That voodoo that you do

We’re approaching the time of year when we’re prompted to change our lives by ritual and resolution, and neighboring shows at Sala Diaz and Unit B offer art as inspiration.

Ken Adams’ American Satori/Terra Lucida installation at Sala Diaz pushes a spiritual agenda, a purpose that has at times been given the cold shoulder, and maybe even a hard elbow toward the door, by the art establishment. The first room of the gallery is filled with hyper-saturated digital photo collages that merge psychedelic-looking tree frogs and Tibetan prayer flags, magic mushrooms and bamboo forests, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Bible. But even though some of the images seem to represent the snake oil that pops up in every faith, however secular, these images feel entirely sincere, free of criticism or irony.

A wall-size video projection fills the second room, and you have to view it love-in style from a comfy pallet on the floor (which includes a Guadalupana blanket for good measure). Titled “Terra Lucida (World of Light),” it begins with the voiceover observation “Everything is made of light.” Spirograph curves, a Buddha, Masonic symbols, and images of the prints in the adjoining room spin by like cards, while the voice of the late psychonaut pioneer Terence McKenna evokes a world “where the only laws are the laws of the human imagination,” suggests “astonishment is the proper response to reality,” and promises that we can “leave the monkey body behind … spread our wings.” Sacred laughter occasionally erupts. It’s like a Ginsberg poem without the politics or the sex. Although McKenna invokes eros, and the bed on the floor invites some kind of creative orgy, the tone and omiscient presentation is strictly cerebral. My sacral chakra wasn’t even paying attention, but if it were, I think it would suspect that all the talk of computers and leaving monkey bodies behind signals the birth of another flesh-denying religion.

Although the work is maximalist and contemporary in the extreme — co-opting shamanic and religious traditions from across the globe in a very postmodern mash-up — a recent art-history ancestor can be found in the most expressive of the Romantics and Impressionists, whose work yearned openly and without shame for the sublime. At an emotional and psychological level, this is a show for those for whom The Matrix is more than a movie, who support the Mind Science Foundation for its more adventurous research into transcendent states of being, who welcome Artificial Intelligence as a next-stage evolution. As Adams, who directed the McKenna-narrated Alien Dreamtime, told an interviewer for the Futures Lab website, “We are TECHNOANIMIST that regard our computers as DREAM ALLIES of a new kind, but with ancient precedents.”

But this is also a visually sophisticated show that’s entrancing even if you’re suspicious of pan-spiritual proselytizing or doubt that technology can replace a good batch of psilocybin mushrooms. The digital prints are as gorgeously tactile as pastel drawings, and Adams juggles rich, busy palettes with real authority. These crowded images could easily be so much found-object junk, but instead they present riddles and fractured fairy tales: there’s a Brothers Not So Grimm quality to the entire set, accompanied by an anthropological sensibility which redeems what might otherwise be a hippie trinket hunt.

In one print, a temple entrance is juxtaposed with a modest bungalow that looks to be a world away; recurring colors and patterns suggest that each has been incarnated as a special place. Our favorite Christmas reindeer appears in another image, according to the artist’s note offering himself in place of Abraham’s only son Isaac (whose death at the father’s hands God has demanded as proof of Abraham’s devotion). In another show, this might be a not-so-subtle nudge to cynicism or at least cultural criticism. But in the context of American Satori, I think it’s an invitation to reconsider the transformational power of the fairy tales and myths — no matter how impoverished or sullied by commercialization — we’ve passed along through the generations.

American Satori/Terra Lucida is an expansive, intriguing show, and as the artist suggests, “cardiotonic,” good for the heart, but it may be that I was overchurched as a child or am irredeemably stuck in my monkey body, because I’d rather have an hour alone with Caillebotte’s “Les Raboteurs de Parquet” when I’m looking for intuitive illumination: light playing on a wood floor and the backs of the workers stripping it, a nearly empty room, the bottom of an ornate window screen — the world in a beautiful yet poignant box, no narration required.

Across the road at Unit B, art is again put to work in two of its oldest roles: exorcist and talisman. Painter (and recent Artpace resident) Alex Rubio and David Vega, aka graphic artist Shek, each painted a representation of a personal vice on multiple canvases. In one night, they reassembled their vices as two-man collages, creating mismatched jigsaw puzzles that look like sea creatures and gargoyles out of the corner of my eye.

Vega’s voluptuous, decorative filigree contrasts almost unworkably with Rubio’s signature coils of paint, which flow like motor oil. Although they both stuck to the gray scale, Vega’s images are starkly contrasted, like India-ink drawings, while Rubio’s layered shades of pigment are more muted. The show is in many ways a big tease: these artists’ chief strength is narrative, and at the closing, 3-5 p.m. January 3, the original images will be reassembled (accompanied by vodka and hotdogs). The silver lining? Faced with fractions, the viewer is forced to study, and appreciate, each artist’s considerable technique.

Vega’s sure hand is one moment elegant, the next raw, but always precise and powerful. On one canvas, a brute claw protrudes from stylized foliage suitable for a tapestry, setting up a timeless clash between civilization and man’s appetite for destruction and self-destruction. The designs also suggest henna body art inscribed to ward off a personal demon or to focus resolve.

Rubio’s creation of three dimensions and hyper-real landscapes with densely layered ribbons of paint will be familiar to any fan of Van Gogh or Munch, but at his best — as in the “Locust” diptych on view at Blue Star this summer — the technique is all his own. The medieval roots in his subject matter have become even more pronounced (or maybe just more noticeable) since he presented his interpretation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the McNay in 2006, and the subject here certainly lends itself to spiritual struggle, so I’m eager to see the final resolution. But I miss the color in his work, especially as he has developed a language that is equal parts expressionist, Gothic, and street. •


Ken Adams:
American Satori/Terra Lucida
9pm Fri, Dec 5
& by appt.
Through Dec 15
Sala Diaz
517 Stieren
(210) 852-4492

Smoke and Mirrors
3-5pm Sat & by appt.
Through Jan 3
Closing reception: 3-5pm Sat, Jan 3
Unit B (Gallery)
500 Stieren
(312) 375-1871

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