Alumni and Faculty Explore Their Thresholds of Faith

Curated by Joyce Grimm (MA Curatorial Practice 2006), the exhibition Thresholds of Faith: Four Entries Into the Beyond at San Francisco’s Manresa Gallery features four artists of different faith backgrounds who are all affiliated with CCA.

The artists -- Lynn Marie Kirby (Film faculty), Taraneh Hemami (MFA 1991, now Diversity Studies faculty), Ali Naschke-Messing (MFA 2007), and Cara Levine (MFA 2012, now Sculpture faculty) -- have each produced evocative individual projects that invite reflection on religious practice and experience within contemporary life.

Thresholds of Faith: Four Entries Into the Beyond, is on view at Manresa Gallery through June 1, 2014.

Housed within the active Catholic parish of San Francisco’s Saint Ignatius Church, Manresa Gallery is a unique project (and a surprising one, to many) that allows local and international contemporary artists to directly explore intersections between art and religion.

The resulting exhibitions expand the boundaries of both spiritual and artistic endeavor, and aim to generate far-reaching dialogue within a broad and diverse community.

Says Grimm: “I think this type of work is incredibly important in regards to building tolerance and understanding between different cultures and histories. Historically, artists have always explored the unknown.

“In conjunction with the exhibition, we’ve created many contextual programs that provide a platform for the artists to continue exploring their ideas with the public. For instance one of our special dinners centered on ideas of how we view death: personally, culturally, and in regard to faith. Death Over Dinner involved all four exhibition artists and was led by the artist Mel Day.”

Truly Sisters

For Thresholds of Faith, the four participating artists have produced evocative new projects that draw intimately on their personal religious backgrounds. The projects are housed in the gallery’s four connected vaulted spaces, which are separated from the rows of pews in the church nave only by large glass doors.

Lynn Marie Kirby’s piece, Truly Sisters, at first glance seems easily suited to the context; Kirby is Catholic, and her project focuses on the Catholic Sisterhood of the Holy Cross. But Kirby’s relationship to her Catholicism is complicated, as is the pioneering work of the Sisterhood in Brazil, Peru, Uganda, Ghana, and Bangladesh, which has at times gone against Vatican doctrine and put the Sisterhood’s official standing in peril.

Kirby’s aunt, Sister June Ann Kirby, is a member of the Sisterhood in Brazil, and Kirby’s project connects Manresa to the lives and activities of her aunt and fellow sisters. On a large, wall-mounted flat-screen television, faced by two pew-like benches, a looped video depicts footage of the sisters living and working in São Paulo.

On either side of the screen, two shelves hold devotional objects: a breviary (a book of daily observations and prayers created for the installation, whose blue cover carries a gilt icon referencing the cruciform sun-cross window in the vaulted dome above the space) and a prayer card depicting Our Lady of Aparecida, the patroness of Brazil.

Every month during the exhibition, Kirby hosts a live Skype session on the large screen with the sisters in Brazil, focusing on a different topic central to their mission, for instance social justice, art, dance, education, or community.

Reverberations of Stone

Taraneh Hemami’s Reverberations of Stone temporarily transforms the gallery alcove inside Saint Ignatius Church into a co-religious entity. Hemami paved the entirety of her allotted alcove in cool, dun limestone to create a recessed cavity within the floor, and she placed a corresponding three-part jade plaque on the wall.

The vertical slab and horizontal void together form a Mehrab, a devotional niche that marks the direction of prayer within a Muslim mosque. Historically, the creation of a Mehrab was all that was needed to convert an existing place of worship into an Islamic one, and countless religious spaces were coopted in this way as Islam spread from Mecca.

Performances are scheduled throughout this month to activate the Mehrab; they will involve CCA alumna Wafaa Yasin (MFA 2010) and the Los Angeles-based Iranian artist Amitis Motevalli.

Blazing Through Your Skull

For her project The Original Light, Blazing Through Your Skull, Ali Naschke-Messing created a subtly shifted space for religious reflection. Informed by her experience as a practicing Buddhist, her meditative installation ingeniously focuses viewers’ attention on light using the space’s extant architecture.

Each alcove is topped by a small golden dome pierced at its apex by an oculus that allows sunlight into the space from above. From her dome, the artist has suspended a hovering cloud of reflective gold leaf fragments that dance on invisible air currents.

The intervention makes visitors intimately aware of each instantaneous moment, and the breath that marks time’s presence and passing. They are invited to spend as much time as they like sitting on the benches or cushions provided, or within the circular black zabuton on the floor beneath the piece.

In conjunction with the installation, Naschke-Messing has been leading monthly meditations in the space and throughout the church.

The Only Thing That Isn’t Everything

In her domed alcove, Cara Levine has created the continually shifting installation In Summary, It’s the Only Thing That Isn’t Everything. The project draws inspiration from a series of paintings by Levine’s grandmother, Shirley Levine, whose painting practice paralleled and drew on her active study of Jewish Mysticism.

The paintings depict transitional spaces -- doorways, passages, and openings -- that lack a clear, or even suggested, purpose.

Levine has interspersed framed photographs of several of these paintings with a series of sculptural props inspired by them. The pink, black, and raw plywood structures, which Levine calls “transitory structural boundaries,” are on rolling casters and are reconfigured monthly, along with the framed images and other assorted elements.

The cumulative effect is one of continual transition and instability -- of everything being permanently provisional.

Broader Platforms for Interfaith Dialogue

The intent of the exhibition Thresholds of Faith, according to Grimm, is to “create unique vantage points from which broader platforms for interfaith dialogue can occur.”

And indeed, all four projects, though radically different in form, eschew any particular perspective or teaching in favor of creating complicated spaces in which visitors are invited to expand and explore their own experiences and beliefs.

The elusiveness of each individual work is hardly a weakness. Rather, it allows it to grow beyond the confines of its materiality and touch on the deeper and more profound aspects of our complicated and idiosyncratic relationships to lived experience.

CCA Tie-Ins

The author of this piece, Zachary Royer Scholz, is a CCA alumnus twice over: MFA 2006, MA Visual and Critical Studies 2009.

CCA alumna Megan Lavelle (MFA 2013) is the assistant curator at Manresa Gallery.