My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.
—King James James Bible
Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s exhibit, entitled The Chiefest of Ten Thousand, at the sparkling new Nino Mier Gallery is as complex and open to interpretation as the Bible passage that the title comes from. Dupuy-Spencer (who is half Jewish and half Catholic) explores the mysteriousness of religion, friendship, love and sex in her large-scale paintings.
The first painting one encounters is the “The Chiefest of Ten Thousand (Sarah 2) (2018, oil on linen, 105 x 96”), which shows the back of an androgynous figure engaged in cunnilingus. If one is heterosexual, one might assume the figure is that of a man. One would be wrong. It is two women who are pictured surrounded by cats watching them — one voyeuristic cat is humorously spread eagled on a window watching a nude female neighbor on her bed. A half-eaten apple, an empty glass, family pictures, clothes strewn around, a flower in a tacky vase without water, all haphazardly scattered about, provide a homey, cluttered and even a mundane touch to this intimate scenario. But then what does one make of the skull lurking at the bottom of the picture? This is reminiscent of the famously anxious Woody Allen’s movie “Love and Death” (his two preoccupations.) Does this imply that our fear of death drives us to seek love often through sex? Is this a secret rumination on the specter of death?
Dupuy-Spencer studied with the abstractionist painter Amy Sillman and the figurative painter Nicole Eisenman at Bard College, and her work reflects the influence of Eisenmen’s content as well as Sillman’s painterly gesture. Dupuy-Spencers’ “The Chiefest of Ten Thousand (Sarah 2)” can be seen as an homage to Eisenman’s, as it is quite similar to Eisenman’s “It Is So,” a painting also depicting two women having sex in a room filled with books, a flower in a vase, and a poster on the wall.
Like clues in a detective game, Dupuy-Spencer sprinkles text into the visual mix by including the titles of books, such as “THE CAT: A TALE OF FEMININE REDEMPTION,” which is a Romanian fairytale authored by a Swiss Jungian psychologist. The Princess of this tale is turned into a cat and can only be released if beheaded by the Emperor’s son (which happens, as it turns out!). Another clue is a book that is shown cropped, only revealing the name of the author (who is Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar known as a spiritual author). Philosophy, theology and psychology all have a place in the erudite narrative thread of these paintings. And like all those heady disciplines, these paintings only ask the big questions to which there are no definitive answers.
“Don’t Lose your Lover” (2018, 84” x 108” oil on linen) is an ambitious allegorical painting that depicts a vast burning landscape. Two lovers in the mid-distance kiss near their car. The hood is up, indicating car trouble. Over heated? Out of gas? Both are metaphors for what can go wrong with a relationship. They are surrounded by so many dangers. Not only are there two fires raging at opposite ends of the canvas, but there are lions and tigers and bears (oh my) around them, along with rats, skunks, deer (reminiscent of Bambi and that epic forest fire), wild and domesticated horses and mules bunched together at the forest below them. All the animals and the people seem unaware of each other. Dupuy-Spencer’s painting style here is brushy, and more anecdotal, suggesting forms rather than actually defining them.
With the “To Be Titled” (2018, 90” x 120” oil on linen), Dupuy-Spencer gives the viewer a psychological look at a group of family or friends at an informal social gathering. Unlike the dark, fantastical “Don’t Lose Your Lover,” this is a more traditional structure, possibly based on a series of photographs. There are hints of both Alice Neel and Joyce Treiman in these specific portraits of real people. The mood here is jaunty, and indeed one of the main figures (an older red-haired woman with smoke emitting from both nostrils) seems to be winking at us knowingly. Dupuy-Spencer gives the viewer hints to the inhabitant’s politics and lifestyle by the bric-a-brac that she surrounds them with. These include a boombox (is this the 80’s?) sitting on a shelf in the back of the room along with little pink post-it notes sprinkled everywhere. They admonish us to “CLEAN CONSTANTLY,” “SIT DOWN NOW,” and to have “NO DOUBT.” This group portrait includes various people sitting or standing rather stiffly or awkwardly. Dupuy-Spencer employs scraping (like Leon Golub) down to the canvas with some of the figures but not others. In this painting as with her others, there are various levels of representation—from naturalism, to highly abstracted, to almost child-like depiction of body parts – especially of hands.
The ceiling is lowered to allow the viewer to see only the crossed legs and shoeless feet of multiple children upstairs entertaining themselves. There are knowing touches like an unfinished amateur Matisse gold fish painting (possibly a nod to Warhol’s “Paint By Numbers” painting) near an art book with “Matise” misspelled. The group seems congenial and yet there is definitely some tension and uncertainty in their body language, which gives a clue to their individual personalities. This painting is a show–stopper, jam packed with so much information (books, bottles and knick-knacks, all indicating class and economic status). Perhaps Dupuy-Spencer means to demonstrate the complexities of any affinity group gathering?
Dupuy-Spencer really soars with her compelling depictions of Evangelical Christian religious rituals in two medium-sized paintings that are both steeped in mysticism. “Through The Laying On Of Hands (Positively Demonic Dynamism)” (2018, oil on linen, 48 X 40”) is a complex image that puts the viewer right into the sacred claustrophobic space that the action takes place in. The swaying congregation with hands in air, is witnessing a believer having his demons removed through the miracle of the eponymous action. The congregant’s heart is literally aglow and the demons fly out of his open mouth. In some ways, this is quite a compelling image as the evil forces swirl in a tornado of terrifying faces above the congregation. And what is demonic dynamism? It is the name given to the infighting amongst various Christian groups about scripture and refers to the battle between Cain and Abel. And we know how that turned out (not well). Is this a foreshadowing of more religious violence? The jam-packed space and paint application is reminiscent of James Ensor’s expressionistic religious paintings of the late nineteenth century. Is the mood ironic, cautionary, dismissive or inquisitive? Is Dupuy-Spencer merely fascinated with these tribal belief systems or judging?
In the “To Be Titled” (2018” oil on linen, 40 x 48”), painting, Dupuy-Spencer further explores religious spaces as she positions the viewer in a church pew of the Reverend Al Green’s (yes, that Al Green of R&B fame) Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, Tennessee (this information is given on the Church program in the foreground). This is a real church, bought by Al Green after he became a minister. It is a modest church filled with an all-black gospel choir, led by Al Green himself and the congregants are a diverse bunch. Green bought the church after he was severely burned by a disgruntled lover, turning an evil act into a redemptive act. Hate the sin, love the sinner?
The exhibit is quite satisfying, although there are landscape paintings and other pencil drawings that seem incidental or are just not that strong. There is an inconsistency of tone and style in some of the works along with the annoying lack of titles for other pieces — especially since Dupuy-Spencer so successfully employs titles that inform and expands the meaning of many of the works. However, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer is an authentic, fresh voice who is at her best when she examines, with humor and clarity, the foibles of the human condition.
Nancy Kay Turner is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.