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Review: 'Mourners' and 'Visitation' make dramatic pairing at Art Museum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2010 - The St. Louis Art Museum's pairing of "The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy" and "Bill Viola: Visitation" makes for a fascinating exhibition, an opportunity to reflect on historical and contemporary concepts of life, death, mourning and transfiguration. But it also reveals a central truth about art: that context and modes of presentation largely determine our response to, and even the meaning of, artworks.

"The Mourners" is a collection of 40 carved alabaster figures that decorate the tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy in the early 15th century. Each figure represents an individual in a funeral procession, and each is unique in gesture and expression. The exquisite carvings capture the buttery folds of the robes and a great variety of gestures, stances and individual facial features.

In their original placement, under a Gothic arcade in the lower register of the tomb, the figures are subservient to the larger composition, which is visually quite busy, with colorful sculptural effigies of the Duke and his wife resting on a black marble slab, surrounded by lions and angels with wings of gold.

In the present exhibition, the mourning figures are placed at eye level, and we can see them in the round; the room is dark save for spotlights on the sculptures, making for a dramatic sense of mystery.

Removed from their original function and context, the figures now comprise an entirely different work of art, one that conforms to more contemporary tastes for both a sparer aesthetic and the cinematic setting.

Bill Viola specializes in these effects in the medium of video, projecting slow-motion images of life-size figures in dark rooms, completely absorbing viewers in beautifully restrained cinematic spectacles. Viola's themes are likewise absorbing, secular metaphors for religious concepts such as transfiguration and the afterlife.

In "Visitation" (2008), two women pass from one state of being, represented by grainy, black-and-white static, to a vividly colorful transformed state. The passage leads them through a wall of water, in one of the most mesmerizing visual effects Viola has ever created.

As with the "Mourners," viewers are given the opportunity to gaze fixedly at Viola's figures, contemplating them as individuals and as embodiments of spiritual concepts. In both exhibitions, too, darkness and light are employed effectively to train our concentration on the visual objects and to absorb us in their presence. The experience is akin to being in church, or being at the movies, where one loses oneself in the process of identification with the spectacle.

None of this takes away from the content of the artworks or their profound metaphysical themes. Rather, it suggests that setting and context are the conduits through which we access those themes. And the dramatic exhibition of the late Gothic "Mourners" together with Viola's contemporary "Visitation" is an inspired curatorial gesture, one that produces an entirely new understanding and appreciation of each individual work.

Ivy Cooper, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon art critic.