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Altared States 

One of the more peculiar things about the 21st century so far is how vociferous the advocates of religious dogmatism have become, peppering the political arena with new attacks on the teaching of evolution and public rebukes of anyone who supports abortion rights or gay rights. Popular books and movies cater to religious fundamentalists even as a top senate Republican opines that the filibuster (of all things) is an affront to 'people of faith.' The list goes on and on.

In the midst of all this in-your-face religiosity, some art shows about town are taking a path less traveled and exploring alternative spiritual expressions. In one high-concept example, New Orleans artist and children's book illustrator Leslie Staub asks a hypothetical question: what would it have been like if 20th century American kids had studied Buddhist psychology in grade school using visual aids similar to the old Dick and Jane readers. Unlike most faiths, Buddhism is based on psychological precepts rather than orthodox dogmas. Ethically, the result is similar to traditional Judeo-Christian morality, but the emphasis is on spiritual 'awakening,' or liberation from negative mental habits, the dissonance Buddhists sometimes call 'monkey mind,'

The results suggest a deadpan Dick and Jane approach to traditional Buddhist scrolls. Some are fairly straightforward. Ignorance/Delusion: The Root Cause of Suffering features a painting of a pig wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood, an allusion, perhaps, to the old Tibetan belief that swinish behavior leads to rebirth as an animal. In a less obvious example, a school girl peers into a birdcage above which a line of text reads: 'The door is open little girl,' illustrating the view that liberation is achieved through realizing that we are imprisoned by habitual thought patterns of our own making. Junior Sits Quietly depicts a kid meditating as tiny monkey gremlins cavort around him. The text above him reads: 'Junior sits quietly through all kinds of distractions, neither identifying with them nor pushing them away.' It's the classic advice on meditation, further elaborated in a scroll depicting the Buddha with the quote: 'We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.' In other words, the buck stops here. Staub's Dharma With Dick And Jane is whimsical and surreal, yet thought provoking.

A quirky populist approach to spirituality is seen at the Altared Images show of artists' altars at Poets Gallery. These include a traditional St. Joseph's Day spread as well as other, more speculative offerings. While altars are customarily created to honor spiritual personas, requesting favors from them is a time-honored practice dating to old pagan days. Even St. Joseph is believed to have intervened with fava beans to save Sicily from starvation in the Middle Ages. This St. Joseph's Day altar by Linda Sampson features an expansive spread of confections, candles and statuary. But a much smaller one created by Nonie Lyons from fired clay and gold leaf would probably fit neatly in one of those odd little wall alcoves that turn up in old New Orleans bungalows.

Somewhat less mainstream is an ethereally gaudy Altar du Faye, a fairy altar by Fairy Parade impresario Rosemary Kimble, featuring an array of unicorns, pixies and other mythic critters in a haze of stars and glitter. Similarly self-explanatory, if a tad exotic, is Cree McCree's Fertility Altar, a little carousel of pink female torsos holding up little plastic babies in a setting of flickering fake candles, cherubs and illuminated dildoes. But Morgan Lei's Persephone's Footfall is unusual. Featuring tiny skulls, snakeskin, feathers and red curtains flanking a photo of youthful breasts, it is accompanied by a philosophical rumination on the goddess Persephone and the transience of human beauty. Add that to Laura d'Alessandro's muted box altar self-ruminations and Paul Deo's extroverted visual elaborations on rude boy rappers, and it's an unusually philosophical, if hormonal, mix. Throw in Michael Demeng's impressively crafted found object concoctions, like eerie post-apocalyptic talismans, and you get a classic Poets Gallery expo: an array of wildly varied and at times uneven work that somehow comes together as an intriguing and cohesive environment.

click to enlarge Leslie Staub's The Door is Open suggest a - deadpan Dick and Jane approach to the Buddhist belief - that we are imprisoned by habitual mental attitudes.
  • Leslie Staub's The Door is Open suggest a deadpan Dick and Jane approach to the Buddhist belief that we are imprisoned by habitual mental attitudes.
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