Life cycles

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Amidst all this sad news from New Orleans and young men dying in Iraq with a president somewhat short on compassion, Shelley Spector’s installation “I am on Your Shoulders” at the Painted Bride is a healing place to spend some time (right, a detail from the upstairs gallery of Spector’s two-floor installation).

Spector’s vision of heaven, not to be missed, is in the upstairs gallery, where a small army of superhero ancestors come to the perpetual rescue, circling on three mechanized carousels to sprightly klezmer music.

These are fierce angels, determined to circle forward. They retain the obdurate quality of the wood blocks from which they were carved, and it makes their delicate carousel hora in the sky-blue room all the more charming and miraculous (overcoming the lighting and the HVAC grill in the ceiling) (left, a detail of Spector’s heavenly host of superheroes).

Equally surprising are the chunky little clouds beneath the dear-departed souls, separating heaven from the floor below, where we on earth get to remember the dead.

Down below stands an assemblage minyan (10 Jews–the minimum number needed for prayer). They are bottom-heavy, earthbound figures made of stacked rings of wood that hold in their glass torsos talismans of memory and spirit–Jewish nkisi-totems. The simple fabrication succeeds in evoking male and female, the dirndl skirts harking back to shtetls and folk-shuls all at once. (I have to put a vote in here for the shoes on all the figures, large and small, upstairs and downstairs. They are ur-shoes of some prior generation and I love them especially) (right, the minyan).

The figures face toward the rising sun in the east, which is both traditional and hopeful. The painted sun is labeled “East,” and this sweet literalness is part of what makes this installation feel so childlike and so directly connected to its wellsprings of feeling.

One of the things I especially liked here is that every visitor, just by arriving, interacts with the installation. When someone walks into the space, the little congregation of praying figures swells both in height and number and spiritual strength.

Visitors also get two chances to add their own loved-and-departed heroes and heroines to the installation. They can memorialize someone now gone by writing the name on a leaf to add to the lollipop trees on the wall, or they can drop a memorial memento in the one open glass jar in the minyan group. While the trees of life and the leaves are literal, taken straight from Jewish memorial observance and tradition, the glass jar is personal and adds an African touch as well as a time-capsule optimism that matches the superheroes on the floor above.

The memorial portrait of Rebecca Westcott (our appreciation/obituary of Westcott can be found here ), is a wall of framed clouds against blue skies, with a flower still asserting its presence in the world. It borrows from Westcott’s own imagery and dominates the nearby 16-foot totem pole of men and women standing on eachother’s shoulders, which becomes a timeline in space(left, “A Flower in the Clouds” detail).

Spector, whose Spector Gallery showed Westcott’s work, makes a powerful statement for a broad definition of family.

In some ways Spector’s installation is so simple. In other ways it’s pure magic.

Also at the Bride…

InLiquid is continuing to host 4-artist shows in the Bride’s Gallery Cafe, the artists drawn from its own membership. The rationale for each show sometimes gets lost in the mix. But here’s a chance to see some work that’s often unfamiliar and new. This show, like Spector’s, runs until Oct. 22.

I especially enjoyed the paintings by Hedwige Jacobs, whose paintings of an overcrowded world with people coming and going serve as reminders that art can pack a complex message with economy of means. Jacobs’ work also talks to Spector’s in the main galleries, with its concerns about life and death (right, “Blue Sky,” acrylic and pencil on panel).

Other work in the show include Cathy Orr Gontarek’s paintings, which tame nature into designs and patterns that evoke fabric and wallpaper. There’s a poetry to the reductiveness, the colors and the imagery, but there’s some holding back, here (left, “River,” with the water, the bank, the river stones and home life).
The show also includes appropriations from the others in the show, by Jeff McMahon, who hosted a couple of shows at the Optimistic last year, but has since closed the space. McMahon’s angled take on each borrowed image inspired my own angle (right, McMahon’s “Spector, A Flower in the Clouds”).

Also encaustic, acrylic and paper work from Libby Saylor (hey, that’s my name, not hers), includes what I took as a salute to Bonnard, the nude replaced by her fashion statement (left, “Bathtub”).

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