The Weight of Words: The Mechanics of Fundamentalism in the sculpture of Lauren Grossman
I Told You So, Lauren Grossman’s current exhibition of sculptures based on the words of Old Testament prophets at Howard House is as insightful as it is unsettling. Continuing a body of work that began with brilliant “mechanical metaphors” for the transformational qualities of Christ’s body within the framework of Christian metaphysics, the current show picks up where her 2006 exhibition Not Consumed left off: continuing a shift away from an emphasis on sculptural entities made of figural references to religious statuary in favor of objects built out of the words of the prophets themselves.
The idea of material objects being composed of language is at least as old as the writings of Heraclitus on the Logos and has entered the Christian canon by way of the Gospel of John. Indeed, 20th century developments ranging from the discovery of the four-letter language of DNA to the creation of virtual universes from zeroes and ones underscore the continued potency of the Logos as a metaphor today. But Grossman’s conversion of physical language into these ramshackle, rusting word-heaps undermines, in some sense, the spirit of Heraclitus: while his Logos is the language of a universe in flux, constantly dreaming itself into more complex manifestations of physicality, the words of the prophets as rendered by Grossman are static certainties.
The comparison with contemporary American Fundamentalist Christianity is obvious. I had to miss her artist talk at Howard House, so I won’t speculate as to the full extent of the artist’s intention, however one critic has called Grossman’s work an exploration of “religious fanaticism.” But as a 2006 article by Jen Graves indicates, for Grossman it is not as simple as being a smug secularist taking potshots at the worst kind of religious expression. “My God is older than Christianity” the artist told Graves. “I would not say I believe in intelligent design, but I would say there’s something organizational out there.”
Such sentiments echo, as much as anything, the attitudes of prophets themselves. Like empirical scientific inquiry, the art of prophecy relies upon the assumption that there is more to any given fragment of physical reality than meets the eye. Prophecy is the act of translating into communicable terms information gleaned in an intentionally or spontaneously induced altered state of consciousness—or, as we in the West have called it throughout Christian history—”revelation.” Today the notion that such a thing is even possible is much contended in our society, and yet for non-western cultures the world over (whose old ways have not yet been annihilated by colonialism, evangelism and globalization) it continues to be a primary avenue of the discovery of new knowledge. It is my opinion that the rigid scientific positivism that makes possible the wholesale denial of intuitive systems of discovery is itself the residual product of the dualistic Judeo-Christian mind that would seek to denounce (or condemn to eternal damnation, no less!) any and all paths to knowledge outside its own. Interestingly, there is currently a trend of defection from this positivist view among respected scientists, especially within physics and cosmology.
Scientists have already begun the work of illuminating the physiology of the experiences reported by mystics, shamans and prophets with some success. The trickier task still is, as it has always been, that of the prophet: how does one go about communicating those slippery insights to the unseeing masses who are either unable or disinclined to have visions of their own? One might as well aspire to describe the color subtleties of a sunset to someone who’s been blind from birth, and yet this is precisely the task with which we charge our artists.
Lauren Grossman self-identifies as an agnostic, which I suppose is where we all end up when we leave our inflexible rust-heaps of certainty behind for the ever-adaptable humility of those three magic words: “I Don’t Know.” Yet as Jen Graves notes, viewers often have a hard time knowing how to interpret Grossman’s work. Whether they identify themselves as religious or secular, they feel the need to make the artist one of their own, reading her references as either affirmative or critical of Christianity as they perceive it. At risk of doing the same thing myself, I will say that I suspect the difficulty many viewers have with Grossman’s work stems from an over-arching cultural inability to read the many shades of gray (not to mention all the wonderful colors!) between literal belief and dogmatic non-belief.
To me, the labor-intensive devotion Lauren Grossman applies to her unorthodox embodiments of prophetic visions demonstrates her belief in the power of material transcendence. Therefore I refuse to see her word-heaps as critiques on spiritual ways of seeing. If they are critiques at all then they are admonishments against all the literalism in all of us—both religious and secular—that would make us seek to disparage a vision, prove a poem false, or mistake our own lack of seeing for evidence against the Thing-We-Don’t-See.
Lauren Grossman’s “I Told You So” is on exhibit at Howard House through November 1.