At Gowanus Ballroom, the Sacred and the Carnivalesque


Flambeaux Fire performer Abby Hertz

As you tiptoe along the fetid Gowanus Canal towards the back lot of last century’s industry, silhouettes of fedoras and pulsing, indie rock signal that you’ve come to the right spot. If you’re staying in town for the 4th of July weekend, don’t miss the bizarre back-alley installation “The Architecture of Devotion” at the Gowanus Ballroom.

Despite the name, it’s not a dance hall (but you can get your groove on inside). The Ballroom is a 19th-century steel mill, the current site of Serrett metalworks and a peculiar and invigorating art and performance space.

For the current show, “The Architecture of Devotion,” more than 35 New York-based artists are featuring works that twist the meaning of sacred art, exploring religion, mysticism, and spirituality through a variety of mediums. But it’s less silent Eastern zendo and more Southern revival.

As you enter the enormous 12,000-square-foot space, your glance soars up to 50-foot cathedral ceilings. “The space itself has characteristics that are very cathedral-like that would evoke some of the elements of devotional art,” says show’s curator Ursula Viglietta. Whether the art inside lives up to the theme is best left up to the congregant.

For example, Jenni Crain’s untitled sculpture made of hundreds of red pipe cleaners crawls up one corner of the upper level. Devotional? Dubious. But it certainly provokes meditation on color, form and utility. Naho Taruishi invites the visitor to sit for a spell and enter a new visual realm. “Close Your Eyes to See” is a journey for the eyes, where colors are flashed in a timed pattern that creates scenes beyond your closed lids.

“I try to find work that is either conceptual or guttural,” Viglietta says. “I want people to come into the gallery, whether or not they’re art school grads, and get something from it. It should be able to be appreciated by a wide variety of people.”

“Dear Life” by Sheena Rae Dowling

Some works more directly filter the theme through the lens of contemporary city living such as Robert Rodriguez’s stained glass of a Brooklyn skyscape and Peter Waite’s take on 18th century tomb that has been being tagged by miniature urban vandals.

Maria Berrio’s bright, 12-foot-high collage of women twirling their skirts is reminiscent of Gustav Kilmt. “Her work captures the essence of walking into these sacred places,” Viglietta says. “It’s large and it’s breathtaking. It’s beautiful and delicate.”

More than religion or devotion, curiosity seems to be the central motif. You can buy a grilled cheese sandwich from a surly carnival worker with dreds down to the backs of his knees or stick your nose into a set of miniature construction workers and then turn your gaze to a giant cluster of metal contraptions in the sky. Meanwhile, a lineup of live performances ranging from elegant fire shows to seven-piece bands keeps the spirit moving.

Perhaps the most profound experience in the space is the “enchanted grotto” by Sheena Rae Dowling and Erich Gerhard Winzer. The two-story tree house is cluttered inside with warm, lit candles, tiny glass jars, ribbons of lace and a roof made of panty hose. As with many religious structures, the interior evokes simultaneous feelings of protection and danger, enveloping warmth and chilling oddity. Inside is a work entitled “Dear Life” by Dowling herself. Made of beeswax, plaster chain and lace, a life-size figure lies on her side in the fetal position, arms overhead. Her wrists are shackled to a chain, which is attached to a bag of broken eggshells on the other end.

If you’re hell-bent on the beach this weekend, fret not. Viglietta promises about six shows a year at the Gowanus Ballroom. Let’s pray for another captivating experience this August.

“The Architecture of Devotion” runs through Sunday, July 3, 2011 at the Gowanus Ballroom, 55 9th St. between the Gowanus Canal and 2nd Ave. Open Sat.­–Sun. 6pm-12am. Admission $10.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)