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Catastrophic Kitsch

The events of September 11, 2001, seem to have become Debra Holt's obsession. Cynics might even say she's trying to cash in on the tragedy. Since 9/11, the artist and owner of Abba Fine Art has been squirreling away newspaper clippings, photographs, and memorabilia she associates with the event —...
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The events of September 11, 2001, seem to have become Debra Holt's obsession. Cynics might even say she's trying to cash in on the tragedy.

Since 9/11, the artist and owner of Abba Fine Art has been squirreling away newspaper clippings, photographs, and memorabilia she associates with the event — all of which are on display in "Cathartic," an exhibit Holt is opening this Saturday in advance of the sixth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Those who visited Holt's space this time last year will recognize the new show as "9/11 Revisited," as it was called in its initial incarnation. In fact that exhibit has never come down; it has merely been rejiggered and renamed in the hopes Holt can hijack a different audience. "I would like to get the show up in New York. More people need to see it," she says.

In its genesis, her show featured a Ground Zero Wall, a Heroes Wall, a Scream & Signs of the Flag Wall, a Prayer Wall, and a Grief Wall. These all remain intact, and are supplemented with a Hope, Renewal & Move Forward Wall. One prays it will inspire her to let go.

At first blush, the exhibit crashes on the senses like the relentless waves of media coverage that followed the catastrophe. Viewers today might feel just as numb as they did six years ago.

Withered flowers, pictures of the dead, yellowed headlines, and countless candles scattered throughout the space are reminiscent of the vigils held in 9/11's wake, enhancing the show's oppressive air. Once each individual section of the exhibit is engaged, the overtly maudlin presentations hemorrhage the intended impact and give the impression Holt is clutching at conceptual straws. Taken together, the artist's shrines appear to be a scrapbooking project gone awry.

The problem is that because of 9/11's magnitude, no one is unfamiliar with the event. Rather than addressing its aftermath — the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, or the scandal at Abu Ghraib, for example — Holt concentrates on twanging the heartstrings by honing in on the nation's suffering.

Add to the muddle of displayed documentation and ephemera her pre-9/11 paintings, and the tragedy appears to become a vehicle for the artist to sneak her work out under the guise of coming to terms with a national crisis.

In the Ground Zero segment, a three-foot-long loaf of sand nestles on the floor, against a wall with the words ground zero spelled out in shattered glass. Above it two digital prints depicting glowing swirls of flames symbolize the Twin Towers at the moment the planes struck them. Nearby, one of Holt's abstract oil-on-wood-panel triptychs, lubricated in the same lurid hues as the fiery pictures, leans against the wall. Underneath the painting a bushel of rotting roses covers the floor.

The Heroes portion was created in homage to the 343 New York firefighters who perished in the rubble of the World Trade Center. A wall clock has been stopped at 9:02:59 a.m., the precise moment of the second plane crash. Under it a pillowcase-size fragment of burlap, painted in a black-and-white abstract pattern, bears the words fallen world. Newspaper articles covering the rescue efforts adorn the walls. An El Nuevo Herald story, printed September 12, 2001, compares the attack to Pearl Harbor.

At the center of the installation, Holt has pinned photos of FDNY members who died on 9/11 inside a large wooden frame draped with sheer purple fabric and Old Glory. In front of it is a waist-high table capped with an antique fireman's helmet. The table's drawer is open and stuffed with a decaying floral bouquet and a postcard bearing the image of a praying FDNY official. An old horse-drawn fire engine toy, placed on the floor in front of the display, amps up the cheese.

The Grief Wall, which allows visitors to leave comments about 9/11 on three large raw canvases, is interesting. It's an improvement over the dishwater patriotism and overly bubbly spirituality peddled elsewhere in the exhibit, and is the only reflection of the national mood regarding the Iraq War and the Bush administration's post-9/11 conduct. "Dying 4 oil," "We're Bushed," "9/11 inside job," and "Fuck Bush" read some of the reactions. Unfortunately Holt attempts to gussie up the installation with a dollop of cornpone, hanging prints of Michelangelo's studies for The Crucifixion, crowned with painted seashells, between the gritty canvases.

On an adjacent wall, two sweeping canvases echoing Edvard Munch's The Scream, engulf the spectator. Holt's paintings are part of an installation featuring a wall papered floor-to-ceiling with Miami Herald, New York Times, and USA Today articles about 9/11 and its anniversaries. In front of the newspapers, an American flag and three paintings on old curtain panels hang from the rafters. One has to navigate behind these curtains — which are scrawled over with phrases such as "broken vanities," "bloody nightmare," and "worthless years" — to read the newspaper articles. In addition, Holt has inverted the flag in the way it is usually draped as a pall on a war veteran's casket.

Walking through the exhibit, one can't help but become curious about Holt's motivation for the project and why she has felt compelled to keep the show up so long and retool it. A serious dealer would never allow space for such a display. One also wonders whether Holt or her family was directly affected by the tragedy.

She explains she wasn't but that a brother-in-law, who is a firefighter, assisted in the post-9/11 recovery efforts. She also informs that while studying at New York's Pratt Institute, she worked as a temp, often at stock brokerage firms inside the World Trade Center.

Given that information, one is mystified by the macabre nature of another installation, where visitors can offer prayers for civilian victims of 9/11. In it one of her older abstract oil-on-canvas triptychs doubles as "Heaven's gate" and brackets an antique chair on which sit a rosary and a small book titled The Great Love Feast in Heaven. A huge gold crucifix and symbols of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity pepper the wall behind the chair as an entreaty for people of all faiths to unite peacefully. Her religious icons are festooned in a black shroud. Running across the length of the wall, above the heavy-handed display, the faces of the nearly 3000 victims of the attack peer down at the viewer.

Holt ratchets up the creep factor with a nearby "memory table," on which she has gathered photos of 9/11 victims culled from the Internet and placed them in standing picture frames, as if mourning deceased relatives. Her morbid arrangement is decorated with seashells, sand dollars, animal figurines, porcelain roses, and silver crucifix candelabra.

Riffing on renewal, the new section of Holt's cockeyed opus concentrates on manipulated digital imagery. Some of these works depict praying virgins or flowers floating behind waterfalls. One features the sword-pierced Sacred Heart in a nest of white roses; a halo of fire surrounds the garish image.

As a potential crowd magnet for Holt's resurrection, local artist Jasmine Kastel will appear for a one-time opening-night performance this Saturday. She will push a bucket on her hands and knees in the gallery space during The Cleansing. In the piece, Kastel says, she will mop the floor with her hair in an act symbolic of purging and beginning anew. Let's hope she can entice Holt to find salvation.

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