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Art Reviews: Bread transforms into biblical, historical symbols

Saturday, March 15, 2003

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

Bread -- "staff of life," basic in the diets of most cultures in its multitudinous forms, symbolic of home and spiritual devotion -- is such a historic and potentially charged image that it's not surprising that it's appeared in artworks for centuries. In "Manna," a multilayered installation at The Saint Vincent Gallery, Latrobe, Kansas artist Matthew Dehaemers has conflated potent symbols to create a striking new presentation of the notion of transubstantiation.

View of "Manna," an installation by artist Matthew Dehaemers at The Saint Vincent Gallery, Latrobe. The representation of Sportsman's Hall, Saint Vincent College's original building, is made of Saint Vincent bread. The figure of the crucified Christ in the background is made of more than 60,000 unconsecrated hosts.

The title of Dehaemers' installation makes reference to the biblical story about the substance that "fell from the sky and fed the Israelites on their 40-year journey through the desert," a reference to something both physical and allegorical.

In "Manna," Dehaemers weaves the history of Saint Vincent College and Archabbey with contemporary stylistic and cultural references.

Most straightforward is the representation of Sportsman's Hall, a log building that was the first on campus. Its cover of loaves and slices of bread makes it reminiscent of a gingerbread house, but it gains significance because the Saint Vincent bread is made of flour ground at the Saint Vincent Gristmill, baked on site and eaten daily by the monks who live there, forming a link between the self-sufficient Benedictine founders and current members of the order.

Carrying more symbolic complexity are a three-dimensional representation of the crucified Christ and a large two-dimensional triptych with the faces of Christ, Mary and Boniface Wimmer, Saint Vincent's founder, made of unconsecrated hosts, pressed bread rounds which, in Roman Catholic belief, become the body of Christ during the celebration of the Mass. Use of the hosts may startle some, but while the artworks are current they're also respectful, and the play between the corpus and consecrated Christ -- each heavily symbolic -- brilliantly magnifies the implications of either alone.

A sound-accompanied DVD projection of the monks at Ash Wednesday vespers brings closure to the experience of the piece.

The 30-year-old Dehaemers is the first artist-in-residence at the college, and he will be there through April. The program, a laudable plan that enlarges the opportunity to see art of our time created in our midst, includes funding for a second residency, which will probably be filled in a couple of years.

The exhibition continues through March 30 in the Robert S. Carey Student Center. Free admission. The gallery is open noon to 3 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, noon to 3 p.m. and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays For information, call 724-805-2107 or visit http://www.stvincent.edu.

Meditative markings

Washington, D.C., artist Linn Meyers, who's been getting deserved exposure recently at such Pittsburgh venues as The Frick Art Museum and the Mattress Factory, shows that subtle needn't be static in a soothing solo exhibition at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.

The markings in Meyers' beautifully composed drawings -- of ink and colored pencil on mylar -- set up a meditative rhythm via the finely applied lines of colorful "gravity" drawings or the hundreds of strokes of the larger "counting" works that suggest a snap moment of a downpour, a flame's flicker or moving wind. The illusion that the latters' surfaces are rumpled, created by variously spacing the marks and heightened by a free hang that allows movement with air currents, persists even when viewers are aware that they're flat.

The exhibition continues through April 13 at 221 N. Main St., Greensburg. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays. Admission is $3 suggested donation, under 12 free. Also showing are photographs by Berenice Abbott and Hank O'Neal and collaborations by Robert Qualters and Mark Perrott. For information, call 724-837-1500 or visit www.wmuseumaa.org.

Pediatrics ICU

A contemporarily smart exhibition of work by five sculptors, "Flights from Fancy," is at the Harlan Gallery of Seton Hill University, also in Greensburg. Expression ranges from D.W. Martin's abstracted scrutiny of women's bodies to Christopher Gose's eerie "Fly Panel" (the components presumably found dead and not sacrificed for art's sake), F. Douglas Schatz's refined and contained found-object pieces to Katherine Shaw's funky fabric "Simone's Canary," at once foreboding and comic.

However, it's Lisa Austin's "Child Garden for the ICU" that arrests the visitor, a work generated by personal experience that will reverberate particularly with anyone who's been suspended in that timeless zone that hovers maddeningly between life and death. Groupings of elemental tree forms -- easily moved and sanitized -- are designed to bring an illusion of nature, security and humanity to a sterile and tense environment.

Poignant and practical, Austin's project was installed on a trial basis in a hospital's pediatric unit, and with feedback she's redesigned it, with the intent of securing a grant so that such units may be placed in children's wards worldwide. In situ, under the glare of a fluorescent tube and surrounding a too-tiny white "bed," the effect is like that of stumbling upon the portions of old graveyards where babies were buried, away from family, isolated in death.

"Flights" continues through April 6. Free admission. The gallery is open 5 to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 1 to 3 p.m. Fridays and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. For information, call 724-830-1071.

Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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