Scouring local flea markets and garage sales for unusual objects to incorporate into art, I was struck by the inordinate number of plastic and ceramic “chotchkes” I encountered. Bunnies, unicorns, angels, Madonna’s, Santa’s, etc., were found in abundance, and bought and collected for more than a year. My fascination with these objects, and the people who collected them, resulted in “Graven Images”, a large-scale installation that debuted March 29th at The Space in Eureka Springs.
“Graven Images” examines man’s innate need to create icons, and the cultural effects modern day idolatry plays in society, by exploring the spiritual, emotional and commercial responses evoked by these archetypal motifs”.
Graven Images – a review published in the Eureka Springs Independent the April 4, 2013 issue by Lucilla Garrett
“Graven” is the past participle of “grave,” which means serious. In the case of John Rankine’s show at The Space, “Graven Images” should have been taken seriously. This is true, despite the fact that it was chock full of cheap novelties that some resisted as schmaltz best tossed.
Yet these “discards” revealed much about the consumer pursuit of happiness, pursuing the age-old question of why does culture embrace and reject objects or icons?
Introduced with Exodus 20:4, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” underneath the quotation sat gold figures of the Virgin Mary, an Easter egg, Santa, Buddha, an angel – objects symbolizing reverence.
Across the gallery was glistening gold, as far from the Shroud of Turin as one could travel. Endless objects were grouped like shrines in a mall department store, dime store icons forming seasonal displays.
A 1960’s aluminum Christmas tree, complete with rotating floor light, was layered with gold ornaments. This “home” version reminded that decorating in December is perpetuating a representational legacy.
A towering gold Santa with wrapped packages reflected capitalism. Who has not fallen victim to marketing wizards who sell comfort and joy? Cynical, perhaps, but the joyous mountings made one wonder. That contradiction persisted.
The heavenward angel display was dense with figurines, from Hummel to Precious Moments – running the gamut like wedding cake rosettes. Kitsch, yes, but so was an innate understanding of cushioning for life’s travails.
A sky-high stack of snowmen, a “snow-totem,” stood like ascending Russian dolls. Nearby was a punch bowl of blue water, marking “melting” as the natural sequence – the death to elaborate efforts and man, but also as beautiful.
Another corner held a garden trellis dotted with church ornaments. Kneeling within was the Virgin Mary, acknowledging the desire for sacred places.
A salute to the front yard was epitomized with a collection of plastic Santas forming a winning Christmas competition. Most were interior-lit, itself a metaphor to the ancient notion of light-bearing. Candy canes faced inward forming hearts topped the scene. Love exists, even in plastic excess.
Easter was filled busily with bunnies and colored eggs, outlined with ubiquitous plastic grass. Renewal was conveyed as energizing.
Deliberately, the enticing bunny at the opening was the gorgeous Lila Stiger, serving chocolate, along with the reminder that people can be challenging icons, too.
In one window was a “peep show,” with chick confections looking toward actual emblem patches of the Eureka statue. Through their card backs, Jesus across town was visible. Clever was this immediacy, bringing reverence to the neighborhood.
The entire show sprouted another contradiction with the work by others arranged to become another’s. Yet, success was garnered by amplifying the known, in treasured and dismaying terms, to evoke emotion.
The need for objects to satisfy and fuel myths and truths was anything but subtle. It could be viewed as a celebration of sales, as well as a confirmation that icons assuage a quest for meaning. That most were secondhand scruffy didn’t matter.
Are these graven images? Can a plaster angel inspire one to jump instantly to mystical, sustaining splendor? Perhaps it is the viewer’s receptivity. Icons are indelibly cast as proponents of goodness, even if steps removed. Is a plastic Santa the generosity of spirit or getting toys?
Explaining the illusive is an artistic tradition. Rankine adventurously explored this in a whimsical, incisive manner. The artist, wearing pink hair and a Santa fur-trimmed top, opted to be a part. This “graven” poked holes in solemnity, yet respected each “image.”
This presentation pushed one to see beyond. On Easter weekend, when resurrection ignites, a show of recycled objects sought to rise above the tattered and commercial by displaying it. In a compassionate approach, Graven Images was a homily, carrying an enduring message that objects are limited but inspiration is not.
That message was as powerful as many heard last Sunday.