Published in Catalyst Magazine March 2003
“Every Angel is Terrifying”
Frank McEntire and Alex Bigney, with Alex Caldiero, in a Stunning Kimball Exhibit
by Scott Abbott
In the first of the Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke’s persona wonders who would hear him from the ranks of the angels if he were to scream. His thoughts turn immediately to the problematic nature of calling on a “more potent being,” “for every angel is terrifying.” By definition, divinity (or beauty in Rilke’s case), is horrific (a truth we suppress while singing sweet hymns in church or invoking god to save America). This month at the Kimball Art Center in Park City (February 16, 2003—March 24, 2003), two Utah artists, Alex Bigney and Frank McEntire, are exhibiting works under the title “What Cannot be Spoken”; and their works, like Rilke’s elegies, wonder about beauty and divine presence while holding them, warily, at arm’s length.
Consider first several of McEntire’s works, found and constructed objects with reference to LDS, Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist iconography. Alongside the obvious religious devotion McEntire expresses in beautiful pieces like the hanging “Libation,” “Hidden Text,” and “Rice Offering,” a viewer begins to notice in other works that Jesus has been ripped off the cross and lain stiffly on an iron bed (“Rise Up”), he’s been lifted on his back and thrust frontally toward heaven (“Ascension”), he’s been plastered over and then skewered by a sharp rod while standing on an iron grate (“Lightnin’ Jesus”).
The most disturbing of McEntire’s works, perhaps, is “Chicken Feed,” a kind of steel trough set on the floor and filled with communion wafers, round, flat, cross-stamped hosts. As blasphemous, or as pointedly aimed at the blasphemy of venial religion as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” “Chicken Feed” feels like a knee in the groin of organized religion, or (and these multiple meanings abound in this show) it evokes biblical chicks under a wing and the “bread of life,” and our all-too-human frailty dependent on a succoring god. Much depends here on the eye of the beholder.
Still, and always, it’s a terrible god McEntire depicts, profound, comforting, vapid, and dangerous. An installation on the wall near “Chicken Feed” embodies all four aspects: “Visitation From the Divine Other” includes a tin belt-housing with a rectangular hole in the center from which light streams. Mounted above the housing is a white rabbit head, pink eyed and prettily veiled, a white wedding veil that descends over the housing. Looking through the veil, one sees a hand emanating from the wall holding a crucifix. McEntire talks about the divine (m)Other and the rabbit as a symbol of fertility. I see the pink-eyed rabbit head with its shroud as turning its secret into burlesque. Alternately, the guard and the veil protect the viewer against the horrific hand of GOD, so OTHER that it will burn your eyes out.
Like McEntire’s works, Alex Bigney’s seven new paintings, good-sized canvases that glow, numinously, from across the room, meticulously retract the secrets they reveal. These are humble paintings, reverent and devotional and ironic to the core. Beauty is the god invoked here, a terrible and traditional beauty not to be toyed with, but amenable to play and humor and infinite craftiness.
“Incognito” has a hand in the upper triangle with rays streaming around it. Between the hand and the rectangular painting below is a strip with the words
“NON DICE REIL LESE CRITA A BBOCE.”
The inscription in vulgar Latin, Bigney says, was scratched on the wall of a little basilica in the Roman catacombs. The words are broken, the letters spaced to make deciphering difficult. “Don’t say the secret out loud,” is the message. A black bowler hat tops a masked head in profile, revealing blue sky, white clouds, and single feathers within. Is this revelation the secret to the man’s identity? If so, what does it mean? Is it more of the disguise? A statement that we mean even when we hide meaning?
“Cappelleria,” hat store, repeats the profiled head with black hat, but this time the hat is opaque, revealing nothing but itself. Scratched faintly into the paint is the familiar vulgar Latin inscription. At the top of the painting a snake, a real snake, has been gessoed to the canvas. It appears now under layers of paint, visible as form but covered. The bright blue sky around the head is bumpy in places, covering remnants of an earlier version of the painting, announcing subtly that “ceci n’est pas un ciel.” Delicate little human/reptile figures recede and appear from a border surrounding the head.
Bigney paints a canvas, sands it down, paints again, sands it partially, leaving traces under the new paint. It’s an old technique, pentimento (I repent, I’m sorry, I take it back) a painterly palimpsest. What’s the effect of so much layering and disclosing? Hints of a deeper secret? A failed painting announcing itself? A continued reference to the process of painting itself?
Finally, this provocative exhibit I have scarcely hinted at includes twenty-six multimedia drawings: "Said Z," text by Utah poet Alex Caldiero, visual responses by Alex Bigney.
Said Z “I am Zephyr”
“you are Zero” said the Lord –
said Y “I am Youth”
“you are Yoked” said the Lord –
. . .
said D “I am Daybreak”
“you are Doom” said the Lord –
said C “I am Called”
“you are Canceled” said the Lord –
Bigney explores each of the letters visually, composing on paper silkscreened several times with light gesso, affixing letters cut from
Italian block-printed papers. Each drawing includes a border (of real quills sewn to the paper for “Q,” of dino stickers for “D,” of blue cosmos petals for “P”). It’s difficult to convey the craftsmanship evident in these playful and serious works, the meticulous care that went into sewing beads into the black silk around the letter “B” or gathering and wrapping and sewing the tufts of brown hair around the “H.” And it’s hard adequately to depict the playfulness, the willful verbal and visual humor of the compilation of images. These literate drawings ought to be seen, ought to hang in Salt Lake’s new library.
Alex Caldiero performed “said Z” for the audience at the opening reception, and added a poem that brought together Bigney’s obsession with the secrets of beauty and McEntire’s fascination with the secrets of the divine:
-- nonetheless he believes in god . . . the Lord does not respond – he believes in god all the more . . . what’s wrong with this man? How can he be so stupid? He does not know – he has no answer – he is a pure devotee . . . he is god’s stooge – he is god’s baboon. . . .
That would make McEntire, Bigney, and Caldiero the three stooges. It’s a brilliant show.