variety of found objects placed on small brass Salt Lake Temple plates on a stand. Among the objects are a pigeon wing, a hunter’s broad point arrow head, an oil can, an angel figure, a ball, a bronze Salt Lake Temple figure, a broken bronze torso and an hourglass stand with two small Buddha figures (upside down to each other) in the place of the hour glass. Some of these are under small glass bell jars, and so evoke a feeling of preciousness and religious significance. Beyond this, it would be difficult to nail down any clear interpretation from such an assortment. The viewer is left to freely associate and ponder connections in his or her own psyche.
Some small and/or unusually placed pieces might easily avoid our notice:
“Cosmicnaut” is a small plastic astronaut attached to an equally small crucifix placed next to the front door but easy to miss because of so much visual information going on in larger pieces nearby.
For the same reason it is easy to miss McEntire’s painting series “Coronation of the Virgin.” These are printed black and white religious images that have been drip-painted with red, gold, yellow, black and white enamel. They require the viewer to look closely and search after the coherence of the images under the paint.
“Up High Moroni” is attached above a doorway, sticking out at right angles from the wall. Made of ceramic and silver leaf, he is minus the usual horn and appears to be blowing something from his hand rather than sounding a heavenly trump. (Dandelion seeds to float on the wind of Moroni’s breath?) He escaped my notice until he was pointed out during my fourth visit to the exhibit.
Be sure not to miss the assemblages in the back yard sculpture court, including:
“Buddha in the Beehive,” a cast bronze hive with a lens oculus on the top. Inside is a lit gilded bronze Buddha with cast bronze bee wings with circuit board designs. The artist encourages viewers to preorder sequels — “Brigham in the Beehive” and “Betty Boop in the Beehive.”
A personal favorite is “Seedling,” a hand-made European horse plow with steel spikes angling back from the blade. Placed on the ground between the blade and the wheel is a small Salt Lake Temple. With earthbound, environmental overtones, the piece suggests that religious forms are intended as outward symbols of a growing inner reality. Our seedling inner temple requires hard cultivation to become a selfless spirituality that honors the needs of future generations. The aggressive steel plow towers over the tiny ceramic temple, and evokes the realities of a tough mortality, rather than the easy platitudes of a trendy sermon.
These are only brief descriptions of a few of the works to be seen. There are many more for viewers to explore on their own; to engage themselves in creative thought and “Small Acts of Devotion.”
McEntire’s recent assemblages and paintings are on exhibit through November 15 at David Ericson Fine Art, 418 South 200 West in Salt Lake City. The gallery is open Monday through Friday, 10:00 AM-5:00 PM.
This article originally appeared in the November 2005 edition of 15 Bytes
UTAH’S ART MAGAZINE SINCE 2001, 15 Bytes is published by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.