In his poem Neo-HooDoo Manifesto, published in 1969, poet, novelist and essayist Ishmael Reed described Neo-HooDoo as “a ‘Lost American Church’ updated.” It can be useful to consider the institution of contemporary art as a whole in this light. It is not a novelty to say that in American culture, art galleries and museums have become something like secular houses of worship. But if that is so, what is being worshiped, what has been lost, and what needs updating? All too often, as we know, these modern-day sanctuaries seem to sterilize a work and bleed it dry, smothering any spirit that might communicate in the art.
One might think that this dynamic would sound the death knell for any exhibition of works that aimed explicitly at channeling the spirit, and so one approaches the latest show at the Menil Collection — NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith (organized by Alanna Heiss of MoMA’s P.S. 1 in Queens and Franklin Sirmans of the Menil) — with some trepidation. Hoodoo, a less structured, even more homespun practice than Voodoo, has little to do with a church or organized religion and much to do with invoking the powers that toy with us, cajoling and communicating with them through whatever means are at hand. In a 2007 interview with Franklin Sirmans, Reed asserted that Hoodoo, divorced from the negative stereotypes surrounding Voodoo, “at its essence, involves possession.” What is “Neo” about NeoHooDoo, then, “in a nutshell,” is that to achieve these ends “one can use a variety of materials the way that the artist Betye Saar does — modes of expression and allusions from many cultures, both popular and traditional. Africans in America had few resources and had to make do with what was available.”
It hardly seems that the materials utilized by the artists in this exhibition could produce any more channeling of the spirit than those in any of the works at this year’s Whitney Biennial. Can even HooDoo survive our secular “sanctuaries”?
Now, I don’t know how this show will fare at P.S. 1, where it travels next. But whatever its successes, knowing the space I doubt it will be this sublime. Something out of this world is going on at the Menil. One could point, perhaps, to the lighting and the structure of the space itself. But at a deeper level, the first thing that this show seems to channel is the spirit of John and Dominique de Menil themselves, whose well-known civil rights activism and deep appreciation for the way that art taps our unconscious desires and cosmic anxieties guided their collecting: surrealist transformations, Byzantine Icons, masks, weapons and totemic figures from Africa and other cultures, Rothko meditations — all artifacts that straddle the border between ritual object and artwork. Channeling the spirit with whatever means are at hand seems to be right at home here, and for this reason NeoHooDoo is a show that should not be missed.
Encountering works that have been stationed outside the gallery, you know you’re about to enter a world of funk and mystery. Nari Ward’s Liquorsoul is a huge, rusted, found neon liquor store sign that has been hung upside down and draped with plastic flowers and old shoes. It’s delightfully cruddy, it’s beautiful and it sets the tone for the show; as do many of the artists here, Ward reminds us that spirits themselves are often the surest conduit to an elevated state. Brian Jungen‘s nearby Beer Cooler achieves this with deceptive simplicity. Just a plastic cooler holding a few beers, scuffed up as such things get; but this one is in fact carved with fire, skulls and other imagery, the soft material yielding to the artist’s invocations. According to Jen Budney, Jungen, with this homage to the potlatch, sees himself as “giving alcohol back to the Europeans.” Firewater points to a larger and more menacing subject here: European colonization and its aftermath. Many of the artists in this show trace their ancestry to roots that lead them to question their place in a Eurocentric culture. A love-hate relationship with things like alcohol and tobacco is one sign of this. David Hammons’ Untitled, a large ring fashioned from glued together bottles, has a breathtakingly beautiful, minimalist quality to it. Yet it is disconcerting in the extreme to realize that these bottles once held Thunderbird and Night Train. Like Jungen’s cooler, we’re reminded that we’re in a different kind of church, one that might be a stoop or an alley, where holy communion may take us out of our miseries but is guaranteed to bring us even more. Does the work’s beauty want to separate the hope from the despair here?
The direct and sometimes brutal idiom of many of the pieces in the show allows us to glimpse something like the torment these artists feel, being at once insiders and outsiders. Jose Bedia’s Las Cosas que me Arrastran (The Things That Drag Me Along) is as mournful as it is powerful. A black, spattered wall painting of the torso of a two-headed man, presumably a portrait of the artist, is “dragged” by carved kayaks with taxidermied animals as passengers, as well as toy trucks and trains laden with liquor bottles, cigarettes and pieces of wood. Bedia, an initiate of a Cuban-based African diaspora religion and a student of Native American teachings, is clearly split between the two cultures. And the Western trains and automobiles, bearing both the beauties of the traditions and the curses, are a source of torment.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s crudely rendered, flesh-toned oil painting mounted on exposed struts, Natives Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, straightforwardly addresses the complexities of the spirit’s sojourn in the space between colonizer and colonized, as does Dario Robleto in a more subtle way in his typically bittersweet work, infused with the dust from a ground-up copy of Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer.
However, it is Janine Antoni’s Bridle, a stretched and cleaned animal hide, which evokes all these cultural ambiguities in the most deft manner. The hide itself summons up all those images — kitschy, clichéd or reverent — of Indians, teepees and the Wild West that belong to the American imaginary; it made me think of grade school teachings where I learned about the thrift and equality of the Native American. Nothing went to waste. Antoni quite wittily demonstrates her own sense of economy here by constructing a backpack from the hide and leaving it intact on what would have been the animal’s back. There are cut out sections on parts of the skin — parts used to construct the bag. Issues of culture, commodification and gender all come into play. We’re not only reminded of a lost civilization, we’re reminded of the frivolity that overwhelmed it.
When I first encountered Regina José Galindo‘s videos, Confesión (Confession), 150,000 Voltos (150,000 Volts) and Limpieza Social (Social Cleansing), I was mesmerized, but I was also puzzled by their inclusion in the exhibition. Each brief video shows Galindo enduring tortures that are commonplace in many parts of the world. Confesión shows the artist, tiny and slight, having her head submerged into a water-filled drum by a huge thug of a man. In 150,000 Voltos, she is shot by a stun gun on the street and collapses on the sidewalk. In Limpieza Social, Galindo, nude, is nearly knocked off her feet with a high-pressure hose. At first, Galindo’s videos seem more overtly political in tone than many of the other works in the show, but the more I watched, the more Galindo’s torture and suffering felt like another form of channeling another world. The artist, like the victim of torture — spent and out of her mind with exhaustion and pain — must somehow transcend her own embodiment to survive. In a powerful and poetic way, these works bring us a visceral feeling for how altered states themselves can plunge us both into ecstasy and horror. Galindo’s NeoHooDoo, unfortunately, channels a very evil and real presence.
If the politics of cultural conflict and oppression provide one important subtext of the spirits invoked by this “Forgotten Faith,” another characteristic of NeoHooDoo seems to be the use of materials to mystify and transport the onlooker.
For some odd reason, many of the works incorporate shoes, with varying effects. Atrabiliarios, an installation by Doris Salcedo, is as unsettling as it is beautiful. Rectangular cut-outs in the gallery wall, about the depth, width and height of shoeboxes, hold sometimes one, sometimes a pair of beaten up shoes. The shoes are obscured by a layer of semi-opaque animal skin stretched across the rectangular opening and crudely attached to the wall with uneven hand stitching. On the floor nearby are boxes constructed of the same stiff but partially transparent skin, and the result is beautiful and unearthly.
Why artists attach such emphasis on footwear is intriguing. Perhaps they represent a journey made from one stage to another. In Jimmie Durham’s Anti-Brancusi, a rock in the shape of a foot sits atop various boxes, two of which are shoeboxes. A branch juts from the boxes and holds a note on a white card, which relates the artist’s musings on the discovery of the rock and its similarities and, more importantly, its dissimilarities from a Brancusi sculpture. This object, randomly discovered, prompts Durham to question the spiritual pretensions of modernism and art’s claim in general to unlock the secrets of nature. It’s also an endearing passage. Like the shoddily framed found papers that line the walls beside the sculpture, Durham transports the street to the gallery and forces us to address it anew.
Some works in the show, particularly James Lee Byars’ Halo, an enormous gilded brass ring propped against the wall at the entrance of the exhibition, are simply breathtaking. And though Halo would most likely be stunning in just about any context, its placement here gives it an altogether different resonance than it would have in the context of, say, a show with Judd or Brancusi himself. Here its clean simplicity does not lock attention onto itself but implies a golden portal, the destination projected by many of the other works found in the show.
There is an enormous amount to take in at NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith, and nearly all of it is worth taking. If you’re lucky, you might happen upon the boy in silver spandex shorts dancing on a lighted stage in Felix Gonzalez Torres’ Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform). Adrian Piper’s collection of framed photographs Food for the Spirit is another dark and mysterious gem. The missteps here are rare. This is a show that is visually and psychologically rich; Franklin Sirmans’ and Alanna Heiss’s choices seem passionate and informed. Those of us whose spiritual life tends toward the funky are fortunate indeed that the Menil Collection provides the perfect venue, the perfect chapel, for this lost, updated American church.
NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith
July 27-September 21, 2008
Laura Lark is an artist and writer in Houston.
Also by Laura Lark –
Detailed image information:
“Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1991
Wood, lightbulbs, acrylic paint, and Go-Go dancer in silver-lamé bathing suit, sneakers, and Walkman
Overall dimensions variable
Platform: 21 ½ x 72 x 72 inches (54.6 x 182.9 x 182.9 cm)
Installation view, “Lifestyle – From Subculture to High Fashion,” Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, 2006
Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, and Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland
© The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.
Painted wood, two pedestals
Statues: ea. 20 x 3 in. (50.8 x 7.6 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Mary Goldman Gallery, Los Angeles
Photo: Joshua White
© Sanford Biggers
Conjugal Sorrow, 2005-2006
Homemade paper (pulp made from soldiers’ letters to brides who did not return from various wars, ink retrieved from letters, cotton), colored paper, rosary of Saint Francis of Assisi (patron saint against dying alone), WWI chaplain’s metal rosary beads, carved bone knitting needles, braided hair flowers, silk, poplar, ash
13 x 17 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches
Courtesy of the artist and D’Amelio Terras, NY
© Dario Robleto
Willow, silver-plated bronze
19 ½ x 70 ½ x 4 ½ in. (49.5 x 179.1 x 11.4 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members, 2000 (2000.113)
Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
© Robert Gober