For some, walking along Lincoln Road in the stifling summer can feel like an eternity in a furnace of unquenchable fire. With its flocks worshiping at the altar of mass consumption and parading surgically enhanced physiques, the only salvation might be a frosty beer at Zeke's Roadhouse.
But for organizers of "The Afterlife," a new exhibit at ArtCenter/South Florida, the lure of eternal rapture is a salve that unites us all — even amid the simmering hedonism of South Beach.
"For most people, regardless of their chosen religion, the goal is ultimately to land in a good spot for all eternity," says Byron Keith Byrd, one of the three artists participating in the intriguing show, which explores notions of the sweet hereafter using iconic religious symbols. "A belief in life after death is the one thing every religion has in common. Personally, I think it has to do with mankind's ego and a desire to see their loved ones again."
Byrd, Alex Heria, and Franklin Sinanan have created a cultural amalgam of contrasting works in diverse media to convey their notions of how faiths — ranging from Judaism to Catholicism, from Buddhism to Islam, even from Santería and vodou — view the great beyond. The works fluctuate from Byrd's cliché-riddled visual puns, to Heria's kitschy depictions of Jesus and the resurrection, to Sinanan's multiculti altar piece riffing on ancestor worship and mysterious spirit realms.
Inside the glass-walled space, Heria's Sweet Jesus anchors the exhibit and is reminiscent of a carnival sign that might be found welcoming true believers at the gates of Heaven. The mammoth installation spells out the words of its title in soaring letters covered in pink glitter. It is surrounded by red and white light bulbs connected to relay switches, casting the sign in a flickering glow that gives the piece a lurid halo effect.
Heria's work is the most polished of the uneven show. The ArtCenter alumnus, best known for his photography, presents several sculptures he created using Swarovski crystals and plasticine statues of Jesus purchased at South Florida botanicas and dollar stores. Heria festoons the religious figurines with bling before placing them in ornate, gold-painted frames typically found in many Hispanic homes.
Heria says his mother, Angela, who passed away in January, often helped him apply the jewels to his Christ sculptures.
"She would tell me, 'Only the best for Jesus,' and lend me the crystals from her notions box," Heria recollects. "My mother would critique the sculptures that were sort of my little take on gay sarcasm and the underbelly of religion." He says before the exhibit opened, he dreamed of his mother calling him "long-distance from el mas aya," the afterlife.
Byrd's mixed-media works, meanwhile, also exude a sense of the gaudy in religion and veer toward the theatrical in their presentation. For example, Religious Trap is made from 312 spring-loaded mousetraps arranged to form a huge Christian cross. Another work, titled Bible Belt, is crafted from a belt nailed to a section of wood, while Thee Crutch is an underarm crutch wrapped in sections of the Hebrew Pentateuch and gold leaf.
Unlike Heria's work, which purposely plays up the kitsch factor of its dollar-store religious iconography, Byrd's stab at taking fundamentalist zealotry to task with irreverent one-liners borders on camp and ultimately falls flat.
Originally from Trinidad and living in Canada before his residency at ArtCenter, Sinanan explores the ritualistic nature of religion in A Life's Journey Altar. It's an eerie installation, chock-a-block with a pastiche of contrasting beliefs.
Sinanan, who refers to himself as an "outsider artist," has created an altar boasting blackened Styrofoam wig heads, African and Buddhist masks, vodou candles, plastic flowers, a wooden rosary, feathers, sundry liquor bottles and offerings, and a plastic slave ship. The discomfiting installation appears not unlike a cross between a Rob Zombie movie set and a Santería shrine.
"We as humans want the afterlife to be true," Byrd intoned on a recent weekday afternoon while installing his artworks on Lincoln Road. "It's life or death's greatest mystery, I think."
Unfortunately for visitors, the trio's work does little to peel back the veil on anything otherworldly. Sinanan's idiosyncratic altar is a prime case in point. The artist, who readily admits "not being too familiar" with the Afro-Caribbean religions he's referencing, juxtaposes imagery as if he were tossing wet noodles at a wall and hoping to see what sticks. The results, much like this show's overall concept, are half-baked at best.
Spectators seeking a more palpable sense of the ineffable should venture a few blocks north to the Bass Museum, where a modest solo show by New York-based artist Charles LeDray instantly transports viewers via powerful works of a profound, contemplative nature.
"Charles LeDray: Bass Museum of Art" marks the artist's first exhibition in Florida and comprises just four works that are both haunting and poetic. Displayed in the museum's second-floor galleries, the works are presented with a meticulous detail that bestows upon them an almost sacred quality, as if they were priceless relics or testimonials to a sense of sorrow or absence.
The gallery's walls have been painted floor-to-ceiling in a flannel-gray hue that heightens the sense of somberness. At the show's entrance, spectators are greeted by a Plexiglas case rising to chest level. Inside is a single shaft of wheat, traditionally thought to symbolize the idea of abundance or love and charity. Yet LeDray's Wheat, illuminated by a spectral pinhole of light cascading from the museum's rafters, is crafted from a human bone and is about the length of a femur.
Down a darkened corridor, visitors reach the next work, Cricket Cage, which is approximately the size of a Band-Aid tin. Also created from human bone and polished like ivory, it too is lighted like a precious artifact.
LeDray, best known for his Lilliputian sculptures of mundane items, displays one of his major opuses in an adjacent room that's as dark as a Gothic cathedral in winter. Men's Suits is an astounding installation painstakingly created over a three-year span. It gives the impression of a thrift shop in a down-at-the-heels rust-belt town anywhere across America — except it's all rendered in a bizarrely tiny scale.
The work is divided into three distinct sections situated throughout the sprawling space. One area features an itsy-bitsy outfit on a mannequin and a round table with dozens of brightly colored neckties fanned out in a circular pattern. A second section features racks full of teeny sports coats and shirts, while a third re-creates a secondhand-clothing sorting area replete with minuscule laundry bins, wooden pallets, a ladder, an ironing board, hangers, and assorted gloves, belts, and T-shirts.
The miniature thrift shops go to the extreme to create a realistic vibe, including shoe-scuffed linoleum flooring and dingy, dust-covered drop ceilings with weak fluorescent lighting. Every garment and fixture is impeccably crafted. As one is forced to bend at the waist or kneel to take in the incredible details of LeDray's remarkable craftsmanship, it's impossible not to marvel at the complexity.
One also realizes the rare gift LeDray possesses to awaken the senses to a new awareness of our existence in the world.