Willem de Kooning stepped outside, looked up at the stars briefly, and then told his wife, "Let's go back to the party. The universe gives me the creeps." Contemporary secular Americans like to believe that science puts us in control, although that jaunty confidence depends in part on our knowing, like de Kooning, where not to look. Premodern artists believed instead in myth and religion — outworn creeds these days (and thankfully so, after our millennial debacle) — but were able to look penetratingly at aspects of life that we shun as "depressing." Such traditional magical thinking also inspired, we should remember, for all its follies, abuses, and crimes, sublime art like Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes, which a certain Dutch-American painter admired as "perhaps the greatest thing ever done."
San Francisco painter Eva Bovenzi finds the religious art of old Europe more simpatico than the conceptual-based art of third-millennium America. Her Messenger oil paintings at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union depict what appear to be mechanical wings, membranes supported by ribs or struts, splayed on horizontal and vertical canvases that have been butted together, forming L shapes. The Greek word for messenger is angelos, and these irregular diptychs invoke the divine intermediaries of past religious art. With their subtle shades of purple and rose, and their glints of silver and gold, Bovenzi's seraphic images invoke, respectively, the magic, transformative hours of dawn and dusk and the eternal stasis of heaven; they're about becoming an eternal being.
Overt spirituality in art these days, however, is an anomaly. Most contemporary artists are skeptics, and whatever raptures or epiphanies they experience are accounted as purely biochemical; the old idea that art should or could inspire moral uplift now seems laughably naive. Bovenzi shows us, accordingly, not the semidivine winged messenger of a religious age, but bits of wreckage salvaged from ornithopters like Leonardo's, ironically adorned with clouds, celestial bodies, and cartographic meridians. Bovenzi's wing paintings symbolize the elevation and extension of human consciousness and also warn of hubris — Icarus' crash into the Aegean seen through an abstract, modernist, skeptical (but somewhat nostalgic) temperament. Bruce Nauman declared ironically in a 1967 neon sculpture that "The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths." Did we fly too high or too low? Through June 15 at Graduate Theological Union (Hewlett Library, 2400 Ridge Rd., Berkeley). GTU.edu or 510-649-2400.
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