N.Y. Journal: Redeeming sacred space


When artist Gabriel Reese painted a picture of a troubled homeless man, he chose to fix his portrait to an abandoned church, since the church, like the man, was abandoned but symbolized refuge and rest.

In Spanish Harlem, another church stood empty for decades at the corner of Lexington and 102nd, with a yard surrounded by an iron fence. Its history was hazy but it was supposedly once a Caribbean church, then deserted and became a site for squatters and bums and druggies. The real estate company next door was about to take it over and turn it into townhouses when artist Sophie Lvoff redeemed the space, devoting it to an art display called "Sacrosanct."

There were nails poking from the church floor, trash hanging from the ceiling, and it was dark except for the stained glass windows that were somehow intact. Lvoff still thought it was beautiful so she cleaned it up, got electricity and gathered a group of young artists to create a display.

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Lvoff, a Catholic, said it's difficult for young artists to explore how to treat religion in their work. Negativity and mockery has become almost cliché, and she was glad this display "didn't turn into a negative conversation."

Lvoff likes working with images that come from above, and the image of an airplane as a man-made, metal cross. Her photographs hang on the wall to your right as you walk in. One is a rocket, taken in Germany where the V-2 rocket leveled the landscape and destroyed the churches there. The other is a picture of the sky in Maine---cloudy but with a patch of blue showing through, a hole you can imagine a rocket penetrating.

Heather Jones used sutures, gauze, and a traditional pattern to sew a filmy quilt for a marriage bed, set in the alcove where light tips through a stained glass window.

At the head of the room, where the altar would have once stood, is a life-size reinterpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, by Zaq Landsberg. The figures' faces are blank, but the table is draped with a cheap lace rendering of da Vinci's great work. The figures have Last Supper fabric and fleece blankets pinned on to them, and there are plates in front of them, stamped with the Last Supper. Christ's face is as blank as the rest and he seems lost in the crowd, his posture taken aback and reserved as the other figures bend toward each other in heated discussion.

This display is about the materialization of the Last Supper. Another display shows unicorn's horns, once thought sacred but now broken off of figurines and displayed like knick-knacks. It shows that we collect sacred objects as good luck charms and superstitions.

My thought was that "Sacrosanct" memorialized a church that had somehow lost its way. Lvoff said other churches in the area are still thriving, and the history of this church's crumbling seems to be lost in time. But despite the scabbing plaster and bruised floors, the space is still beautiful. Even though the art seems heavy with the sadness of a prostituted sacredness, the stillness and the light coming through the stained glass still give an aura of sacredness and redemption.


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