May 16 – June 13, 2010
As he journeyed, he came near Damascus and suddenly a light shone round him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground and he heard a voice…
—Acts 9: 3-4
It is the intensity and life-altering nature that makes for an ecstatic experience. Saul was a Roman citizen and a persecutor of Christians. He set out for Damascus with a mission to capture and imprison converts. On the way he experienced a religious vision of such strength he was knocked from his horse. So potent was the incident and so complete was his transformation, that he not only became a believer in Christ, he became a devout missionary for the cause. To christen the new person he had become, Saul changed his name to Paul and is now known as one of the principal founders and shapers of Christianity.
The ecstatic episode changes you that much. It is not a slow evolution, but a blinding light, like that seen by Paul. It can seize you when you least expect it. It can assail the senses. It has such ferocity and depth many people go searching for it. Curious Matter is conducting its own expedition into the ecstatic, looking to get a glimpse of how artists come to view this vehicle of sudden transformation. The journey can take us down many sensory paths, whether invoked with sex, drugs, money or spirituality.
The Eastern concept of the mantra usually involves a word or phrase that, repeated over and over, will induce a transformation. In Sky Kim’s scroll, Untitled 3, she uses the repetition of the pen in her labor-intensive process to stand in for the mantra. Even looking at the billowing, undulating forms, can induce a trance-like state, where the viewer is transported to the clouds.
Eric Standley has created a mandala from cut paper with Either/Or Circle. The mandala is also an Eastern device for concentrating the attention of those seeking a spiritual communication as the eye follows the complex patterns around and into the center. Either/Or Circle also has the forms inherent in Gothic rose windows, which, although not conceived as mandalas, serve much the same purpose to create sacred space.
Laurie Sheridan evokes the ecstasies of the bacchanal in her monotype Revival. Through the use of drugs, alcohol, ritual, music and dance, the bacchanal can be a religious observance or a Saturday night party; either a spiritual or secular experience. The aim is to overwhelm the senses so that the participant, for a short while, steps outside of their mundane, work-a-day world.
Extreme physical stress, pain, or endurance is a shamanic method to remove oneself from ordinary experience and rend an opening into the Otherworld. For those not so spiritually inclined, the adrenaline rush caused by pain alone can serve as a pleasurable end in itself. Ross Bennett Lewis’ photograph, Twilight Round-up, explores the sensations of extreme physical stress through the giddy feeling resulting from the turning and tilting motion of a carnival ride.
Lauren Nye’s sculpture, Nursery I, alludes to the joys of motherhood and the psychological fulfillment of the child as an extension of the self. Her work also has roots in the veneration of objects that have associations with power or spirituality. Thus, the medieval church would create reliquaries for a piece of the manger that held Jesus, Mary Magdalene’s tooth, or a splinter of the true cross. This idea continues down to the present day: high prices are paid to own a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe or the glove of Michael Jackson, because of the desire to be close to the aura of celebrity or power.
The preening compulsion to surround oneself with gilding did not begin with Donald Trump, and Bernie Madoff isn’t the first to fall from grace as a result of greed. The ancient Greeks had the myth of Danae. To preserve her chastity, she was imprisoned by her father in an underground room. In her deprivation, Danae was visited by Zeus, who appeared to her as a shower of gold. Gold in this story symbolizes both the extreme pleasure of receiving an expensive gift and a vital life source. The Greeks also created the myth of Midas as a counterpoint, where the fulfilled wish for the creation of constant wealth backfires and becomes a horror. Eric Mistretta reminds us of the power of the giving and receiving of wealth and its dichotomy of good and evil with, You Shouldn’t Have. The gold ribbons in his piece refer back to the joys of Danae or the horror of Midas.
The allure of the ecstatic experience can pull us through the darkness of addiction or to the heights of enlightenment. In order to reach the infinite we may choose extreme indulgences or denials. We each choose our own path to joy. The artists of The Ecstatic have provided both guides and warnings into the intoxicating sensualities, sacred or profane, that may join us to the divine or, at least, bring us a little closer.