Loss Leader

'Memento Mori,' a small but well-selected exhibit, gives a fresh look at a subject that's been done to death

Rotting bodies, leering skulls, flickering candles, droopy roses -- not one of these creaky, well-worn symbols for death and the passage of time makes an appearance in "Memento Mori," the latest national juried exhibition organized by Mesa Contemporary Arts.

Formerly operating under the name of Galeria Mesa, Mesa Contemporary Arts invited Meg Linton, executive director of the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum in California, to jury "Memento Mori," which runs through November 18. This small but nicely hand-picked show focuses on expanded themes of loss, longing and memorial in more contemporary terms than the usual Day of the Dead fare passed out like stale trick-or-treat candy at this time of year. Mercifully, Linton has spared us from prosaic, Halloween-themed offerings, giving us a fresh look at artists' interpretations of an old, essentially unavoidable motif.

Out of 241 artists from around the country who submitted work, the former exhibition curator at California State University, Long Beach, weeded out the work of only six artists for inclusion in "Memento Mori." Though Linton had no idea of the identities of the artists whose work she was judging (name, address, gender and other types of identifying information are routinely withheld from the juror), she managed to choose pieces by three Arizona artists for the show.

Toenail Reliquary by Becky Chader has nail clippings inside.
Toenail Reliquary by Becky Chader has nail clippings inside.

The idea of the memento mori, a Latin admonition to remember one's death, first cropped up in the late, pre-antibiotic Middle Ages when the Black Death, or bubonic plague, was decimating entire cites throughout medieval Europe. An object or image that made reference to death's omnipresent reality during these pandemic times, the memento mori first appeared in paintings and prints in the guise of skeletons, decaying corpses and coffins, as well as that easily spotted character with the scythe, the Grim Reaper. Such representations, often coupled with other symbols that metaphorically stood for life's fleeting pleasures, were used by Catholic hierarchy to warn the faithful of the vanity of physical life and the inevitability of death as a prelude to spiritual afterlife. Later, memento mori tombs, topped with sculptures of withering bodies and skeletons, came into vogue.

By the 16th century, paintings of deceased nuns and priests, usually depicted as if merely snoozing, were being commissioned to memorialize dead religious community members. When the more affordable medium of photography was introduced in the mid-19th century in Europe and America, photographic death or "mourning" portraits were all the rage.

With a decidedly postmodern twist, several of the artists in Mesa's "Memento Mori" exhibition turn death and loss on their bony heads. Instead of an unimaginative skeleton, we get Maya Allcott's Punching Judy, a headless body-cum-punching bag fashioned from old, beaten-up tan and turquoise vinyl, suspended from the ceiling. The stripped-down, folk-art quality of the piece is intentional, according to the artist, who has expertly carved the hands of the limp, decapitated figure from wood. The very title of Allcott's strange, rather diminutive dangling doll sculpture is a play on the centuries-old, violently burlesque English puppet-show characters Punch and Judy. Allcott's version less than subtly suggests that violence is a part of the fabric of our existence, plaguing even children's toys.

For Kristin Caskey of Richmond, Virginia, mourned loss encompasses containing and grieving for a past checkered with youthful indiscretion. In her Evidence Series, Caskey has created a number of reliquaries, which traditionally are ornate receptacles for preserving or displaying sacred relics (generally, the body parts of purported saints). Caskey's personal, stuffed-animal interpretations, however, take the shape of a long-tailed rat, a bunny and a glove -- all made out of black-edged metallic cloth and each embroidered with a wreath-crowned ribbon executed in black thread.

In Teen Years Reliquary: Backpack, we are treated to an almost embarrassingly confessional outpouring on a tag the artist has attached to a silver-fabric soft sculpture shaped like a backpack. Instead of containing holy body parts of saints, the backpack holds old memories of an artist's adolescence gone woefully awry. Caskey's "relics" are a pretty entertaining litany of youthful sins, including the commission of some unidentified felony against a tree, "sodomy, multiple acts," flying round-trip to Asia on a stolen voucher and "revenge fantasies," like "I wish so-and-so would get run over, etc."

Tempe's Becky Chader goes a step further with her tongue-in-cheek, borderline blasphemous renditions of antique reliquaries still in use in European and Latin American churches. A giant toe constructed of copper and silver, resplendent with bullet-shaped garnets and moonstone cabochons, Toenail Reliquary rivals real repositories of religious remains of old. But the hinged toenail of Chader's container lifts up to reveal toenail clippings one suspects came from some serious sinner instead of a saint.

In Preservation of the Core, a shriveled apple core rests in peace in a miniature copper casket (made to look like bronze) lined with white satin and dotted with pearls. An apple in its prime, also rendered in patinated metal, decorates the top of the tiny casket, a tribute to juicier days.

A bottle of old mosquito repellent under an old glass bell jar, its label dated 1966, is the focus of Northwoods Necessity: A Reliquary for Mosquito Repellent.The bottle -- still filled with liquid and ringed by "jewels" of citronella and crossed-out mosquitoes -- is transformed into an object of dubious devotion. Bowing mosquitoes made of sterling silver, their stingers burrowing into copper flesh, do butts-up obeisance to the repellent, which contains DEET, a poison that, in large enough quantities, can kill the user as well as mosquitoes.

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