“Faith” Harvests a Renaissance

“Faith” Harvests a Renaissance in Ridgefield

by

Lisa Paul Streitfeld

The Advocate/Greenwich Time, March 5, 2000.  Allan Wexler’s Gardening Sukkah at the entrance to the Aldrich Museum offers a clue as to what awaits the visitor; inside are not only the tools and raw materials for planting but also the setting for a feast.

Faith: The Impact of Judeo-Christian Religion on Art at the Millennium is the resplendent harvest of seeds planted in the early 60’s.  At that time an obscure movement known as Fluxus was integrating art with life and Larry Aldrich converted an 18th century Ridgefield home, which served as both town meeting place and church, into an exhibition venue.  The museum’s recently revised mission statement continues the founder’s legacy of independence with the goal of national leadership in the exhibition of significant and challenging contemporary art.

Aldrich’s dream is fulfilled with, appropriately, an act of faith.  The extraordinary range and startling originality of this smorgasbord by 20 artists spanning six countries is the outcome of a process of discovery on the part of museum director, Harry Philbrick, and his curator collaborators, artists Christian Eckart and Osvaldo Romberg.  The show offers new works created on-site and delivers previously closeted works into the collective consciousness.  So here we have cause for celebration — an authentic birth arising out of the ashes of postmodernism.

Philbrick didn’t want to simply do an exhibit on spirituality. “All art is spiritual,” he says.   “We decided to focus it on the Judeo-Christian heritage.  It became a more interesting topic.   You could look at the history of western art in the context of Judeo-Christian religions.”

Placing boundaries around subject matter led the Aldrich to tear down some walls of its own.   Three churches and a synagogue collaborated with site-specific work.   The process fostered an evolutionary new form of community dialogue that continues for the duration of the exhibit.

The contemporary art world doesn’t deal with religion, Philbrick points out. “There are exhibitions and art books about race and gender, but not religion,” he says.  “A whole range of artists has been doing work with religious content, but no one put them into context before.”

The Aldrich is perfectly situated to usher in such a renaissance.   Close enough to Manhattan that it can lure artists out for evening discussions and openings but far enough from the art market to provide emerging art talent a haven fostering experimentation.

“There is a desire to take risks,” admits the low-key director, who is nonetheless bemused by the fact that his splendid exhibit on the nude last fall startled the art world even as the public embraced it.

“The contemporary art world is isolated from the mainstream,” he adds.  Trying to connect them is an emphasis Philbrick has brought to the Aldrich since arriving from the education department of the Museum of Modern Art in 1992.  He served as director of education before rising to his current post three years ago.  The museum’s trademark education program is a national model, and with Philbrick at the helm, education has become integral to the curatorial process.

The range of artists as diverse as Andres Serrano — whose controversial Piss Christ propelled him to fame in the eighties — and John B. Giuliani, a local priest whose radical view portrays native Americans in the context of Christian iconography, Faith has a mission: to get people to think.

Fluxus was the early sixties answer to Dada, which led the twentieth century charge to transform audiences from passive observers into active participants.

If Faith redefines the avant-garde for a new century, Claude Simard’s Pulpit sets the standard.  At last we uncover a transcendent function of Duchamp’s revolutionary idea of the readymade, the non-art object as art.  The disassociation of a religious iconic object, a pulpit, from its common usage not only subverts the Christian use of the form but triggers a merging with transcendent symbolism of the ancients, who regarded the spiral as a sacred connection between heaven and earth.

Climbing the Aldrich stairway draws visitors into symbolic connections far closer to home.  There the iconic objects of Connecticut native Barbara Broughel’s finely crafted Requiem Series relate narrative fictions of horrifying executions during the New England witch-hunts.

Petah Coyne’s Mary Marilyn and Norma Jean plays hide-and- seek with the divine face of the feminine; Helene Aylon’s My Notebooks Jewish scripture for female histories; and Hermann Nitsch intoxicates with the lure of pagan rituals.

Romberg’s Syzygy II, a cordwood ritual integrating four religions by sacred geometry, can be experienced through meditation and/or acceptance of a log when the sculpture is dismantled at the close of the exhibition.  By way of three local churches and a synagogue, pilgrims can accompany local artist Jo Yarrington on her faith journey, Tikkum Olam, through religious shrines of the world.

With questions boldly posed and longings powerfully expressed, these artists are bridges between past and future.

Michael Tracy’s ominous Chapel of the Damned skewers the heads of oppressive patriarchal archetypes.  Fertile offerings by female artists — including Linda Ekstrom’s penetrating Menstrual/Liturgical Cycles and Kinke Kooi’s luminous Black Madonna paintings — bring the dark feminine back from religious exile.

As for the future, Matthew Ritchie’s Chapel Perilous deliciously serves up a new cosmology mirroring his own evolutionary process integrating science and art.

Churches turned on their steeples — as Nicholas Kripal’s Crown does on the extended sculpture walk through town — and museums transformed into sacred spaces.  At some point in the course of this journey across the millennial divide, the very definition of faith becomes incredibly wider and even more wondrous than our western traditions ever led us to believe.

 

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