Eleanor Heartney,
“Thresholds”: Twenty Years On

In December 2003, eight houses of worship and two funeral homes in Charleston South Carolina became temporary exhibition spaces as part of a show titled Thresholds: Expressions of Art and Spiritual Life

The works these sites hosted were very diverse. A set of hand painted tapestries depicting the four seasons hung on the walls of the Second Presbyterian Church. A sculpture that resembled both a casket and a reliquary was wheeled into the chapel of the Fielding Home for Funerals. A pair of altarpieces featuring a global sampling of modern day worshipers spread out across the back of St. Marks Episcopal Church. Four earthenware figures whose hands held offerings of shells, beads and crystals took up residence at Congregation Beth Elohim. The old cemetery of Circular Congregation Church had two new additions: a beautifully sculpted large marble shoe and a cast iron grave filled with jars of water. An intricate bottle cap mandala created in a collaboration between the artist and local young people spread across the floor of Croft Hall at Grace Episcopal Church. These and other artworks became the backdrop for religious services during the run of the show. Overflow works filled the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. 

 

Altogether fifty-three artists from five Southern states participated in Thresholds. For the exhibition opening, guests were treated to a progressive dinner party.

Altogether fifty-three artists from five Southern states participated in Thresholds. For the exhibition opening, guests were treated to a progressive dinner party. They were transported by buses in small groups around the city to the off-site locations. There they were greeted with food and concerts of sacred music. It was a cold December night but what I remember is the warmth of the good feelings shared by all in this ecumenical experience. 

As the curator of the exhibition, I had worked closely with Harriett Green, then the Visual Arts Director of the South Carolina Arts Commission. Thresholds was organized by the Arts Commission as the centerpiece project for a conference of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies being held that year in Charleston. When Harriett had first approached me about curating this show, she asked what I would like to do. I had religion on the brain – I was just completing a book about the Catholic underpinnings of much contemporary art – so I suggested that we do an exhibition on art and spirituality. I chose the name Thresholds because it conjures the image of a figure poised between two realms. I wanted to deal with a profusion of spiritual traditions and experiences so I chose artists who expressed a desire to transcend the boundaries between body and soul, life and death, human and divine, heaven and earth (and hell).  

From one perspective Thresholds seemed a natural fit for Charleston. After all, the city has been dubbed the Holy City for its profusion of houses of worship. But from another perspective it was a rather audacious idea, given the long history of mutual suspicion between contemporary art and religion. Recent events had made the issue of religious expression even more fraught. Only a few years earlier, the events of September 11, 2001 had ignited what was often described as a “clash of civilizations.” Films, books and popular media depicted the war in the Middle East as a battle between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Religion was often presented as a scapegoat, a force for ill that inflamed divisions and ignited conflicts. So one of the missions of the show was to take a more nuanced look at religion and spirituality. I wanted to present an ecumenical vision of faith, to see it in all its complexity and to place works from diverse spiritual traditions in conversation with each other. 

With Harriett’s assistance, I made numerous trips to Charleston to meet with artists and local religious leaders. I was working on Thresholds at the same time that I was completing my book Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art. That book explored how the experience of being raised Catholic has influenced so many contemporary artists. I have always thought of the book and the exhibition as twins of a sort, as they came into being together. Both, in different ways, wrestled with such questions as: How has faith shaped contemporary art? Why is there so often an assumption of hostility between art and religion? How does our understanding of artists’ religious backgrounds enhance our understanding of their work? How might we bridge the gap between religion and art?

While I have organized many exhibitions over the years, Thresholds remains my hands-down favorite. When the show was over, many of the participating venues didn’t want to let their works go. I felt the same way. Following its two-month presentation in Charleston, Thresholds then traveled to numerous venues throughout the South for four years and became the basis for a wide variety of educational programs. In creating common ground between artists and religious worshipers, I feel it touched many lives.

In retrospect, I can see how Thresholds influenced my subsequent thinking. I have remained in touch with many of the artists from the show and curated a solo show of the works of one of them, Gary Monroe, for the Cue Foundation in New York. Two other Thresholds artists – William Thomas Thompson and Robert Trotman – found their way into another book about art and religion that I published in 2019. Titled Doomsday Dreams: the Apocalyptic Imagination in Contemporary Art, this book draws on works by contemporary artists to examine Western culture’s fixation on an apocalyptic narrative. I see Doomsday Dreams as a companion volume to Postmodern Heretics – a darker book for a darker time. As in the earlier book, I examined the ways that artists’ religious backgrounds shape their worldviews.  For Doomsday Dreams I was interested in how artists employ imagery and concepts from the Book of Revelation and other apocalyptic texts to grapple with such issues as the origin of evil, the persistence of geopolitical conflict, the existential threats posed by climate change and nuclear war and the message of hope embedded in the idea of the New Jerusalem. 

Rereading my essay for the Thresholds catalogue today, I see how many of my current concerns were already in place when I curated the show. But of course, times change. If I were to rework the show today, there are a number of themes that I would delve into in greater depth. One of these is the connection between African American folk knowledge, African religious practices, and the profound sympathy for the supernatural found in the work of many African American artists. I am thinking here of artists like Renee Stout and Betye Saar who have explored the practices of herbalists and healers in rural southern communities who are said to traffic in both black and white magic and works by artists like Howardina Pindell and Ellen Gallagher who have created haunting works that conjure the spirits of enslaved people who perished in pre-Civil War America. 

The original show contained several artists, including Edouard Duval-Carrié, Eusebio Escobar and Robert Morgan, who explored the melding of African and Christian spiritual practices to produce new religions – Santería, Voudon and Candomblé.  A new show could acknowledge the ways that religious beliefs are fluid and ever-evolving by providing further explorations of these kinds of spiritual fusions. The work of Ana Mendieta provides one example of this melding. José Bedia provides another.

In these times of looming climate catastrophe, another theme that I would stress today would be the connection between spirituality and environmental consciousness. This takes many forms. Work by Native American artists like Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Jimmie Durham and Alan Michelson often draws on spiritual traditions that stress a sacred bond with the land. The idea of Gaia or Mother Earth and the interconnectedness of the human and non-human worlds lies behind works by ecofeminist artists like Betsy Damon, Cecilia Vicuña and Agnes Denes. Thinking along similar lines, artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Aviva Rahmani invoke the Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the earth in works that seek to restore our broken relationship with nature. 

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost twenty years since that chilly December night in Charleston.  And it’s gratifying to see how relevant the ideas behind Thresholds continue to be. Art, religion and spirituality remain inextricably entwined. Together they help us understand the deepest questions of life and death, of who we are and how we should act in the world. 

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Featured works from the exhibition