Feeling as though our secular materialist culture has lost its hold on spiritual experience? If so, Sheila Gallagher agrees, as “Ravishing Far/Near,” her show of mixed-medium works at Dodge, attempted to imbue the profane with some semblance of the sacred, rendering religious iconography from Judeo-Christian, Hindu and Muslim traditions by way of quotidian objects usually unrelated to the sanctified or holy. Described in the press release as an “iconomash” and accompanied by a rather ponderous essay by philosopher Richard Kearney meticulously detailing Gallagher’s myriad religious references, the exhibition was the Boston-based artist’s second with Dodge. The show’s title was taken from the work of Marguerite Porete, a 13th-century Christian mystic burned at the stake for writing a treatise on divine love. Accordingly, if somewhat morosely, Gallagher made innovative use of combustion and its byproducts throughout the show. The soot-on-canvas painting Cow (2013) depicts a bovine head staring at the viewer, its expressive features resolving into curlicues of smoke when examined up close. Though Gallagher’s ability to bridge realistic figuration and expressive abstraction is impressive in a technical way, the work soon felt gimmicky, due to its pairing a choice symbol (holy cow) and a laborious but overwrought method (holy smoke).
Where there’s smoke, there are cigarettes, apparently, as Gallagher showed two works made from cigarette butts covered in gold leaf. Pneuma Hostis (Halo), 2013, consists of a circular arrangement of the butts, evoking equally a mandala and the titular halo. Ascending to the gallery’s ceiling, Jacob’s Ladder (2013) is made from the same materials, some 13 feet and 108 tiny rungs tall (“108 is a highly significant number in Islam,” Kearney tells us, as it’s used to refer to Allah). Also on view were a number of Gallagher’s wall-hung, paintinglike landscapes made of melted plastic trash. Plastic Glenstal (2012-13) is the artist’s representation of a garden at the Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, Ireland, where Benedictine monks grow plants mentioned in the Bible. Depicting verdant vegetation in front of a stone wall, the work as a whole melts together in a rippling surface of colorful plastic, appearing to bubble toward the viewer. To the assortment of plants found in the garden Gallagher has added the white and pink lilies and Roses of Sharon mentioned in the Song of Songs, the Old Testament celebration of erotic intimacy.
Plastic Glenstal is certainly a visually interesting work: coaxed out of unusual material, it resembles something between a lava flow and compacted debris. Some items (an orange marker, buttons embossed with the Chanel logo, a Lego man with his arms outstretched) haven’t melted completely into pools of color. Their persistence is noticeable, like the patterns of Cow, only upon close inspection. But Gallagher’s ability to work with plastic, smoke and cigarette butts brought little to bear upon her religious references, which, while well cited and obviously researched, signified little else but the general sense that a religious experience was afoot.
This feeling heightened notably with Rasa (2013), a video based on Revelry by Night, a 19th-century miniature Kangra painting featuring Radha and Krishna, Hinduism’s divine embodiments of femininity and masculinity. Rasa, whose title is the Sanskrit word for taste or essence, has neither figure, instead reinterpreting the painting’s interior space as a crude, depopulated diorama that catches fire as sex noises are piped into the viewer’s headphones. As one sat in the beanbag chairs provided, alongside a hookah and a plate of almonds set on a woven carpet, watching Rasa quickly became an exercise in not laughing at the new age accoutrements—not a particularly spiritual experience.