Life, Death, Hereafter, at Saint Peter's Church
Curated by Jenny Mushkin Goldman
Through May 29th,
Hours: Monday to Friday, 10am – 12 pm and Sunday to Tuesday, 4 – 6 pm.
By VITTORIA BENZINE May, 2022
Look closely and you just might find a hushed spiritual oasis tucked into the epicenter of midtown Manhattan, outfitted entirely in abstract wood relief sculptures by Louise Nevelson–an 1977 installation titled “Chapel of the Good Shepherd.” Even though the space –amongst NYC’s hidden treasures–is under renovation, those in need of respite can still sit quietly amongst its storied walls.
“Louise Nevelson’s first significant foray in white, ‘Dawn’s Wedding Feast,’ debuted in 1959 at The Museum of Modern Art,” writes Brooke Kamin Rapaport from the Madison Square Park Conservancy by way of background. “Almost twenty years later, Nevelson was commissioned to realize a sculptural surround in white at ‘Chapel of the Good Shepherd (1977).’ As a place of worship, the site became known for its spiritual humanism, a deep sanctity that abstract art can achieve by pervading space.”
You see, Saint Peter’s has built a longstanding relationship with the arts that they’re proudly carrying into the future, partnering with Midtown Arts Commons, NYC Culture Club and the Nevelson Legacy Council to host a series of contemporary art group shows called “Intermissions” in the space just outside their famous chapel. Their most recent exhibition, titled “Life, Death, Hereafter,” curated by Jenny Mushkin Goldman, opened on April 4th.
The show, which runs through May 29th, explores angles around the ultimate demise awaiting all organic beings. A press release notes that cultural events like Diá de Los Muertos and the iconic jazz funeral marches of New Orleans celebrate death as another one of life’s milestones: “Our contemporary American culture predominantly eschews death, sanitizing and separating the inevitable from daily life as much as possible. Modern cemeteries are often on the outskirts of towns and cities, often with flat gravestones, unlike the elaborate and prominent tombs and monuments to the dead in older resting places.”
Whitehot caught up with James Beaudreau, Director of Media and Communications for Saint Peter’s Church, just outside of their exhibition. Beaudreau said that when he first ascended the stairs leading to the community space where this show’s on view, the large, central work of black and white skulls by Paul Joseph Vogeler provoked a knee-jerk reaction–how would their congregation take such a grim theme?
Certain works like an unsettling portrait by S. Klitgaard, two skulls by Anne-Sophie H. Plume, and an industrial vest by Nelsena Burt-Spano definitely provoke visceral reactions. A diptych of haunting embossed paper pieces by April Marten that read “dread” and “I am” are somehow scarier because they’re so delicate. Even Leonard Reibstein’s rather hopeful depiction of a woman with a candle between her legs feels so sexual it’s shocking that the work can find a home here in a house of traditional worship.
Lutherans are actually the original rulebreakers though–the first denomination to truly split off from the Catholic Church. I was raised Lutheran myself.
As such, Beaudreau noted, the reception for this show has proven predominantly positive. Death is a reality to this congregation–70 members passed away from COVID, and the ongoing attacks on Ukraine tie back to Nevelson, who was born there. People here understand how that part of life fits into the bigger picture. Coping with it is part of the reason for organized religion in the first place.
It’s not all doom and gloom at “Life, Death, Hereafter,” either. Every piece across the show offers a nuanced perspective on death’s inextricable relationship with life. Some make straightforward statements–two pop art skulls by Adam Umbach sprout flowers, and two impossibly intricate canvases by Alexis Duque further illustrate that death is a necessary precursor to new life, scenes springing from a skull and a tree growing from the trunk of a standing man. No one does foliage better than Lina Puerta though–the Colombian-American artist has draped corners of the room with her renowned flourish, relief works of plastic weeds, moss, beading, and other miniature maximalist mixed media.
While the release notes that Christian symbolism prevails in homage to this space, artworks that leave ideas about death up to the viewer hold the most space for spirit to enter this conversation. These are the ideals one should ultimately decide for themselves–with agency, while we have it.
Katarra LaRae Peterson seems to have stitched two realms together–life and the afterlife–with two works of textured mixed media on paper connected by a single thread. Gracelee Lawrence’s smooth, white, impeccable sculpture is a blank slate for projection, as is Ariel Mitchell’s abstract green canvas–perhaps geared more towards calm contemplation. Chellis Baird always brings the best of constructive chaos–here, lush gnarls of green, blue, and black intertwine like narrative threads in an intellectual debate or descants with baritones in a church choir.
“The juxtaposition of these seemingly disparate types of work creates a dialogue that celebrates the entirety of the life cycle and delves into the promise of the everlasting,” reads the release, closing with a quote from Louise Nevelson herself: “No matter how individual we humans are, we are a composite of everything we are aware of. We are a mirror of our times.” As the release points out though, an inanimate mirror is anything but passive–it shows so we can see, and perhaps even change, if we see fit.
“Life, Death, Hereafter” marks just the latest installment in Saint Peter’s Church’s ongoing relationship with art history, especially since joining forces with Parker and Clayton Calvert of NYC Culture Club in December 2021. Their work maintains “a commitment to creating opportunities for curators and artists to have exhibitions, free of charge.”
The goal of this particular partnership, the brothers write, “is to have an impactful program that contributes to the cultural renaissance that New York and the world needs as we come out of the pandemic.” Provoking dialogue so far provides their greatest success. Come see this growing partnership rise from the ashes of our collective trauma, and stop off for a moment’s soulful retreat at the historic Nevelson Chapel during selected visiting hours: Monday to Friday, 10am – 12 pm and Sunday to Tuesday, 4 – 6 pm. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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