Four shows opened at La Luz de Jesus last night, Friday December 6, 2013: “Babel” by Bruce Eichelberger; “Let’s Get Lost” by Jennifer Jelenski; “Furry Tales by Juan Muniz; and “Altered States” by Krystopher Sapp.
Each artist had two walls in the gallery. “Babel” and “Altered States” featured impossibly tiny and/or elaborate compositions in the first room. The muted tones of Sapp’s dioramas and Eichelberger’s mixed media creations perfectly complimented each other. Armed with jeweler’s glasses and fine tip tweezers, Sapp collects, sculpts, paints and assembles intricate micro-cities. Eichelberger carves, burns and inks epic and obscene designs mostly on wood.
Passing from the first room of the gallery into the second room where Jelenski and Munizs’ brightly hued acrylic series were hung was like being uprooted from dreary Kansas into gaudy Oz. Though neither artist is Asian, both have been heavily influenced by Asian aesthetics. Jelenski’s latest works incorporate the structure of the mandala and the symbol of the dragon. Muniz grew up in Mexico watching anime cartoons and his splashy pastels are cute overload.
The shows were distinctive in style and technique. But through conversations with the artists, it becomes clear that all four series came out of a meditation on suffering.
“Babel” showcases the most extreme examples of suffering. If you peer into the porthole on the forehead of Eichelberger’s horse skull Ilan, you’ll see a disturbing scene of small wood carved figures enduring torture including crucifixion. Eichelberger explained that this scene originated from his scorn and disgust of the centuries of misdeeds of the Catholic Church. As he worked through those feelings with this inner chamber scene, he found himself musing on other evils on the outside of the skull.
One of the most striking details on the outside of the skull depicts a woman being eviscerated by a skeleton wearing a Plague Doctor mask. She faces backwards with closed eyes. Though though her legs trail behind her grotesquely connected with stretched and exposed tendons, she assists those working on her by peeling the skin off her own buttocks. She’s complicit in this undoubtedly fatal and brutal rape. Are we the authors of our own suffering?
Interestingly, the wooden structure that the skull emerges from has a door as well as a porthole, and strongly suggested the form of Noah’s ark. Of course in the story of Noah, Noah must build an ark to save innocent creatures from a flood God uses to purge the Earth. Eichelberger’s ark is more of a ship of follies. Perhaps it’s a collection of all of the horrors we as a civilization need to cast off.
In contrast, Sapp’s series “Altered States,” explores the aftermath of suffering. His micro-worlds have been ravaged. Vestiges of industry and man-made religion resist toppling over and being disintegrated by creeping rust. In Bethlehem, for instance, pipes rise out of the ground and lead to nowhere, suggesting a dystopia reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But throughout the whole series the mutations on the human faces, the squid tentacles strangling a grenade and especially the wispy plants emerging suggest that Mother Nature is taking back her world. Sapp admitted that the series mused on transition as he fought with his own period of depression. The series represents a departure from his previous few shows which focused more on human violence.
At first glance, Muniz and Jelenski’s paintings seem too happy and cartoon-ish for the theme of suffering. But it’s the layering of cute with dark undertones that makes these works resonate and gives them value beyond the cute genre.
Apart from the bleeding hearts that have been ripped out of Muniz’s bunny’s chest, the titles give away the fact that life for bunny is not always easy. You Don’t Deserve It, Sometimes Sorry Just Isn’t Enough, and Out of Reach all speak to struggle. Muniz explained that he named the bunny Felipe, in honor of a younger brother who was lost before birth. Muniz has always carried the memory of his younger brother as a guardian angel and companion. He hopes that the bunny character can have that power for fans that need to be uplifted.
A fan that has dedicated her life to caring for her paraplegic brother inspired Muniz’s painting, Heart on My Sleeve. Though many would see a responsibility like that as an unacceptable burden, she feels that it gives her life purpose and fills her with love.
In the same way that Muniz hopes viewers will respond to Felipe, Jelenski populates her works with cute woodland creatures to give voice to the powerless members of society. They represent a call for more compassion. The complex layers that are her signature reflect the complexity of life.
There’s a naivety to Muniz and Jelenski’s work and a heavier, weary feeling to Eichelberger and Sapp’s work. But these accomplished artists all demonstrate the importance of encouraging unique voices in the art world to contribute to the discussion of existential questions.
While the common thread in all of the shows was an expression of hardship, the artist reception was an exuberant affair. Energy in the galleries was celebratory and communal. Other artists in attendance included Luke Chueh, Christopher Ulrich, Stefanie Vega and Dr. Paul Koudounaris, who is also a CARTWHEEL contributor.
All four shows will remain up at La Luz de Jesus through December 29.
top image: Bruce Eichelberger stands next to his mixed media sculpture, Ilan
More detail of Ilan