OCT. 22 1995
Allen’s P.C.B. Est. 1888
Devorah L. Knaff
Finely crafted explorations of spirituality
An exhibit featuring four contemporary artists recalls a time when religion was central to society.
If you listen to critics of the art world, you might think that the entire enterprise is marked by a dismissal of the spiritual and the transcendent values that mark the world's great religions.
I would certainly argue with that, for many of the overarching concerns of religion - compassion, generosity, the importance of communitv - echo thoughout the work of many contemporary artists whose work is seen in the Palm Springs Desert Museum's exhibit "Burning Lights: Spirituality, Tradition and
Craftin Recent Art From the City of Angels" are thus set off only by degree rather than by kind from their contemporaries.
For while their work addresses the nature of spirituality and is sometimes explicitly about religious faith, it places those issues within a broader, humanistic context, a context perfectly consistent with the tenets of Christianity, Buddhism and existentialism.
John Frame, Laura Lasworth, Jan Saether and Michael Schrauzer use numerous references to medieval European art in their work borrowing the forms of icons and triptychs, the oddly flattened perspective of the time, the way that light and shadow were used by painters plying their crafts at the other end of this millennium.
But while the explicit referencesto a past in which social communities were more obviously defined by religion, especially Christianity, the work of these four artists is also marked by subtler, more implicit references to the artistry of medieval Europe.
The "craft" of the title is evident in each body of work although especially so in Frame’s small sculptural tableaux and Schrauzer's altarpiece-like polyptychs. Every surface of the complicated mixed-media works of these two artists is perfect.
The wooden elements are perfectly turned and cut and pieced, and yet the effect is not one of machined
parts but of divine intervention, as ifthe gods had simply used these human artists as vessels, as tools to create these images.
The fact that these artists have been able to achieve this effects without any hint of sanctimoniousness is striking and humbling. Indeed, these works have more a sense of Eastern than of Western religions about them with their sense of denial of desire, of temptation set aside rather than overcome.
Among the most noteworthy pieces in the exhibit is Schrauzer’s “The Different Kinds of Fire" a sort of compartmentalized cabinet like a typecase that includes a painted portrait of fire, a candle, a
burned piece of what appears to be concrete. The work seems as if it should be part of a quartet of works, a series of paeans to the four elemental forms of the medieval world.
The piece is both idolatrous and oddly pure, a tribute to and warning about the forces in the world that are stronger than us and at the same time an assertion that we are in fact their masters. Schrauzer's works callto mind the expressions of early saints, that blend of humility and superiority.
Lasworth’s drawings are also full of subtle contradictions and oppositional suggestions. Her use of space invokes both the light-filled, clean-lined spaces of Gothic cathedrals and the equally meticulous but complex designs of illuminated manuscripts.
Her drawing”Original Sin”, which depicts a gaggle of beak-gaping hatchlings in a nest is a picture of perfect innocence set against the evil suggested by the title. Laswonh suggests that a discerning eye— perhaps human, perhaps divine - could see to the heart of things and resolve this contradiction.
Indeed it that sense of order that ties together the work of thesefour artists. In their different ways they each share with us a vision of a world bound together and made comprehensible by an underlying order, by the tinkering of a vigilant watchmaker.
"Burning Lights: Spirituality, Tradition and Craft in Recent Art From the City of Angels" runs through Nov. 26 at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, 101 Museum Drive. Museum hours are Teusday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with extended hours Friday to 8 p.m. General admission is $4; seniors $3; students, ages 6-17 and military with ID $2. For further information, call (619) 325-0189.
Devorah Knaff has a doctorate in anthropology. Her column on the art scene in Southern California appears Sunday in The Press-Enterprise.