Michael Arata: Canonized Saints
Garboushian Gallery, Beverly Hills
September 21 – October 26, 2013
by Eve Wood
Michael Arata has always been an artist who tells it like it is, with explicit and irreverent honesty. Arata’s first solo exhibition at the Garboushian Gallery is riotous and unapologetic -- the way good art should be. Working with a wide range of materials that includes the artist’s own fecal matter, Arata stages a series of interventions into religious iconography whereby sainthood can be attained by anyone -- the idea being that the act of being alive is in itself the achievement of an elevated state. The artist describes his notion of the soul is “a combination of religious and cultural attributes. In this grouping the souls approach my twisted illusive notion of inspiration, spirit and compassion.”
Arata renders souls (first sculpturally, and then in photographs) as directly tied to the human body, specifically what can go in -- and what must inevitably come out. Works like the monumentally imaginative woody plant Porcellina; A Woman’s Conquest (2011), made from hydrocal, wood, styrofoam, and acrylic resin, align hetero female sexuality with the natural world -- if only phalluses grew on trees like so much ripe fruit! Arata further posits this mythic tree as sacred; above it floats a halo of branches like human limbs bedecked with silk roses. Not only is the abstract-penis tree ostentatious and sly, but it’s also a holy artifact.
Other works are equally boisterous and compelling, albeit at times somewhat against the viewer’s better judgment. Arata’s photography series depicts saints wearing paper clothes and floating face up in the toilet bowl, their bodies made from the artist’s own feces. Such as Businessman, General Petraeus' Lover, and Self Portrait, these zany figures (all 2013), including one dressed like Dracula and another like a long-dead Chihuahua, may indeed constitute their own blasphemous hagiography, but at the core of this work is a basic humanist impulse -- the idea that true sainthood is not to be ordained by the church, but can be attained by even the lowliest of souls. Arata is also creating his own visual polemic, calling into question central tenets of the Catholic Church in asserting that sainthood, like almost everything ostensibly religious, is largely political.
Arata’s other sculptural works like the caged souls of Liberty (2011) or the leering red flock of Psycho Smiles (2011-2013), are witty and sometimes excoriatingly funny. Beards (2009-2013) is series of objects made from the same elements of white plaster and red pigment as the souls) reference the decontextualized shapes of men’s beards line the gallery walls. As with Arata’s other work, there is that ever-present double entendre -- a beard being a symbol in many cultures of wisdom, sexual virility, masculinity, and religious or social status; though a “beard” is also a slang term describing a person who is used, knowingly or unknowingly, to conceal infidelity or sexual orientation. Here again Arata wants us to embrace a wide range of possible influences and potential narratives, expanding our relationship to ideas and objects -- even in direct opposition to our own experience.
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