St. John and the 'Divine' Art of Jane Alexander
Time was, I was one of two dozen principal actors in Michael Moriarty's far Off-Broadway Shakespearian in-your-face company, Potter's Field. We hewed to an intensely personal and engaged Shakespeare: we stared directly at our audiences when we performed, whether it was at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park or at some no-count venue on 8th Avenue off Nothing Street. We wandered through the aisles unexpectedly and spoke straight at individuals.
I dredge up this marionugget because we were privileged to perform and rehearse in the exalted lower regions of St. John the Divine, the most exquisite Episcopal diocesan cathedral in the country -- still, to hear say, incomplete after a century of construction, recently reopened after a fire nearly destroyed the church in 2001, but certainly the largest in the country. At the time, we focused on our blocking and lines, our interpretations of Lear or Hamlet, or the post-performance "notes" of the handsome and mild-voiced Michael, who had been, recently, an ongoing character in the long-running TV cop/legal show Law and Order.
Back then, we rehearsed at night, and the virtuosic clerestory windows that are the glory of the cathedral were dark and glinted sullenly leaden. We rarely caught the cathedral in the heady beauty of midday, with all its stained-glass magic. The Great Rose Window alone, 40 feet in diameter and made of over 10,000 glass tesserae -- the sun wasn't providing its million-watt backlighting.
The glass did not sparkle at night, and we did not look up. We did not focus on the Romanesque and Gothic architectural mélange. We took little notice of the work of the noted Gothic Revival architect Ralph Adams Cram of the Boston firm Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson. It is the fourth-largest Christian church in the world. I saw some mighty cathedrals when I rambled around the island-state of Malta. But St. John (the Unfinished) puts all such in the shade.
We knew nothing of the seven chapels radiating from the ambulatory, each designed in a distinct national style representing the then-most prominent ethnic minorities to enter the New York environs in 1892 (the same year work began on the cathedral). St. Ansgar, venerated in Scandinavia; St. Boniface, German apostle; St. Columba, patron of Scotland and Ireland; St. Savior, for immigrants from the east; St. Martin of Tours, France; St. Ambrose, patron of Italy; and St. James, of Spain. Together, they constituted the Chapels of the Tongues, for obvious reasons. (No patron for the wave of Polish and Eastern European Jews also arriving at the dog-end of the 19th century, of course.) But we knew none of that.
We should have known, probably, that the massive bronze doors were produced by the same sculptor as cast the very symbol of New York welcome, Ms. Liberty, of the Ferdinand Barbedienne foundry in Paris. But we didn't.
It was a game and privileged time, comparable only to the rehearsals and updated Dracula play we practiced -- different company, different director -- at glitter-flecked Lincoln Center, amid that flurry of sequoia-freakish, anorectic balletomanic ectomorphs...
As the louche are given to saying now about anything whatsoever: whatever.
Fortune has smiled on the South African sculptor and photographer Jane Alexander. Her mystifying, sepulchral, and confounding works are set in the transept, baptistry, exquisite chapels, niches and nooks, even the vaulting, somberly magisterial medieval courtyards of the imposing and too little visited St. John. An array of photomontages of Alexander's works -- set in South African fields, scrub, abandoned areas, rubble piles -- is also represented.
In this provoking exhibit, Surveys (From the Cape of Good Hope), Alexander is curated by the sensitive Pep Subiros, and the exhibit was organized by the Museum for African Art. Thirty sculptural works are subtly emplaced where you least expect them, in a heady example of site-specific artwork that is rarely so fortunate in its site. High up, peeking from behind a baluster ("Custodian"). On a plain wooden chair off-handedly set in a dim curve of wall ("Harvester"). Smack in the middle of a doubly fenced off Gitmo-like enclosure ("Security"), knives, razors, hatchets, and cleavers rusting between the two layers of fencing. In a darkish corner off in St. Boniface ("Defendants"); almost missed behind a wall in the stone, brick, and archway-pierced, impossibly 16th-century courtyard ("Beast").
The works themselves are disturbing, many of them consisting of Alexander's "hybrid beings," animals between human and etiolated simians, no-winged, no armed "birds," feral dog-like shapes, all nude, some with galoshes on, many atop a bed of used red galvanized rubber workman's gloves. She uses a wide variety of media, deliberate tableaux that glue attention for long minutes, as materials and provenance flux in a constant emotional, historical, and visual interplay.
Actual materials used include fiberglass, cotton, silk, random garments, wood, steel stands, clay, "carved alien-wood knobkerrie," miscellaneous objects, found shoes, oil paint, fence razor wire, gold-plated bronze, broomsticks, lacing, gemsbok horns, fencing, thorns, TNT boxes, "rooikat (caracal) pelt," rubber scraps, cloths, acrylic paint, felt, sacks, machetes, sickles, earth.
According to the official exhibit leaflet, Alexander's work "creates a space to reflect on questions of faith, and demonstrates the powerful dialogues that can emerge when contemporary art is shown in social environments with deep historic, societal and spiritual resonances." Two local Upper-West-Side esthetes condescendingly informed me that Alexander was defining how African blacks were strait-jacketed by apartheid into these hybridized not-man, not-fully-beast creatures.
Instead, they can be said to be actors in a different narrative, as the images evoked hearken back, for this viewer, to Nazi-era implacability. One room is harsh, with 10 tiers of three hybrid naked soldiers, eyes turned uniformly left, set rigidly on a deep crimson runner the length of the chapel floor. Evoking, if not Nazism, then a latter-day mini-version of the terra cotta soldiers of Xi'An.
Diffident and indecipherable in expression, in front of this rail-thin "Infantry," is a stylized, deformed demi-dog. Does the awkward simulacrum represent man trying to escape the marching, cruel, mottled soldiers? Or is he defeated, beaten, cowering, a frightened vestige of surrender?
The works, like Alexander's accompanying photomontages, are not easy reads, despite those Upper-West-Side know-it-alls.
Some of the hybrids resemble near-cartoonish kangaroos or convoys of black-beaked, black-headed cormorants ("Convoy"), these creatures reminding me of the large economy-size plastic Aveeno skin lotion container. "Harbinger," a white-gray dog-creature wearing "protective boots" sizes too large on a nude body, uses walking sticks like ski poles, with a vagabond lathe draped with gemsbok horns protruding from his head. "Birds" imprisoned inside themselves with no wings or arms, and spindly humanoid "legs," are deeply crippled, pitiable.
Though some figures may be set in seeming dioramas near each other, they do not in any way relate or respond to the other figures. They are locked inside themselves, dolorous looks scything deep shadows under their prognathous brows. Alexander is at once high above her narratives, peering down editorially, and only inches, intimate distances, away. She seems to be semaphoring not about these hapless and distraught creatures, but about the culture or destitute society that has given them such odd birth. These brute, mute, iterative displaced beings seem to speak to the corrupt, thwarted ambition, decline, conflict-hemmed interstitial passages of many societies in more than mere black/white stasis. Skies are dark. Light is deliberately incidental. Her "survey" of "Good Hope" seems to mean...little hope.
Art is what one makes of it, not what the artist necessarily commands we agree to. These conscientiously indecipherable icons of stripped life with unresolved deflected prowess -- gloves underfoot, machetes rusting, flotsam of wasted lands and lives -- are ideations that go beyond the South African premise, to cultures and strains of society that are still witnessing contortion, dissipation, melancholic and metastasizing transition.