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"Half Air"
installation view
at Marianne Boesky Gallery

Forest Bess
Untitled (No. 18) (The Origin in Time and Noise)

Jack Smith
ca. 1962

Jack Smith
16 Immortal Photographs (detail)

The Wooster Group and Ken Kobland
Still from By the Sea
American Spirituality
by John Reed

"Half Air," July 8-Aug. 29, 2003, at Marianne Boesky Gallery, 535 West 22 Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

With an exhibition titled "Half Air," the temptation is to talk about spiritualism. Spirituality in art has of late been so overwhelmed by Eastern ascendancy and Stonehenge incantations that it's hard not to chime in with some down-home American flaky-isms. "Half Air," however, is not about anything so constricted as organized theisms. The show invokes an awe more fundamental -- one that precurses religious dogma.

Seven small oils on canvas by the reclusive visionary artist Forest Bess (1911-77), spanning an eight-year period, form the backbone of the show, which also includes works by Glenn Branca, James Bishop, Charlemagne Palestine, Jack Smith and a double film projection by Ken Kobland and the Wooster Group. The curators -- Clay Hapaz, Elisabeth Ivers and Jay Sanders -- have gone in for a curatorial cross-pollinating of artistic eras, mixing work from as early as 1949 (Bess) to as late as 1993 (Bishop). In a sweltering August quarto, "Half Air" pursues themes of death, sexual identity, prayer and ceremony.

The pioneering Lower East Side film artist Jack Smith (1932-89) has had a certain presence in Chelsea this summer, with one of his trademark costumes on display in a group show at Matthew Marks Gallery as well as sculptures and photographs here. Smith's sculptures -- faded Polaroids attached to white-painted wooden cubes, arranged casually like a kid's blocks -- though dated ca. 1962, have an emerging presence, and prophetic wisdom. These artifacts make a stark introduction to "Half Air's" meditation on mortality -- faded, cracking photos hold forth on ephemeral memory, while rough wood evokes, by way of tree rings, the pattern of the living thing bisected.

Belied by their abstracted serenity, Forest Bess' simple, runic paintings can be harrowing. Their staying power in the memory is remarkable, and indicative of their own concern with, if not the hereafter, the after. The pictures can imply heaven or hell, or simply the mystical nature of decay.

To Bess, like Smith, where there are concerns of death, sex will follow. A fiery red rupture in Bess' #12A serves as connective tissue between sex and the beyond. And, curatorially, this connection is employed to emphasize the relatedness of a series of Jack Smith photos in the rear gallery, which feature reclining figures, part Last Supper, part orgy. The photos are very much in line with the dancing, bathing nuns of Ken Kobland and the Wooster Group.

Bess' #18 (The Origin in Tone and Noise) floats a musical-like scale in abstracted space. With the hum and chanting that comes from several 1970s videos by Charlemagne Palestine (as well as a 1973 wall installation that was recreated for the show), prayer is made integral to the overall exhibition -- the gallery becomes a living temple.

And not to discount the importance of ceremony in any form of worship, pomp and fashion are a major concern of Palestine, Kobland and Smith. Bess is implicated in this thread as well -- his untitled painting (The Crown), will permit, beyond an abstract mindscape, no more realization than that of a thorn wreath, and streams of blood.

In the realm of spirituality, U.S. Culture is no contest for Tibetan sophisticates -- yet "Half Air" captures the honesty of American oafishness. The dead fish held up by the Wooster Group players in Kobland's video By The Sea does not so much represent the iconographic Christian fish as it represents a plain old dead fish, and plain old death. The assertion is of blunt profundity, and emblematic of that kind of American spirituality -- flaky though it may be -- where one wouldn't drink wine or scotch, or get lonely, but one might drink beer or bourbon, and get lonesome.

JOHN REED is author of the novels A Still Small Voice (Delacorte Press), Snowball's Chance (Roof Books) and the forthcoming Duh Whole (MTV Books).