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Sheryn Singer: Immaculate Perceptions

Nancy Bromberg: Greetings From the Gallery A-Go-Go

Patrick Duncan: Prayer Shrines

at Aron Packer Gallery, through January 6

In 1988 Chicago's Old Saint Patrick's Church announced an art competition for a depiction of the Virgin and Child, offering a $10,000 prize to the winner. When that piece and the runners-up were exhibited, I went off to look, wondering if it's possible to produce good sacred art in late-20th-century America. I concluded that it isn't easy. The winner, a wispy, almost abstract drawing, wasn't very impressive, and a painting of the Virgin as a fleshy nude in a television-equipped tenement room was no more than amusing because it was so badly painted. The only works that moved me were two that looked like ruined frescoes or decayed paintings. The contest and its results made me wonder whether traditional ideas of the sacred have been lost to our culture.

Now--with a nod to that most secularized of sacred holidays, Christmas--Aron Packer Gallery presents three artists who borrow some of their imagery from religious art. The work is busy, cluttered; it often has the look of an overdecorated pagan idol--say, a Christmas tree. These artists succeed by doing the opposite of what sacred art did: rather than using paint to transcend paint, they revel in their materials, celebrating the physical.

Sheryn Singer's 15 collages combine printed images of saints she bought at garage sales and the like with paper cutouts of flowers intended to decorate scrapbooks. In most of these works flowers and smaller images of saints form an elaborate baroque border around a saint at the center. These kitschy saints--cliched facial expressions, skin painted as if by the numbers--look plastic, sterile. Where Fra Angelico's figures seem liquid, the colors almost mystically transparent in the mind's eye, these sit flat on the page.

Singer, a self-taught Chicago artist who grew up in "a mixed religious neighborhood," comes from a family of nonobservant Jews. As a child she was attracted to the churches in her neighborhood. "I loved all that glitzy stuff," she told me. She walks a fine line here. Throwing saints and flowers together, she makes these junk images seem even more kitschy. Yet her works aren't quite parodies either. The cutouts surrounding the figure in St. Helen are arranged with an obsessive care; it seems Singer actually likes these materials. Red and yellow flowers, echoing colors in Helen's costume, are carefully but not regularly alternated; a figure on one edge is often balanced by a similar figure on the other.

The overall effect is of a carefully tended garden, and the design attains a certain elegance. Overlapping cutouts suggest hidden layers. And the cutouts around Helen that overlap her dress make a kind of shell from which she seems to emerge. Some of the smaller figures are adorned with objects--a plastic heart, a gold star--and Helen's crown is studded with costume jewels. The effect is relentlessly physical, but the whole has an animated, flowering quality. Singer has made kitsch bloom.

Where Singer concentrates on only a few kinds of images, Nancy Bromberg takes the kitchen-sink approach. In her 15 sculptures she uses everything from wooden figures she carves herself to spoons, mirrors, thermometers, coins, beads, and candles. Each piece is bewildering, often humorous. Like Singer, Bromberg revels in excess, piling object on object until the proliferation of things makes its own patterns.

Bromberg worked as a traveling musician--"folk, rock, bluegrass," she says--before settling in Chicago in the early 80s, when she became interested in art. She took a few fiber courses, but mostly she's self-taught, and her carvings have the look of folk figures. Her pieces are generally too cluttered to be seen as unified images, but that's what her work is about: "The treasure hunt," she says. "I love the idea that everything is about the hunt, not necessarily about the goal." An observant Jew as a child, Bromberg abandoned religion in her childhood, when her mother died; later she decided that "I could make up my own religion." Most of her sculptures are shrines to deities of Bromberg's invention. In For the Love of the Hunt a mermaid sits on a cushion in an open box. Mirror fragments inside the box are painted blue up to the level of the cushion, so it seems she's just emerged from a surrounding sea--this piece makes a coherent whole of its mermaid idea.

But many of Bromberg's works are more successful in part than as wholes. It's hard not to like the central carved figure in Hootchie Kootchie Girl, which has round pieces of toys over her breasts and a grass skirt made of string. Above and below her are rows of tiny plastic bathing beauties, many placed inside dessert spoons, "serving themselves up" for the viewer. But other elements--a clock, tiny toy cars--diffuse the figure's effect, and its folk-art style doesn't quite match the gewgaws. Bromberg is obviously influenced by the idea that objects can have magical properties, but her work lacks the incantatory force of a great African fetish object because she chooses amusement and variety over a single effect. Her pieces are mostly just fun.

Like Bromberg, Patrick Duncan makes shrines, four of which are on view here. They borrow their forms from portable folding shrines that traveling preachers used to carry with them. The largest, Prayer Cabinet, when it's closed looks like an odd but staid piece of black furniture. Opening it up, which the gallery staff will help you do, reveals a bit of Bromberg's "treasure hunt" idea, since removing one piece reveals more behind. The top can be opened in two different ways, and the side panels open to reveal fragments of faces painted on them. In the central chamber several pieces, including a gold-painted ziggurat, lift out, revealing that shredded pages from the Bible are attached to the chamber's sides. Most of Duncan's surfaces are covered with found images--art reproductions, anatomical drawings, ads--and thickly smeared paint. A large book on a shelf can be removed, and its pages are festooned with similar designs.

In some ways Duncan's work is the most secular of the three. His messy collages anchor the borrowed images--which include sacred paintings--firmly in the realm of smeared-on paint. Handling each part places the viewer on an equal footing with the work--the opposite of a distanced, reverential approach to a sacred icon. Duncan doesn't see things this way, however. Raised Catholic, he remains a believer. He feels that opening his Prayer Cabinet is "like a pilgrimage. You unfold these doors trying to find God. You don't necessarily find what the answer is....The answer is in moving through this object."

In the early centuries of Christianity, concerted attempts were made to differentiate sacred and secular art. Gregorian chant had no instrumental accompaniment so that the listener could concentrate on the words; saints were painted not in everyday surroundings but against gold backgrounds that represented eternity. The work of Singer, Bromberg, and Duncan, however, looks a lot like other, self-expressive current art--nothing wrong with that, but it makes one wonder whether the earlier tradition of religious art has been lost for good. It hasn't.

Permanently installed in its own room at Washington's National Museum of American Art is James Hampton's The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly, a multipart altarpiece for a religion Hampton invented, though he relied on Judeo-Christian traditions. This African-American janitor made the piece over many years in a garage he'd rented, where it was discovered, apparently not yet completed, only after his death in 1964. Its chairs, tables, and other similar-looking objects are arrayed symmetrically around a throne, and most are covered with gold- or silver-colored foil whose crinkles seem carefully if irregularly arranged to defocus and dematerialize the reflected light. The suggestiveness of these mysterious, oddly designed repetitive forms and the glow that seems to fill the surrounding air convincingly signal the unseen, the unseeable. The viewer feels the presence of something larger than himself, larger than any human being.

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