An idiosyncratic pantheism, a multiplicity of gods as well as styles, directs the production of Regina Vater’s art. The shamanistic hand that guides her practice has a long arm that reaches across nationalities and centuries, languages and artistic strategies – with a special emphasis on her native Brazil. With a kind of baroque spiritualism anointed to bless and unify otherwise diverse cultural entities, her work synthesizes goddesses from Egypt with those of Greece, Malevich with the Madonna and Concrete Poetry with Roman Catholicism. Similarly, she is as comfortable working with the electronic powers of neon and video as she is with the natural forces of found rocks, seashells, honey, popcorn and other artifacts from nature.
Her pluralistic approach, which seeks to synthesize otherwise diverse materials and ideas, is structured according to poetic intuition. Indeed, literature and poetry play an important role in Vater’s artistic process. Cosmologies, her exhibition of new work at ArtPace, opens with a prayer-like quote from the poet Cecilia Meireles that expresses Vater’s aesthetic aim toward unification with divine nature:
One speaks with men, with saints,
with oneself, with God…And no one
understands what is being told
and to whom.
But the earth and sun, moons and stars
revolve in such a way, so well
that one discourages of complaints.
Primarily sculptural and inspired by diverse sources taken from world literature, Vater’s Cosmologies installation is unified by a hopeful appeal to the mysteries of the universe, especially as personified in the lives and mythologies of goddesses. Although highly influenced by the secular aesthetics of Modernism, the works are nonetheless imbued with a spiritualism that coaxes the materiality of their forms into a place of contemplative ritual, even prayer.
Amon/Amén or Oxalá Que Dê Bom Tempo #3 is a delicate, circular cascade of popcorn suspended from and around a window in the ceiling that faces the heavens, the individual kernels strung on fishing wire like beads on a necklace (and anchored, like a casting line, with small weights). The hanging corn, one of the major food crops indigenous to the Americas, is like a shower of manna. “Amén,” the Judeo-Christian rejoiner for agreement and truth, has its etymological origins in the name of a god from the Egyptian pantheon, while the Portugese part of the work’s title, Oxalá Que Dê Bom Tempo (I wish for good times or good weather), situates the sculpture as a plea for plenty as well as an expression of gratitude.
In the central gallery, on the floor just in front of Amon/Amén, the artist placed a small vessel of rice punctuated by burning sticks of incense (later removed from the installation after the opening). Perhaps the most explicitly religious gesture in the Cosmologies installation, this ‘food for the gods’ provides the central signifying code for interpreting the other larger works in the exhibition.
Inscrutable is a homage to the goddess Oshum, who governs waters, brings wealth and compassion and at night takes a sword after unethical people. A gold net rug is situated on the floor like a prayer rug; atop it the artist has place a mirrored stand which holds a vessel full of honey stabbed with a long machete. The sea goddess Janaína is honored in Vater’s work of the same name, where a rock placed in the center of a small tabletop acts as pedestal to a large conch shell adorned with smaller sea shells, dried starfish, and clear glass pebbles. The tableau is framed with a biomorphic neon light that looks like a halo. The use of neon as a symbolic aura also appears in Oxumaré or The Lady of Hope, a tower of assembled found objects, whose chest of drawers base contains letters from the artist’s intellectual and spiritual compatriots in Brazil, a reification of the artist’s personal and artistic foundation in her native culture. A column that extends upward from the wooden chest holds two rocks (found by the artist in Austin), which shelter and protect a small statue of the Black Madonna that faces the wall, hiding The Lady from immediate view. In Sophia, the artist also constructs a tower to heaven, this one of Plexiglas full of human hair and topped with a mound of turquoise. For Vater, all natural and cultural materials are imbued with symbolic as well as material aspects.
In the most ambitious piece presented in Cosmologies, the artist offers viewers the reflection of the moon. Titled as a wordplay as well as a reference to the goddess Artemis, El Teatro De la Luna or ARTéMIS a No uS combines the cultural tradition of theater with the suggestion that nature, likewise, is composed of organized scenes, stagings and acts. The black curtains that line the three walls of this ‘set’ enclose a large boulder seated on a floor of dark cobalt blue mulch, simulating a nature-like setting. The work’s centerpiece—the boulder—acts as both an alter of sacrifice and table of nourishment. A small pool of water rests in the center of a wide crevice on the rock’s surface, in which the viewer is invited to catch the reflection of the moon (whose image the artist has captured on a video monitor in the ceiling.)
For Vater, nature and culture reinforce each other in an ongoing dialogue of serendipitous play between divine intervention and cultural manifestation. She is like a traveler on a world journey, mapping the cosmic moments—whether they be delivered from ancient gods, taking the form of divine inspiration, or constructed by human hands in the name of poetry, life and art.
Laura Cottingham is an art critic who lives in New York City.