LA Expanded

Burnt Church and Other Sacrilege

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Banks Violette, "Untitled (Church)," 2005

I have a checkered brown and white shirt with sleeves and a collar that looks like something Ashton Kutcher would have worn in That ’70s Show. I still wear it, though I bought it at a thrift store when I was in high school. I had written a play about U.S. college students trying to find their true selves in the years right after the Vietnam War and devoted weeks to finding vintage or faux-vintage, orange, green, brown and denim clothing. I also found a vintage record player, which was playing The Beatles’ “Golden Slumber,” from Abbey Road, when the protagonist offed herself at the end of Act I (Act II was all about her friends coming to terms with her death, and, of course, about finding faith in the face of despair and other such sublime ideas).

Friends and I staged the play in a sanctuary because my father was a minister and the church was the closest thing to a theater we had at our disposal. The suicide took place at the altar. We’d covered a pew with cushions and blankets to make it look like a couch, and that’s where the poor actress was, spread out with hand hanging limply toward the floor, when her roommates emerged from the sacristy to find her dead. It didn’t seem sacrilegious at all, suicide and The Beatles on the altar, since, really, the whole play was about hope, despair, belief, disbelief — all concerns that are supposed to get hashed out at altars, right?

A new exhibition of Banks Violette’s opened at Blum & Poe gallery in Culver City last week, which, like his past shows, grapples with over-belief and explores the place where reverence and sacrilege meet. Violette’s exhibition features big black steel speedway railings and the number 88 sculpted and drawn, after race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. who drives the No. 88 car, whose father died in a Daytona 500 accident 11 years ago, and who has been voted “Most Popular Driver” for 9 years now.  The sculptures have the same minimalist stoicism of the sculpture he installed at the Whitney seven years ago, a salt-covered, burn-wood and polyurethane skeleton of a  traditional church. “It’s almost the platonic representation of burnt church,” said Violette, whose piece was informed by a series of church arsons perpetrated by heavy metal fans who took the Satanic musings in their music as clarion calls.

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Nikki Pressley, The Messiah is Forthcoming, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable

Even though it depicted the ruins of a sacrilegious crime, Violette’s burnt church felt nearly reverent. It acknowledged that religion, like music (and art) had power over us and it set up religion, pop, and fine art to interact on the same level. Another piece that I saw this week, by Nikki Pressley in the group show “Go Tell it On the Mountain” at Charlie James Gallery, has a similar effect. It’s an installation of six narrow communion railings  with cushions for kneeling set up around a platform that says “The Messiah Is Forthcoming,” and laid in front of the railings are theoretical books. Among them are writings by Frantz Fanon, the incisively combative post-colonialist, who ended his book Black Skin, White Masks with this exquisitely reverent, hopeful line that’s more or less the message of Pressley’s sculpture: “My final prayer: O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”

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