Not only to see, but to encounter.
In the theology of the icon in Orthodox Christian tradition, one beholds a holy image not solely for the sake of moral or spiritual education. The icon is understood as a channel, a door, through which one looks into a sacred dimension, and by which one may encounter the sacred coming into our world from that other place. This communication, between our world and another, is more than a passage of the spiritual through a material work of art. The icon is an incarnation, the fulfillment of the physical and human through the presence of the divine in it.
In “Iconic”, artist Kris Neely gathers multiple artistic and cultural traditions to create sarcastic, splintered, holy images in which the sacred stands among us.
Neely presents monumental images of heroes–artistic, cultural, religious. He deploys recognizable artistic conventions–enlarged, pixelated, duplicated, printed photos of celebrities and stars, in the tradition of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Shepard Fairey–in what first appears as social commentary on fame and success.
But Neely has entered into his images, tearing them apart and reassembling them to create innumerable fractures in these beautiful and compelling faces. Painted, marked, nailed, assembled, layered on actual doors, raw plywood, found material, and discarded paintings by friends and colleagues, the works are massive collages. Built from multiple sources and orchestrated by Neely, the works express the collective foundation of famous imagery. But they are far more. Intimate, vulnerable gestures characterize the images he has chosen, and his work of tearing, organizing, cutting, trimming, and painting enhances the sense of fragility in these large pieces. A spirit of care and veneration pervades the work. But too, a sense of the ridiculous–of both scale and subject matter–balances the risk of too much religious piety or social critique, and has the effect of disarming the viewer and enhancing the seriousness of the encounter with these powerful, broken, watching people.
To push this sobering humor even further, Neely has placed opposite the large works a wall of miniatures. Composed of salvaged photographs of unnamed people, small assemblages of faceless silhouettes on machine hardware, and burning portraits of both too-famous and violently-marginalized artists, these pieces speak of the beauty and ridiculousness of us all, and the terrible power ignored in each of us when we do not achieve success by other’s standards. There is a violence in these pictures. In contrast to their large, pop-art siblings opposite them, these smaller works bear the traces of a probing German tradition of painting in which photorealism and expressionism efface one another, deepening the inaccessibility of the subject. The marks of Paul Klee, Gerhard Richter, and Anslem Kiefer are here. These portraits of the unknown and abandoned, humble when first noticed, menace the show with an accusing factuality. They are real; they cannot be denied.
The combined power of these images–large and small, cliche and obscure, religious and economic, reproduced and handcrafted, steeped in multiple artistic traditions sometimes in conflict with one another–both stills and overwhelms. Neely has created a space of sideways humor and sincere reverence, of threat and peace.
In “Iconic”, Neely offers an encounter with the sacred, that beauty and power within us all, evident in the saints and heroes and lost ones we revere; and the smoldering question the sacred requires all of us to answer: what will become of it in us?
New Works by Kris Neely
Martha Cloud Chapman Gallery
Campus Life Building
September 1-October 15, 2014
Artist Talk & Reception: Friday, September 5, 4-7 pm