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After nine years in the desert, the feel of the cool ocean water lapping at my toes is a faded childhood memory. Growing up on Long Island, I spent summers along the sandy shores, picking up purple-streaked shells and poking at the runny carcasses of jellyfish that would slowly dissolve back into the water. I was fascinated by these creatures. They would float on the surface with their long tentacles dangling behind, performing a strangely seductive water ballet.
Similar reminiscing inspired Tucson-based artist Gwyneth Scally to create "Jelly," an installation of large-scale sculptures and acrylic paintings at Mesa Contemporary Arts. It's an intelligent, exotic exhibit that examines the relationship between science and spirituality using imagery that viewers, especially coastal transplants, can identify with.
Eight three-dimensional jellyfish sculptures, nicknamed "The Pilgrims," float in the large, open gallery. Their bulbous heads are slick and the dangling tendrils carry a blush of pink. Scally's craftsmanship is impeccable. Initially, I thought the painted fiberglass and fabric heads were preserved specimens of actual jellyfish. For those who've been stung, the realism may be disturbing.
For me, the swarm of gelatinous creatures brings back the sights and sounds of the sea. Waves crashing. Seagulls circling like vultures over beach debris. Soft, white sand squishing between my toes.
The sculptures alone would make an intriguing showpiece. But Scally intended the entire exhibit six paintings, eight sculptures and one paneled centerpiece to be viewed as a whole. Thus, the individual pieces are not titled. It's a minor annoyance (especially for a reviewer) but her decision makes sense in light of the spiritual implications of the installation.
The centerpiece comprises stained mahogany panels, individually painted and joined together to form a monochromatic red image. A single character is shown in two poses. On the left, the young man is entangled in the tentacles of a jellyfish, his eyes diverted toward the heavens. On the right, he angrily bites his own flesh as the stinging tendrils wrap around his forearm.
It's the ultimate battle of science versus theology. The use of this simple organism, which Darwin theorized is our evolutionary ancestor, along with the blood-red color and the eating of the body creates a unique spiritual tension.
The centerpiece resembles the painted wooden altarpieces seen in medieval cathedrals. But here, the classic Biblical scene is supplanted by a modern skeptic's view of religion. Those clever subtleties combine to form a powerful sucker punch at organized religion.
Four smaller monochromatic works flank the entrance of the exhibit, each containing an image of a female model. In one painting, the thin, attractive woman is shown in profile, the thin strands of her long hair slowly becoming the tendrils of a jellyfish. Another model is shown with muscular arms and the round belly of impending motherhood. An obviously masculine third arm protrudes from her womb, the fingers arranged in Christ's gesture of peace. This image is sans jellyfish. It's a beautiful stand-alone piece but too blatantly religious when placed in proximity to the rest of the installation.
Scally's craftsmanship and realistic style combines with witty religious subtext to make a powerful statement. Perhaps jellyfish really are our evolutionary ancestors. Or, they are merely another of God's creations.
The point Scally ultimately drives home is that there's no proving either theory. To her, religion and science are like jellyfish. Lovely to behold; but if you get too close, you're bound to get stung.