“Idol Anxiety,” a small, engaging show at the Smart Museum of Art, investigates the age-old tension between material image and divine form. The artworks—culled from Greek, Christian, Judaic and ancient Near Eastern sources—show a range of strategies that humans have employed for getting at divinity: painted icons, altarpieces, worshipper figurines all present different pathways for contemplating god in visual form. All of the objects create a physical form out of an abstract idea or ephemeral ritual, and some of them are more “anxious” than others about this translation.
With about twenty objects displayed in the Smart’s Edward A. Maser Gallery, “Idol Anxiety” has a minimalist, even ascetic feel. Don’t go expecting a buzzing wealth of visual data—this is not a survey show. It reads much more as an essay, a studied rumination on what it means to be a sacred image. If the show has a shortcoming, it is the at-times cavalier attitude toward its objects, giving equal curatorial weight, for example, to a fourteenth-century altarpiece in the flesh and black-and-white reproductions of paintings. Guest curator Aaron Tugendhaft prizes the ideas above the artwork. But ultimately you have to forgive him, because the ideas run deep, and get at a very fundamental question: What do images do?
Put simply, the image “re-presents” something: it makes it present again, after the thing itself has fled or vanished. A row of Mesopotamian statuettes in the gallery’s first room would have stood in a shrine facing the head icon, acting as stand-in worshippers after the human venerators had left. A useful function, but even this role presents some tricky implications. The blank eye sockets of the largest figurine would have been set with luminous stones, as though to give the appearance of actual watchful eyes. The object begins to blur (if only very slightly) the distinction between stone representation and animate being. This kind of ambivalence becomes resoundingly problematic when the image is of God himself. How do you depict divinity with the mundane tools of carved wood or painted board? The biblical prohibition against “graven images” (writ large on one of the gallery walls) reminds us that, from at least one major Western perspective, this contradiction was untenable.
One of the best moments in the show is Tugendhaft’s pairing of a Mesopotamian tablet fragment with Albrecht Dürer’s 1513 engraving “Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels.” The cuneiform tablet (according to the adjacent wall text) describes an ancient ritual in which artisans would deny the role of their hands in the icon they had just made. The artisans would swear they had nothing do with it, and a priest would symbolically cut off their hands with a wooden sword. Beside it, Dürer’s engraving provides a more modern riff on artistic handicraft. The sudarium is the mystical impression of Christ’s face left on Veronica’s cloak on the way to the crucifixion. Dürer’s medium of engraving is cleverly an impression itself, a copy of an original, and it nominally removes the artist’s hand from the work. But Dürer’s handicraft, of course, is everywhere: the angels’ tight curls, the soft cross-hatchings in Christ’s face all display a very proficient, even showy, artistic dexterity.
The incarnation of Christ—the word made flesh—proves fertile ground for interrogating the thorny issues at hand, and the show concludes with a number of Christian objects. There is a palpable shift in these more modern examples. Christ’s anguished expression in an eighteenth-century German Crucifixion begs for sympathetic identification from the viewer. A nineteenth-century Yemeni Holy Tree diagrams the sefirot, the traits of God as explained by Jewish mysticism. As we move away from the institutionalized ritual of the ancient world, the images become less about representation and more about recollection—about making divine experience or history accessible to human memory.
A rash of shows lately has focused on the institutional spaces of art, and their hidden histories (for a great example of this, see Michael Rakowitz’s piece in the Contemporary Gallery next door). Tugendhaft, though, is concerned not with art but, rather refreshingly, with the simpler and more profound question of image-making and its effects. In its modest scale and carefully presented thesis, the show continues in the tradition of the Smart’s 2006 “Revisions.” While not as polished as its predecessor (the 2006 exhibition bore the stamp of Senior Curator Richard Born’s excellent eye), it similarly argues its point through carefully chosen case studies. It doesn’t rush or overwhelm the viewer. And it gets at a very deep and expansive question about art and image-making.
“Idol Anxiety” shows at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, 5550 South Greenwood, (773)702-0200, through November 2.