Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Maria Smits at Lawndale

Robert Boyd

I got a preview of this exhibit when I saw Maria Smits' life-size drawings at Mother Dog Studio during Artcrawl. But nothing prepared me for the gargantuan installation at Lawndale. The exhibit is called The Adoration of the Mystic Dog, and is based on the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Hubert began the alterpiece, and after he died, Jan finished it. Adoration was an early Renaissance masterpiece, but it still belongs to the medieval world--it was completed in 1432, decades before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, Luther defied the Catholic Church, or Copernicus published his heliocentric model of the solar system. (There was a great piece on the Ghent Alterpiece and the difficulties of preserving it in a recent New Yorker.)

Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, paint on wood panels, 1432

Maria Smits stated purpose is to "question the importance of the role of Christian religion in our current culture," but what one will notice about her work is how 20th-century it feels. Specifically, how much like German expressionism her drawing seems.Her work doesn't exactly feel post-modern--at least the drawn component doesn't. (The sculptural part--well, you'll see.) It feels "modern" in the sense of "Modernism." And Modernism was in certain ways about challenging old beliefs and verities--and doing so without irony.

Maria Smits, The Alterpiece, charcoal and oil bar on paper, installation, 2010

To give you an idea of how large this is, I had to take the photo in three parts. There was no other way for me to capture the complete image. The figures of Adam and Eve have dog heads (as do the other figures in the work). The work looks dark and gloomy. This is in no way inconsistent with Christian art, particularly that from Northern Europe. But in Smits' case, she provides a simple symbolism for us:


She spells this out in her artist's statement. In van Eyck's time, though, symbols in visual art were commonly known by viewers. Flemish and Dutch painting has an entire extra slayer of meaning that is not instantly perceived by modern viewers. Furthermore, contemporary artists, if they have symbols in their work, don't usually tell you the meanings--they expect you to figure it out (or not). But Smits seemingly wants you to be on the same footing as a 13th century churchgoer from Gent, who walked into the cathedral, saw the van Eycks' altarpiece, and easily read the symbols contained within.

The weird thing about it is the dog heads. I can't claim to understand the thinking here. The one thing that comes to mind is that "dog" is a palindrome of "god," but that seems a slender premise for such a large piece, especially when you include I think so I exist.

Maria Smits, I think so I exist, styrofoam, wood, 2010 

The title is a restatement of Decartes' famous humanist idea "cogito ergo sum." It was this kind of thinking that challenged the God-centered medieval universe that was painted by the Van Eycks. The sculpture, recognizably a dog, is monstrous though, both in size and form. It seems not like a cool Enlightenment repudiation of religion, but--again--a modernist scream of terror in a postmodernist form (an assemblage of wood, styrofoam, and plastic). The sculpture is simultaneously majestic and terrifying, a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

But Smits dogs are not all terrifying or vicious. Maybe that is the point of using dogs. They are ambiguous. They can be wild, mad, dangerous, or they can be cute, loyal, lovable. The dogs in The Adoration of the Mystic Dog seem like the latter sort.

Maria Smits, The Adoration of the Mystic Dog, mixed media on wood, resin, 2010

Maria Smits, The Adoration of the Mystic Dog detail, mixed media on wood, resin, 2010

The prayer rails, by the way, are completely functional. I tried them out.

Maria Smits, The Adoration of the Mystic Dog detail, mixed media on wood, resin, 2010

So in the end, what is Smits' show all about? It's the kind of thing that could be used by demagogues to stir up anti-art passion, as we are currently seeing with the dreadful situation with the censored David Wojnarowicz video at The Smithsonian. The same people behind that could easily accuse  Smits of creating anti-Christian art, of engaging cheap blasphemy, ├ępater le bourgeois. But that's not what is going on here. No one works this  hard for such a trivial result. So while I am having trouble intuiting Smits' meaning, I don't doubt that that meaning is worth stating because the means of stating it are complex and profound.

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