Sunday, September 21, 1986

“IN SEARCH OF THE DEEPER MEANING”

By Helen A Harrison

In many cultures, art is closely linked to religious and social practice and the artist’s role is to celebrate the significance of those beliefs and customs. In American society, however, where individual initiative has replaced collective responsibility and faith is more often a matter of personal conscience than of communal acceptance, the material aspects of art – its style, its size, its price tag – have come to dominate our perception of its meaning and value.

Yet there are still numerous artists whose work reflects the ancient impulse to communicate on a spiritual level. To do so in a relevant way they must reconcile the reality of modern life with their desire to invest art with a deeper, more profound and more universal meaning.

“Myths and Rituals for the 21st Century,” the current exhibition at the Islip Art Museum, examines this trend in a variety of forms, from individual art objects to installations created especially for this occasion, and performances, either actual or documented. This project, perhaps the most complex and challenging so far in the museum’s consistently provocative program of contemporary shows, demonstrate the affirmative, life-enhancing role some artists have chosen as an alternative to both materialism and alienation.

Symbols play an important part in each artist’s personal repertory of imagery, yet none are so arcane as to be inaccessible to the viewer. In fact, if their imagery did not strike some chord of recognition beyond the bounds of the artist’s own psyche they would be out of touch with the very spiritual energy they seek to tap. The pieces relating to ritual are at once the most compelling and the most conceptual, because although the rituals involve human action, interaction and reaction, what we see in the gallery are for the most part records of past events…

… Alex Grey’s performance pieces involve more overly narrative symbolism. In “Burnt Offering,” for example, fragments of religious texts were burned and the ashes mingled to unify divergent beliefs via the all-consuming medium of fire. This and other performances are documented in color photos with explanatory captions.

Mr. Grey’s paintings, as detailed and anatomically accurate as medical illustrations, present man as an archetypal being struggling toward cosmic unity. In his large triptych, “Journey of the Wounded Healer,” a male figure, exiled from distant earth, literally explodes in the vacuum of space. To achieve renewal, he travels along the evolutionary spiral to be reincarnated as a benevolent healer, emanating rays of enlightenment. Mr Grey’s vision of a flawed but perfectable mankind stands as an antidote to the cynicism and spiritual malaise prevalent in much of contemporary art…