In his “Sacred and Profane” solo show, opening Friday at Tanner-Hill Gallery, sculptor Cessna Decosimo takes a turn toward publicly showing works with religious and sexual themes that he has been exploring privately for decades.
“I’ve always been frustrated because I’ve been really excited about the work in my sketchbooks. Although a lot of this work manifests itself in public work, most of it has always stayed in the sketchbooks.”
A week before the show’s opening, Decosimo previewed some of the pieces that will be in the show for me in his studio off of Main Street.
Re-Illustrating the Bible
“My mom always wanted me to illustrate the Bible, perhaps not the way I’m illustrating it,” he said, showing me an illustrated edition of the Gospels he bought at Shakespeare and Company, the famous English-language bookstore in Paris. The book is illustrated twice, with four-color plates from the publisher and ink drawings by Decosimo on top of the text.
“I started enjoying how the words were intersecting with the drawings, for example, the woman taken in adultery. If you look there you can see I’m drawing her nude on that page.”
Decosimo credits Angela Usrey, owner of Tanner-Hill Gallery, with making it possible for him to make these private themes public. When Decosimo told his former dealer that he was drawing nudes on Bible pages, he said, “Her response was, ‘Oh my God, I won’t be able to show those, not with my clientele.’ It was so disappointing.”
When he started working with Angela Usrey, she not only encouraged him but—literally —gave him a bigger canvas. She presented him an antique Book of Common Prayer with oversize pages and gorgeous classical typesetting.
“I called Cessna and said, ‘I have a present for you.’ It just felt right,” she said. “I’ve had that thing for 15 years and I just knew at some point I’ll know what I’m supposed to do with it.
“Sacred and Profane” includes original pages from that book adorned with what might be thought of as “second illuminations” by Decosimo.
Unified by the Snake
The next stop on the studio tour is a traditional Baptist church sign that has been modified with Catholic and personal iconography.
“I was raised by a Baptist mother and a Catholic father, so this is purely autobiographical,” Decosimo said. “My mother always said the Catholics left Christ on the cross because they didn’t understand grace, they needed the blood of Christ to be continually shed, whereas the Protestants did not. I say the Protestants threw the baby out with bath water.”
On a 16-foot tall reproduction of a sign for Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church a few blocks from his Southside studio, Decosimo has overlaid a Christ figure based on a Catholic crucifix, with a snake twined around his head. The image—sign, Christ and snake—appears on both sides of the sign. The snake unifies these two churches, said Decosimo.
“No matter what, they both have their carnal nature. It might be a priest preying on little boys, it might be the youth pastor preying on children. It’s happening everywhere. Or as my mom says ‘It only takes a little arsenic to kill.’”
Another room of Decosimo’s studio has large paintings of lush female figures in vibrant royal blues, some classically draped and some nude.
One was inspired by a night Decosimo spent last winter in Paris’s Montmartre district, perhaps the city’s most lurid mix of sacred and profane, including the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Moulin Rouge cabaret and numerous prostitutes. Staying in the cheapest hotel there, Decosimo woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of passion coming through the wall.