Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Excerpt from the essay Is Art Ritual/Is Ritual Art? By Mary Jo Aagerstoun, Ph. D. in Artistically Speaking: Women’s Roles in Contemporary Art & Society. John D. MacArthur Campus Library, 2016. Florida Atlantic University. Jupiter, FL.
The creation and deployment of ritualized objects with an intent to contribute to changing an existing state of affairs is particularly characteristic of Patron Saints (of Animals), an installation of six wall hung paintings with their companion three dimensional sculptures by Birds Are Nice (Diane Arrieta).
Figure 7: Birds Are Nice. Saint Ketakwitha, 2016. One of group of six. Acrylic and hand cut vinyl on wood, mixed media animal sculpture. Total size, all 6 groupings, 40 running feet
In Patron Saints (of Animals). Arrieta (Birds Are Nice) refers to the tradition of devotional object, while turning that tradition around and upside down. The tradition of saintly intercession through contemplation of portraits of saints with their attributes (in this case, animals) is what is referenced in this work. The six images in the series are named for women who have been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church over an extended period from early medieval times to the late 19th century, and whose personal closeness or service to wilderness and animals was an aspect of their biography, or of the oral tradition or mythology that has grown up around them. But Arrieta’s imagery does not take the traditional form of most Catholic devotional objects related to a patron saint.
The six saint portraits fuse aesthetic reference to sacred icons (as in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the images are painted on wood and are flat, not modeled), with an insouciant use of the stripped down schematic characteristic of 21st century cartoons and animation. This purposeful joining together of two strongly contrasting aesthetic approaches, separated by more than time and context, together with the application to the paintings’ surfaces of ambiguous symbolic phrases and shapes (e.g., repetitive circles or triangles) invite closer attention, serving to intensify the curiosity of the viewer regarding the density of meaning implied in the term syncretism.
The reference to the number six is significant. The grouping is of six paintings, most accompanied by a circular floor piece inhabited by one or more three-dimensional, life-sized sculpted animals with which the saint is associated, either in myth, or in recorded biography. Six is a significant reference both to Christianity, and to other spiritual or religious practices such as Wicca or Satanism. In Judeo-Christian tradition, six is important because in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, it is asserted that the deity created the universe in six days. Six is also a multiple of three, which is a sacred number in Christian theology, as it refers to the Trinity. In numerology, the number signifies connection between above and below, intellectual creativity, ability to use the imagination and intellect combined, relatedness and taking responsibility for choices, all of which ties in nicely with the artist’s overall intent for this series: to instigate heightened resolve in viewers to be educated about, and able to respond to onrushing environmental disaster.
The artist, who also holds a master’s degree in wildlife health, notes that this series, like earlier works of hers, has the specific job “to inspire, teach, question, [promote] environmental literacy, [inform about] loss of species and how that relates to human health and social justice.” Despite this avowed purpose, the overall effect is in no way directly didactic. The imagery is purposefully oblique. Each portrait, with its three dimensional “animal familiars,” is a small puzzle: Who are these women? What is their connection to the animals, the odd symbols and texts? The viewer is drawn in to this kind of examination by the vibrant color palette, as well as the fact that each of the six portraits has the same stark white face and jet black hair. The portraits actually seem to be all one person, and that person recalls imagery depicting the Disney version of Snow White (and, of course, her physical attributes, as the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale describes her: “as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood.”) Snow White iconography has, of course, become firmly imprinted on popular consciousness worldwide as the first Disney leading lady of the 1937 animated film classic, surrounded by singing and dancing animals.
This kind of layered syncretism is characteristic of ritual objects, which are given particular form from specific kinds of materials, often collected from widely varying sources, and from various time periods. They have acquired extraordinary significance to the community in which the ritual arose through this layering, as well as through the additional inscription and incising and their ritual use within ritually significant sequestered spaces, through which they have become infused with meaning.