By Tom Wachunas
“My ideas are based on goals of healing, educating and problem-solving. I translate these goals into interactive art, where visitors play an active role in the life cycle of the work.” – artist Melissa Daubert, from her web site: www.melissadaubert.com
EXHIBIT: Devoted: New Work by Melissa Daubert, at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH AUGUST 31 www.translationsart.com View works at www.translationsart.com/gallery/devoted
After looking at this exhibit for about 20 minutes on my first fly-by, the initial observation that I scrawled on my note pad was simply ‘this time it’s really personal.’ To the artist, no question. But I needed to remind myself to stay focused on just how remarkably resonant Melissa Daubert’s site-specific (sight-specific?) installation is with my own sensibilities as an artist who loves God deeply.
This is not to say that the exhibit comprehensively embraces or espouses any specific religion. What the show does evoke is a sense of religiosity – indeed, a compelling spirituality – as implied in the idea of ‘devotion.’ So yes, there are some overtly theological references. Devoted to Krishna: 108 Gopis, for example, is a brightly colored collection of 108 Gopi figurines (“cow-herd” girls) made of painted cow dung.
In general, though, the exhibit is an immersive, interactive presentation (some of the pieces have moving parts which viewers can activate) of various human proclivities which on one level might seem like mundane routines. But by placing them in the “devoted to…” context, Daubert lets us reconsider the actions and tasks she illustrates – such as caring for a beloved pet, cleaning the house, farming or mowing the lawn, to name only some - as paths toward a more elevated attitude about “ordinary” societal engagements.
Daubert’s forms of people and animals are pared down to an archetypal kind of simplicity. Her raw materials are a modest means to an edifying end. Coconut hair, wood, and wire are assembled with a loving exactitude that conveys a domestic charm and humility while at the same time exuding a primal, ritualistic air.
Particularly effective in delivering the ethos of devotions acknowledged in this show is Devoted To Our Pets: Bhuda. A lanky cat (with jiggling tail) stands in the center of a circle of bricks on the floor strewn with used insulin needles – 1,717 of them. Dauber explains in her accompanying comments that Budha, her cat of 18 years, was diabetic and needed insulin twice daily. The needles are from 3,434 injections over a span of 4.7 years.
The piece reminds me that our purest and most rewarding devotions are expressions of our unflinching loyalties and unconditional love. And as with other pieces in the exhibit, I’m also reminded of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century lay brother who for more than 50 years served as a cook and sandal repairer at a Carmelite monastery in Paris. His book, The Practice of the Presence of God, was published in 1692, and today remains a potent document of devotion’s power to impart joy amid even the most menial labors.
In the end, Daubert’s intriguing sculptural vignettes are intimate, totemic embodiments – narratives, actually – of servanthood.
PHOTOS (from top):Devoted To Our Pets: Budha / Devotion Through Posture: Kneeling / Devoted To Clean: The Mopper