Daily Bytes | Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Sexual Dimorphism & the Sacred Profane: Casey Jex Smith and Sara Osebold at C.U.A.C.

Sexual Dimorphism & the Sacred Profane
Casey Jex Smith and Sara Osebold at C.U.A.C.

by Geoff Wichert

[portfolio_slideshow]
I.

If it has become a cliché that art usurps the place in modern life once held by religion, it’s an ironic cliché, for of all the subjects and sources of our art, religion is surely one of the least respected. In fact, in its purest sense it is barely tolerated. Giacomo Manzu, twentieth century heir to the likes of Donatello and Michelangelo, sculpted cardinals and popes, but was always careful to represent the all-too-human vessel, while leaving the precise spiritual content to the viewer’s imagination. More recently, Maurizio Catalan showed Pope John Paul II struck down by divine judgment in the form of a meteorite. Even the Mark Rothko Chapel, despite its giveaway name, attempts no specific theological presentation. All the more unusual, then, that Casey Jex Smith, who has begun to compile enviable notice over the last three years, not only speaks longingly of renewing the spiritual language of art, but is unambiguous in identifying the religious sources of his sense of awe and wonder.

Let me say at the outset that it’s refreshing to come across such candor in what has become a troublesome subject matter for artist and audience alike. Religious feelings have a deep claim on our psyches — so much so that speculation has arisen among evolutionary theorists to the effect that pious vapors may bestow an advantage in the struggle for survival. For artists — for anyone, obviously, but perhaps especially artists — to have such universal impulses placed off limits, or behind compulsory walls of ambivalence or irony, is as intolerable as were the bad old days, when any spiritual inkling had to be chaperoned by doctrine and theology.

One of the appealing qualities of Smith’s art, regardless of how one relates to his subject matter, is his evolving vocabulary. If Donald Barthelme was right to identify Collage as the art form of the 20th century, then the new era, in the hands of artists like Smith, seems destined to be the century of something that could be called Post-Collage. His signature style, a collision of virtuoso draftsmanship and bravura geometrics done in colored marker, could easily have grown from works like “Dumbfounded Ass,” a conventional collage layered up from colored pencil gestures, a pen-and-ink drawing of a donkey, and some organic forms, each genre of mark-making having come about separately before being pasted together. But in most of the works seen here, many measuring up to twenty square feet — and apparently bounded only by the limits of available materials — he carries out the process on a single sheet of paper. In these, it seems clear that their origins lie less in collage per se, and more nearly in the series of notebook sketches that stray in gradually disintegrating files across the gallery’s back wall.

These sketches, labeled “Church Drawings,” demonstrate what can happen to someone skilled with a pencil who occupies his hands with drawing while his left hemisphere is busy listening to sermon and testimony. |1 – 4| In them, as in the more formal work, impeccable realism strays casually into bizarre fantasy. Details like a disembodied ponytail or a forged iron bracket appear and melt away again in dream-like sequences of freeform visual association. It’s not hard to imagine these works as a kind of graphic call-and-response, where material reality impinges on a sudden sense of piety, mystery, or wonder.

By all appearances, this is more or less what Smith tries to capture in his more deliberate works. (It’s hard to know what to call them, with their promiscuous blend of mediums that co-exist in dynamic tension where no one dominates.) One of the more striking, repeated images represents skies full of elaborate cloudscapes drawn in the manner of engravings: hundreds or thousands of repeated, dashed lines that through their rhythmic interruptions produce the illusion of a radiant, light-filled sky. In the baroque iconography thus quoted in, for example, “We Draw Near,” |5| the part that would conventionally be played by either the deity, or by the sun standing in for him, is filled instead by an enormous crystal structure made in a spectrum of colors that echo its geometric splendor. It’s as if the Enlightenment cosmology of Kepler or Newton, realized in prismacolor, found itself in Poussin’s sky.

Another large work, “Gathering,” links the source of this divine vision to fragmentary images of what appear to be LDS temples, wagon trains, tongues of flame, and a characteristic swirling blue line that is identified elsewhere with water. |6| (detail) Other works, yet further explorations of tensile lines, unfolding forms, and organic growth within and alongside precise renderings, bear names that invoke similarly resonant themes: “Beehive Manifesto,” “Have No Fear,”|0| “The Purifier’s Fire,” |7| “Hand of God.” In this last piece, the artist has meticulously drawn, by hand, not the literal hand, but the fingerprints of the hand of a withdrawn and unseen creator.

I asked Casey Smith whether he ever considered the possibility that instead of challenging that portion of the audience that does not share his specific religious background, his images might shock or offend those of his fellow Saints whose views lean more heavily on tradition. He seemed troubled by the question. I didn’t even raise the specter of how his art, supposedly a process that aspires to universality, might speak to unbelievers in their various degrees. Yet if anything is clear in today’s polarized discourse, it should be the impossibility of achieving agreement on matters of faith. Still, Smith may be opening a door, whether he chooses to walk through it or not. If art can reconcile traditional religion, the Enlightenment critique, and modern science on the universality of religious experience in human nature, there may be hope for cohabitation in the future: not only for us to live together in mutual respect, but for a splendid, yet common understanding.

II.

While Casey Jex Smith’s bold, colorful works on paper were engaging the audience downstairs at C.U.A.C., something much more subversive and even more challenging awaited them upstairs. Seattle artist Sara Osebold constructs her site-specific installation, “Mountain Range,” out of layers of metaphor so densely interwoven that some viewers were tempted, despite its accessibility and the rich trove of pleasurable associations on offer, to dismiss the entire ensemble with a peremptory judgment. They may have been influenced by a seeming resemblance — in reality a subtle and witty critique — between Osebold’s work and many of the obtuse and sometimes figuratively — but often literally — inaccessible artworks of the 80s and 90s: Minimalist sculpture, say, or Earthworks. Or they may have been misled by the very ease of approach to “Mountain Range.” When a work has a seemingly endless array of readings, one or another is sure to jump out at the viewer, who may just think that one level has exhausted the whole.To be sure, the material presentation of “Mountain Range” is disarmingly simple. As is often the case with site-specific works, Osebold has a large collection of possible parts from which to choose. There are several dozen mismatched ceramic plates and shallow bowls that appear to have been collected from the dishware section of a second-hand store. These are placed around the gallery, mostly on the floor, though a few are to be found on a windowsill or the base of the mezzanine railing. Each of them contains some element of landscape imagery. Most are stones chosen, like Japanese suiseki, for their ambiguous scale; they might be distant vistas of mountains even as they remain mineral samples seen up close. Other plates hold tiny animals, either toys or collectable miniatures. These separate displays are scattered about the room in an almost random array, but are unified by a wide red line, drawn in red felt, that runs from one to the next.Together, felt line and earthen vertices map a journey that the viewer may take from the point of entry, around the gallery space, and eventually back to what has become an exit. The chronological thus becomes the narrative, even as the individual tableaus or events become nodes on a network. Nature, in the form of found rocks, is contrasted with nature represented in ceramic images. Meanwhile, artisan pottery is juxtaposed against utilitarian vessels, and manufactured ware sets off natural stone. Thus the circle of the viewer’s narrative journey is repeated in the cycle of material forms.
Significant works of art defy categorizing even as they exhaust explication. It is possible to see the red line as representing blood circulating, or a graph of the rise and fall of some cyclical phenomenon. I was reminded of a friend I visited in intensive care, who made it his task to cheer his anxious visitors with a show of good humor. What he could not see, but we could not avoid, was the way, every time he laughed, the chart of his heart being drawn by the monitor went awry. But there are other ways to read the jagged line that runs through “Mountain Range.” It could be the silhouette invoked by the title, or a route of pilgrimage, or a chart of dates, or altitudes, or the path of the sun’s rays. History is present in more than the association to a timeline: each circular marker is a piece of someone’s erstwhile household. Each recycles not only kitchen and dining room fixtures, but also the aspirations of cooks and the dreams of housewives who once were proud to own and present them.That’s the crux, of course. Sara Osebold suggests many stories in “Mountain Range,” and some of them belong predominantly to women. If the art of men is likely to be big, bold, and self-asserting, it is an extension of how men see their roles in life. It is possible to look into the space where “Mountain Range” is laid out and not realize that anything is there. At the opening, audience members were stepping back and forth over the line and its islands like so many giants bestriding the earth. Indeed, Osebold engineered her route so that crossing the line would be necessary. In the end, while her craft pantomimes the self-effacement inseparable from so many female roles, she also uses it, and a magician’s feeling for scale, to bring us all, men and women alike, face to face with our all-too-characteristic indifference.But it would be wrong to suggest that an encounter with “Mountain Range” leads to a negative experience. Like a gracious hostess with her plates full of sweet insights, Sara Osebold invites us to partake of as much or as little as we like. Installations, by their nature, are temporary things, given to living in memory rather than the present. In that way they are all journeys. There are no mountains, there is no topography, quite like that of the imagination.THE CUAC will be showing the works of Casey Jex Smith through February 8th and Osebold’s installation will remain until March 15th. To see more works by Casey Jex Smith can be seen at his website. More of Sara Osebold’s work can be seehere. Upcoming at the CUAC is Sean Morello: What Art Is.

This article was originally published the February 2006 edition of 15 Bytes

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *