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Divine offerings in two shows at Branch Gallery

Houses of joy

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Toebbe's "St. Augustine" (2008), acrylic gouache on panel, 65 x 44 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRANCH GALLERY

Churches by Ann Toebbe
"Das Hochzeitshaus" by Nadine Robinson
Branch Gallery
Through June 7

A gallery space has certain properties in common with places of worship. They can both serve as sanctuary, as a place where one goes to be challenged and inspired; and they hold the potential to evoke a sense of awe in relation to something greater than oneself. The concepts of "creation" and "creator," despite their Old Testament associations, are also set in motion within the gallery space. The current show at Branch Gallery, which features work by Ann Toebbe and Nadine Robinson, focuses these parallel qualities in two concise and powerful presentations.

Ann Toebbe's Churches is a group of seven paintings, five acrylic gouaches and three small oils. The gouache pieces are stylized depictions of church interiors rendered in a flat, pre-perspectival manner. They read as floor plans, diagrams that map and interpret various church spaces in designs that mimic the figurations of traditional stained-glass church windows.

Indeed the stained-glass window serves as the aesthetic core and organizing principle of Toebbe's work represented here. The church interiors are predominantly painted in blacks, whites and a range of gray tones. Color is reserved solely for the brilliant hues of the windows, imbuing them with a visual primacy in the compositions (mirroring the intended effect of actual stained-glass windows). Color does not exist without light, and stained-glass windows perform a double action in harnessing both literal and metaphoric light. Illuminated by light from the heavens, stained-glass windows might be considered as an early form of special-effects technology, incorporated to elucidate messages of miracles and saintly narratives.

The imagery in many of Toebbe's windows are no doubt familiar to some as the legible iconography of Christian mythology. But to the noninitiated, myself included, the images are a glimpse into a world apart—a set of parables imbued with encoded meaning and symbolism, intriguing but inscrutable. In this way Toebbe's exploration of Christian iconography echoes the work of Wallace Berman in which the artist incorporates Hebrew lettering as abstract forms, thereby allowing attributed meanings to drain off, giving rise to alternate meanings.

Toebbe's churches are painstakingly rendered works, verging on the obsessive. The largest work in the group, "St. Augustine" (2008), features notable details done in achromatic tones: a group of elaborate statuary, including a large crucifix, the stylized wood grain of the pews, a broad pipe organ at the base of the composition. At the top of the painting is a window depicting a gleaming, multicolor saint. The figure oversees the church space, brilliant lightning slashes surging behind him. These works do not scan as ironic—one could easily imagine one hung in a cleric's office. It is possible, however, to read these works in purely formal terms, as well-constructed compositions that are "about" issues of design, shape, space and color. They just happen to also be churches.

Toebbe's three smaller works in oil depict domestic interiors, rendered in deep shades of Oz-green, done in the leaded-outline style of traditional stained glass. A complex of shapes and colors form a mosaic of daily life. Toebbe's fanciful framework of a kitchen, bedroom and TV room, respectively, elevate quotidian elements such as a toaster, bedside tables or a TV remote to archetypal symbols. In these carefully executed pieces, Toebbe seems to be searching for a divine geometry of the everyday. These works are so compellingly like stained glass that one half-expects to see the sun pouring through them or, conversely, that we might be able to look through them into another realm.

Robinson's "Das Hochzeitshaus (The Wedding House)" (2003), enamel paint on medium density fiberboard, speakers, audio electrical components, DVD, DVD player, led lights, fluorescent gels, fluorescent lights, 146 x 74 x 9 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRANCH GALLERY
  • Photo courtesy of Branch Gallery
  • Robinson's "Das Hochzeitshaus (The Wedding House)" (2003), enamel paint on medium density fiberboard, speakers, audio electrical components, DVD, DVD player, led lights, fluorescent gels, fluorescent lights, 146 x 74 x 9 in.

Gallery 2 at Branch houses Nadine Robinson's "Das Hochzeitshaus (The Wedding House)" (2003), a virtually empty space dominated by six massive speakers symmetrically mounted on one wall. The stark presentation puts the viewer in a precarious position. What exactly is being "viewed" here? The answer is complex and subtle: The space is a staging area for an affecting experience.

The stacked speakers read definitively as sculpture. Encased in white with the exception of the circular resonators and the brand letters "JVC," the work can be seen as a minimalist sculpture à la Donald Judd. It can also be seen alternately as a shrine, monolithic, totemic and further evoking either techno-fetishism, the rock hero's Marshall stack or, as the gallery notes indicate, the "houses of joy" that blared dance music for block parties during Robinson's childhood in the Bronx.

The speakers are indeed functional, churning out a continuous recorded loop of sounds from a holy roller meeting, speaking in tongues intercut with recordings of eerie, maniacal, unrestrained laughter. Robinson's sound component works over time as a build, flooding the space with sounds of human emotion, ululations, tongues, clapping, laughter, howling. The sound takes on its own rhythms and pours over the viewer in oceanic waves of varying intensity and texture. The sound fills the space—activates the space—to finally assert that it is not an empty space at all. The sound fills the space like an answer to a Zen koan about emptiness.

Two Dan Flavin-esque blue fluorescent tubes cut across the gallery ceiling. The blue light is subtle yet sublime. The work's limited visual cues could make a viewer uncomfortable: This is a gallery with nothing but white speakers issuing forth a feral cacophony, white walls and the remote suggestion of blue light. The experience, however, can shift into one of exhilaration, much like that expressed in the work's soundtrack. In a visually saturated culture, the empty wall has the potential to become a source of salvation and release.

As the speakers pulse with the throes of ecstatic religious intensity, the initials "JVC" take on a kind of trance-induced significance, as if perhaps Jesus Christ had a middle initial (Volume? Vitality? Veracity?). Robinson's "Das Hochzeitshaus" galvanizes the space it inhabits as a total experience, a self-contained event with the potential to reframe a viewer's expectations of what the gallery space is and can be.

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