American Idolatry

CHERYL, CHERYL: FRITE OF SPRING, video still, 2010.

Popular culture is expansive. It encompasses the cult followings of YouTube videos, replicas of famous artworks postered on college dorm room walls, and large-scale public actions, such as the Los Angeles mass memorial service held in July of 2009 in memory of pop “King” Michael Jackson. The media packages and sells icons of popular culture for the purpose of performative expression of public worship. As a result, popular culture presents to the world a post-Christian pantheon of saints and martyrs.

The worship of these contemporary idols comes in the form of collective gatherings and ceremonies, ranging from concerts, to memorials, to shrine-building, within private and public spheres alike, complete with paraphernalia, flowers, and pictures. These signs and symbols function as modern-day relics of memory in their presence within private and public realms, building towards a larger lens through which one can play at reconstructing personal perceptions of oneself and one’s notions of the world around them.

Christopher Gideon, Cross of Saint George, 2011, Baseball Cards on Birch Panel, 11 x 12-1/2 inches.

Whether displayed independently or as part of a greater assemblage, shrines take a multitude of forms, and material objects are tribal unifiers and cultural signifiers—they hold memories, they have the capacity to provoke emotion, and they imbue one with a sense of belonging, a sense of history. Though never entirely permanent, the presence of these things often trumps their monetary worth, representing triumphs, losses, moments of realization. In claiming them, one endows them with some patterned fiction of magic, providing the ordinary action of organizing one’s lipsticks, entering a security code to quiet an alarm system, arranging a meal to present to guests, or pinning a photograph to the wall, with an undeniable alchemy.

Danny Ghitis, Butt Fuck, 2009.

One mirrors these beliefs in physical action, as one’s body responds in a ritual of routine to the world—kissing the rearview mirror at a stoplight, locking eyes when toasting glasses, blowing out candles, knocking on wood—these actions signify a ritualized rubric of belief and faith within the otherwise banal everyday. Thus, a shrine and the motions that accompany its presence are not only a portrait of their maker, but also a reflection of the complex global culture surrounding us. To make art is a version of shrine-building and, to make a shrine, no matter how simple, is to make art—not for profit, but as a gift. It is an act of spinning the banal into the beautiful, the insecure into that which is stable again. It is an act of patterning the world in an effort to make greater sense of it, making it over as a safe, secure, controllable space, and claiming it as ones own. Shrine-building materializes, beautifies, and secures the universe that surrounds us, thereby performing symbiotically as public representations of both justice and beauty.

Jason Lazarus, Untitled (New Orleans), 2011, found photos, board, blanket, gaffer's tape, mounting hardware.

In June of 2011, I visited a junk shop in New Orleans that had a large board of dated African-American family photos affixed to it. According to the shop, it was salvaged post-Katrina, and in its lifetime had been rented to various media production companies shooting in New Orleans as a prop, including the HBO show Treme. I bought the board, and the shop wrapped it in an old pink blanket they had on hand and wrapped it in black gaffers tape. This archive is presented as it left the merchant’s arms. — Jason Lazarus

Shrine-building can also be a mode of grappling with and bringing to justice histories of trauma or loss. To build a shrine is a form of “decolonizing” the structures that surround us, flattening top-down hierarchies with the simple act of using the buildings we operate in as sites for objects of memory, public and private alike. Such expressions of devotion allow a world undergoing change and recovering from trauma to reclaim agency via the vehicle of sovereign action and creative independence.

Kaitlin Kylie Pomerantz, Detail from Untitled (Mirror), "Traces" series, 2011, oil on wood panel, 28" x 32"

These paintings are iconic portraits (of portraits) that note the anthropomorphic qualities of hardware items. They note the iconoclasm and the destruction/taking down of images, memories of these images that remain in the form of indexical traces, acting as memento mori, signifiers of the passage of time, after-images of the life of a thing, the passing of the material world. — Kaitlin Kylie Pomerantz

Ryan Frank, Beuys Pallet, 2010, Shipping pallets, photo transparency and plexiglass, 76 x 40 x 48 inches.

These objects prompt us to look at the role popular culture plays in shaping history. How does fandom act as a socio-historical vehicle? In what way does the combination of many “pieces” (bodies, objects, artworks, and so forth) to construct a “whole” mirror these processes?

Lizzie Gill, (How Little It Matters) How Little We Know, 2011, mixed media, including collage, 23K gold leaf, aluminum screen, ink on plexi, dollhouse furniture.

The cross-cultural desire to “rememor[ialize]” popular cultural phenomena, participate in the performance of public and private ceremony and ritual, and habitually reorder the pieces of a larger socio-cultural mise-en-scene, points towards an active rise in a “church” of contemporary art. Though the dressing of structures that house contemporary art and those that hold the relics of religious practice differ, there is an undeniable mirroring of pomp and circumstance that ties these two worlds together. It is no wonder that some of the greatest works of art through time have been found in places of worship, and no surprise that one’s first encounter with a work of art can often feel deeply spiritual. In museum, gallery, project, and studio spaces (of the traditional and alternative alike) we ask questions, solve problems, and are provided with answers. Immersed in sites of creativity we are provided the opportunity to work towards a sense of reconciliation with the world around us. The hope is that through the work of these artists will come a piecemeal reconstruction of memory—a reversioning of sight—building towards a more cohesive co-consciousness as we peer together through the opaque collage of history itself.


American Idolatry is an exhibition at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn that features the work of Danielle Abrams, CHERYL, Jonah Emerson-Bell, Ryan Frank, Danny Ghitis, Christopher Gideon, Lizzie Gill, Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich and Diane Exavier, Sam Keller, Jason Lazarus, Maia Murphy and Eli Dvorkin, Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen, Rance Palmer, Sandra Payne, Kaitlin Kylie Pomerantz, Kenya (Robinson), and Legacy Russell. The exhibition opens to the public on October 29 with a Rite of Initiation and launch party from 6 p.m. – 12 a.m. American Idolatry will run through November 5. Join the ceremonies! A full schedule of the week’s events is available here.

Legacy Russell (LEGACY) is an East Village born-and-bred artist, writer, curator, and creative producer. Residing in New York City, Legacy has worked at The Bruce High Quality Foundation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art and The Brooklyn Museum of Art; in 2010 she was granted a six-month Curatorial Fellowship with CREATIVE TIME. Legacy is the co-founder of online journal and project space (CONTACT) and was recently appointed as Art Editor of BOMB magazine's renowned online journal, BOMBlog.