Showing through December 18
By Jeffrey Bussmann
Are there many things more laden with symbolism than Crux (or the Southern Cross), and its underlying antecedent, the Holy Cross? Even if we rule out Christian references, the constellation still calls to mind dozens of cultural and national touchstones. The gallery notes to Grizzly Grizzly’s show Southern Cross acknowledge some of these meanings by nicking facts about the Southern Cross verbatim from its Wikipedia entry. The best known among them is arguably the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, which I inevitably skip anytime iPod shuffle mode kicks it on, classic rock radio having long ago beaten it to death. Perhaps just as recognizable to us is the Foster’s lager label, regardless of any given drinker’s ability to tell you what the stars mean.
But really, what claim does anyone living in the Northern Hemisphere have to the Southern Cross? It is prominently enshrined in the flags of Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa. Those who live under its night-sky watch are the guardians of its weighty significance. The constellation has deep personal meaning in my life, related to time spent in South America, but my relationship to it is will always remain that of a transient visitor.
Basing a gallery show on the Southern Cross offers wide-ranging freedom, but is just as fraught with potential pitfalls, which are not simply limited to the loaded theme, but also the inherent hazards of mounting a thematic show. The best thing about the execution is that it has everything to do with the form of the Southern Cross, but almost nothing to do with narrowly interpreting its meaning. The placement of the five works on display mirrors the position of the constellation’s five stars. An immutable idiosyncrasy of Grizzly Grizzly’s space is the support beam that roughly bisects the east gallery wall. Viewing the room from above would reveal a layout that approximates the Southern Cross, taking the four walls and the column as the constellation’s points (just flip the cardinal directions because in this show the Southern Cross actually points North). In this regard, the show fits cleverly within the gallery footprint.
The top of the cross is Matthew Fisher’s painting of a lonely cluster of grass blades sprouting on a deserted beach. Two of the blades are bent in opposite directions at right angles to resemble the form of the cross, while a stray blade lassos the setting sun—a star itself, as we often forget. The work hints at human search for simulacra in the natural world. The Southern Cross (or any constellation) is a prime example of symbolism assigned long ago to a completely arbitrary combination of heavenly bodies.
On the opposite wall, Patrick Brennan uses accreted material and paint to uncover multiple crosses. Many of them are equilateral: the green ones calling to mind the ubiquitous neon signs of European pharmacies, while the pink ones vaguely reminded me of the Red Cross. Overlaid popsicle sticks mimic more elaborate double-bar crosses. Among the controlled chaos of layered paint, my eye still pinged directly to what it could recognize, that is, each instance of a cross.
The left branch of the cross is Chris Moss’s curveball-titled March Madness Sale. In it a strand of colorful flags winds around a wooden beam. Were they square, they could be Tibetan prayer flags; but they are more like the plastic variety one might see strung over the lot of a used car dealership. Five superimposed white dots form the shape of the constellation. The curved wood is meant to suggest a ship, tying in the historical use of stars for navigation. It also encompasses ideas of exploration and trade—it was the Portuguese who rediscovered the Southern Cross on their first voyage to Brazil (the original name of which was Vera Cruz or “True Cross”).
To the right, Rob Matthews offers the most literal rendering of a cross, wherein a makeshift grave marker has been driven into the dirt before a tree trunk. This could be one of the roadside memorials that designate the site of a deadly crash. Below the crucifix, several empty beer cans, perhaps some poured out to commemorate the departed, indicate recent activity in the area. But the scene is dark and desolate, leaving us to imagine what happened there. In both Moss’s and Matthews’s works, the inclusion of wood also made me think of the True Cross and the power believers find in relics.
Stacy Fisher, with the only freestanding piece of the bunch, is situated as the off-center anchor of the constellation. Composed of two stacked, irregular cylinders, there is no overt visual connection to the cross. But the work has a spiritual presence, like rocks piled as a rudimentary monument. The suggestion of corporeal remains is equally pertinent: the fifth point of the cross correlates to the lance wound in Christ’s side, and Fisher’s pieces vaguely evoke oversized human bones.
Is this reading too far a stretch? What do any of these works have to do with the Southern Cross, anyway? Overall, I found it most eye-opening to compare my experience of viewing the work in the show with the selfsame quest for simulacra. Searching for cultural references to the Southern Cross or Christian imagery where they might not be intended can be about as useful as looking for the face of the Virgin in a tree stump.
But I credit the show organizers at Grizzly Grizzly, because Southern Cross offers the chance to understand the five selected works in the simplest manner possible while not obstructing a deeper investigation of the aforementioned themes, be they only a handful of possible readings. Examination of form comes first, followed by an open volleying back and forth between ideas revealed and reinforced by the artists. Southern Cross is not a show with any religious agenda, but such a powerful symbol cannot be divorced from its profound spiritual core.
Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently researching Brazilian cultural organizations for his master’s thesis in Arts Administration at Drexel University. He also writes for his blog Post-Nonprofalyptic.