Veronica

A piece of toasted bread conjuring the image of Jesus, an outline of the Virgin Mary on a rusted highway underpass—the desire to believe in something greater than oneself is an abiding human impulse and is, to some extent, necessary for our survival. Icons, relics, myths and legends all serve this purpose, their power residing in the fact that their validity cannot be substantiated or verified—their power is invested by faith alone—and thus they remain pregnant with redemptive potential. And so it is with Saint Veronica, who, despite her conspicuous absence in historical martyrologies and canonical Gospels, remains dominant in Christian mythology. Memorialized for mopping Christ's brow on the road to Golgotha resulting in a holy imprint of his face on her celebrated veil, she is also revered for curing Emperor Tiberius of a fatal disease and being present at the beheading of John the Baptist.

There is no evidence that such events took place or that Veronica ever existed. In fact, evidence does suggest that Saint Veronica emerged as the result of a mistake or a willful fabrication resulting from the naming of a Holy Relic—a remnant of cloth believed to have the imprint of Christ's face and purported to be one of the oldest and most authentic of its kind. Derived from the Latin term for true, vera, and the Greek word for image, eikon, this, and other similar relics came to be referred to as veron ikon and later shortened to veronica. In time, veronica was falsely understood to be the name of a person—and the legend of Saint Veronica was born.

Over the centuries, such legends and mythologies have fulfilled a need—moral and spiritual guidance in allegorical lessons––and have relied on relics as their proof. However, as traditional mythologies and religions fail us, artists create their own—new moral fables and accompanying relics more fitting for our current times. The all-woman cast of artists in Veronica, concerned with politics, gender, religion and persona, review traditional cultural and political icons and re-craft them for a more contemporary usage.

German artist Nadine Hottenrott utilizes materials and techniques commonly associated with women's craft to neutralize and rehabilitate politically charged figures and symbols. The Cloth (2006-2008) is a white counterpane comprised of crocheted swastikas. Hottenrott, like fellow German artist Rosemarie Trockle, restores the "Hakenkreuz" to an ornamental design motif to question its ability to function outside of its debased Nazi association. As Sidra Stich remarked about Trockle's work, "Meaning is not inherent but historically and contextually conditioned,"1 an issue that Hottenrott explores in all her work. Deutsch (2007-2009), another work referencing Germany's still-troubled national identity and past, takes the form of a seductive, billboard-scaled poster featuring the artist as model. Including a fragment of her chin, shoulder and chest, the photograph focuses on her out-stretched arm on which there is a tattoo of "Deutsch." So direct is the association with serial numbers tattooed on Holocaust victims' arms, it would be easy to read this as an expiation of Teutonic guilt—but Hottenrott is reclaiming Germany from a history in which she played no part. The shame must end somewhere, why not here? By framing the work within the form of corporate advertising, Hottenrott is also remarking on the German brand and all that it continues to signify.

Branding of another kind is explored in Carrie Yury's Suits (2008), a series of ten medium-scale, brightly colored photographic panels resembling color-field abstract painting. On closer inspection, evidence of textured fabric and decorative ornamentation reveal these cheerful, transcendent color swatches to be closely cropped fragments of suits, blown up to extreme proportions. Representing many of the leading women of the recent US presidential election—candidates and otherwise—whose bodies and clothes were subjected to extreme scrutiny and review, these suits, in part, frame our perception of the candidate's ability and potential to do their job. Jewel-like and abstracted, these mesmerizing color panels both neutralize and embellish the automatic judgments associated with these power costumes.

Magic and superstition are irresistible forces, beliefs that provide their own evidence. Eating the heart of one's enemy will imbue one with the strength of the fallen foe. A pilgrimage to Lourdes will provide a miraculous healing. Despite widely available proof to the contrary, such "knowledge" remains a basis of hope and impetus for living. How often have we crossed our fingers or offered up prayers to nameless gods hoping that some act of magic will include us? If our wish comes true, it was because of the fervor of our prayers, if not, we must have corrupted the incantation. Karen Lofgren conjures a world of legend—golden apples, winged sandals and enchanted swords. Her contribution to the museum of magical relics is a bewitching golden chain, each link meticulously gilded and assembled to create a 25-foot sculptural work. Yet this enormous chain is brittle. Made of concrete, it is fragile and incapable of leverage. Sadly impotent, this glamorous object is merely a prop in the theatre of mythos, like a Hollywood body double who stands in for the real star. Joy Whalen's video Samson (2008) also explores the idea of strength and its loss. Unlike the biblical Samson, Whalen's protagonist is a woman and is imprisoned by an austere whitewashed institutional space. Naked, and facing the wall, she struggles with all her might to free herself from the invisible straitjacket that is her skin. Unlike Samson, whose strength returns, Whalen's heroine is destined never to be free.

The relationship between faith and the rarity of an object is deeply troubling, for the market in phony relics flourished long before Walter Benjamin schooled us on mechanical reproduction. Enough shards of the true cross exist to build an entire armada, yet a work of art or devotional object deemed to have curative, miraculous, or mystical properties is inextricably linked to its unique and ritual status. The Rembrandt Research Project, which set out to authenticate or invalidate the many Rembrandts in museums and galleries around the world, is a case in point. The devastating effect on those who possessed fakes was more emotional than fiscal—with the aura of authenticity now gone, the magic was irrevocably destroyed. Artist Shana Lutker plays with this idea in Veil, no.1 (Veronica), no.2 (A Deception), no.3 (Arrested) (2006-2009) a triptych featuring three postcards: "The Veil of Veronica" by 17th century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran; "Venus Rising From the Sea—a Deception" by American painter Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825); and "Arrested for Bribing Basketball Players, New York, 1942," an image by crime-scene photographer Weegee of two men shielding their faces with handkerchiefs. Floating in vast white frames, these cheap reproductions are given iconic status and elevated to the realm of art by virtue of their context and treatment. As no one knows the exact likeness of Jesus (or Veronica for that matter), any image of Christ becomes a placeholder, an empty vessel into which we pour our ideas of divinity and redemption. The two gamblers caught by the press in a 'perp' walk are attempting to channel that same magic and disappear, as if by ascension, but are more like the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, who when discovered exclaims, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

Our moral fables and allegorical tales can be endlessly updated as evidenced by the repeated imagery in Jeni Spota's series of thickly painted panels entitled Giotto's Dream (2008). Inspired by a single tale in film director Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1970 filmic palimpsest of Boccaccio's Decameron (1348), the diminutive yet powerfully evocative works focus on a crisis of faith experienced by a student of Florentine painter Giotto. Each painting recreates a slightly different version of the iconic Last Judgment scene with the Virgin Mary standing between the penitent in Heaven and the debauched who suffer below. The luscious, impasto paint conjures scenes of divine rapture and delirious earthly pleasures, subjects more akin to Hieronymus Bosch than Giotto.

The notion of real and fake and the judgments made against these standards permeate all aspects of our society from anti-immigration fervor—fear of the other—to race and its assimilation—light skin hierarchy—and the subjugation of women—religious mandate—and are ever present in the art world. The current exhibition Elles at the Pompidou Center attempts to redress one of these imbalances by showcasing the work of over 200 women artists, who have been sadly neglected in major collections and institutions throughout the world. In Women to Go (2005), Dutch artist Mathilde ter Heijne restores identities to hundreds of anonymous women who lived between the years 1839 and 1920 in a series of postcard portraits with biographies of famous women printed on the reverse. By pairing the unknown with the distinguished, ter Heijne acknowledges that for centuries the bulk of women's labor has gone unrewarded and that the value placed on individual lives are not equal. Printed in multiple copies and placed on racks, these forgotten women are rehabilitated to role-model status and can be taken away as tokens of strength.

Also dealing with empowerment is Iraqi American artist Rheim Alkadhi whose work No Fly (2001) resembles a variation on a Roman centurion's uniform, tailored for a female warrior. Distressed to suggest a patina of age, the breastplates, sticky with dirt and layers of grime, give way to a full-length skirt of leather strips. Hanging at a short distance behind is the object's shadow—made entirely from thin shreds of leather, and a horse's tail in place of a sword, to be used as a fly swatter. The ghosts of women's past lives are conjured in this erotic, powerful and melancholic matriarch's armor. Living in a Shoe on the Leg of Reason (2009), another work exploring absence and presence, is an upright, life-sized leg wrapped in heavy vintage canvas, striped like an antique prison uniform. By its side is a crude canvas serpent that appears to have swallowed a shoe. Like the remnant of a Devil's Island escapee the dismembered leg resists, better late than never, the snake's total triumph, but the shoe shaped lump in the reptile's belly proves that it is a patient and unrelenting foe.

As the patron of photographers and laundry workers—image-makers and cleaners—it seems fitting to associate Saint Veronica with the artists in this exhibition—their powerful works attempt to re-present and cleanse existing stereotypes and the icons that support them. Unlike Veronica, whose fable of compassion is a lesson in fealty, these artists have created courageous works that interrogate gender, politics, religion and identity issues while freely indulging in the familiar tropes and rituals of ancient myth and magic. The result is a collection of visually compelling works that beguile with formal invention and persuade with thematic wit.

— August 2009

Ciara Ennis
Director/Curator
Pitzer Art Galleries