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.
Changing his voice to a lurid whisper, he recreates this dialog: “Ca va? Ca te plait? Oui, ca me plait.” Translation: “How’s that? Do you like that? Yes, that’s good.”
The result is “Ecstasy of the Sacred Heart”—named for the famous Basilica near the hotel—a simple but stunning sketch-painting of a woman in the throes of passion. Rather than working his vision of carnality into a detailed painting, Decosimo leaves the immediacy of the sketch intact, including a few drips of blue paint running down the canvas from a really wet brush.
There’s also a lot of play in these works. “The Angel Marilyn,” in rich purple tones, depicts a very Monroe-like angel with heraldic sword and shield, inspired by the angel Moroni, who dictated the Book of Mormon to patriarch Joseph Smith. Decosimo says he was thinking a lot about Mormonism when he thought we might have a Mormon president.
“If Joseph Smith had the angel Moroni, why can’t an angel come to me?” he thought. Decosimo said he wouldn’t mind being in charge of a new church, especially the iconography, but rather than a Moroni, “I’m requesting personally that I get a Marilyn. Her way of illumination and inspiration will probably be through carnality,” he deadpanned.
Wall of Bacchus
The biggest element in the new exhibit can’t be seen yet, but Decosimo and Usrey tell me about it. Earlier this year, when she called Decosimo to suggest that he paint a wall in the gallery, he already had the same thing in mind.
The day before the show opens, Decosimo will paint a mural on one of the gallery walls. The process will be captured on video by another artist Usrey represents, Kevin McCarthy, a filmmaker and conceptual artist based in New Hampshire. As Decosimo and Usrey talk about how the mural was conceived, he starts sketching.
“I have an idea. We’ll see if it works out,” Decosimo said. “I’ve been composing it in my head, roughly. What’s interesting is it’s going to have to be spontaneous. This is the first time I’ve drawn it.”
He describes the scene as it takes shape on a piece of lined paper torn from a notebook. In the background is the Greek god Bacchus, along with a few of his many female followers, known as Bacchante. Decosimo is in the foreground painting the scene.
“Bacchus is taking a break,” he said. “I’ll do a Velasquez nude, a model that’s looking over my shoulder here and maybe another here. They’ve come over here to look and see what’s happened, to keep me company.”
The wall painting will be Decosimo’s take on another polarity that complements the sacred and profane. The Greeks included much of what we consider profane within the sacred. They were more interested in a tension between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. In mythology, Bacchus (also known as Dionysus) is a somewhat dark god of revelry and intoxication ... or if he is disrespected, of frenzied madness. Apollo is the paragon of light and rational thought.
In Decosimo’s wall painting, “You have the Dionysian, which is the flesh-loving, drunken, orgiastic, feeling response to life, and then you have the Apollonian. I’m trying in this image to create the dynamic between the Apollonian, which will be the study of the Dionysian, and the Dionysus scene.”
When paint begins to hit the wall on Thursday night, Decosimo will be improvising, so this scene might not be what visitors see on the wall at Friday’s opening. As he finished the sketch and handed it to me he said, “I’m pretty sure this is going to be it. Here you go. See if that doesn’t happen.”
Cessna Decosimo: “Sacred and Profane”
New painting and sculptures
Nov. 16-Jan. 11, 2013
Opening Reception and Talk
Friday, Nov. 6 • 5:30 p.m.
3069 Broad St. (423) 280-7182