Come on Pilgrim

David Sandlin
Donnell Library Window Space, NYC
Through March 27, 2011

The painter Veronese was summoned before the Inquisition in 1573 to answer to charges of blasphemy. In a painting of The Last Supper he represented worldly things in addition to the spiritual. Among his figures was a dog, which constituted the blasphemy for which he was being charged. A decade earlier the Council of Trent had declared what was iconography for these religious scenes, and a dog clearly was not among the list of appropriate subjects.

Veronese explained in his defense that certain formal concerns in the painting had led to the inclusion of a dog. The court remained unmoved, and Veronese was ordered to substitute a Magdalene for the offensive pooch or be subject to penalties by the Holy Tribunal. Veronese kept the dog -- and changed the title of the painting.

Iconographic references abound in David Sandlin's paintings at the Donnell Library. "Walpurgisnachtmart" and "Belle Past/Bellefast" teem with political, religious, and cultural references. The two murals are half of Sandlin's suite "Oh, My Son, All of This Is Yours," which is a corollary to his illustrated book A Sinner's Progress. Like the British satirist Hogarth, who painted "A Rake's Progress" and invented the genre of art-as-morality tale, Sandling updates the form, adding a jumble of contemporary references.

Green Kenny Sharf-like serpents wrap around trees, and lines of pseudo-Biblical scripture are lettered over the image, referencing illuminated manuscripts, annunciation scenes, and graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman's Maus. Also, the installation, enclosed in Donnell windows, harkens back to a time when art was displayed as a means of telling a story or imparting a lesson from the Bible. Sandlin plays with this trope, toying with style, through the mural-scale works. He then tweaks the process by using contemporary illustrational style and pictorial elements to deconstruct a long-accepted and understood tradition. Vinyl appliqués of symbols, such as a one-eyed pilgrim’s head icon, adhere to the front of the Donnell windows, falsely providing a "key" to the paintings. It seems as if Sandlin is eating his cake and having it too: we think we can decipher the images through the clues, but the attempts prove futile. The pilgrim might refer to "The Pilgrim's Progress," but maybe, with all the contemporary references, we might best see this icon as a symbol of Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim -- the hero of Slaughterhouse-Five. He became "unstuck in time," traveling temporally from his days as a WWII soldier to his capture in the future by space aliens. In a sense, Sandlin's combinations of various tropes is the visual equivalent of Vonnegut's novel. He collects the symbols and signs of our age and presents them in a style as old as Giotto.

This might be the significance of the show -- particularly as it is presented at the Donnell Library. So much information available, yet without a key to understanding it, the library, like these pictures, is an amazing juggernaut, a Tower of Babel. - Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.