Love and Loss: Memorializing Emotion Through the Material Form

An inflatable Buddha represents the centerpiece of "All That Remains."
An inflatable Buddha represents the centerpiece of "All That Remains." // Ken Yanagisawa

Chances are, you have never been to the Institute of Sacred Music’s Gallery for Sacred Arts. I, along with my dutiful companion, certainly hadn’t, and it seemed as though no one could even direct me (or maybe I’m just bad at remembering directions). But if you want to start exploring the extent of what the Yale arts community has to offer, I highly recommend taking the pilgrimage through the Divinity School’s heavenly quadrangle to visit the Gallery’s newest exhibit “All That Remains: Material Remembrances in Love and Loss.”

The exhibit showcases the work of four artists who have created physical manifestations of their grief after the loss of a loved one. The Gallery is relatively small, its soft lighting and white walls providing the space’s only physical backdrop. Immediately upon entering the room, you are struck by the exhibit’s centerpiece: a 25-foot reclining, somber, inflatable Buddha, based off of the stone Buddha at Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka. The piece, Lewis deSoto’s Paranirvana (self-portrait), remains inflated by a fan. The fan is its only life-source, and every night when the exhibition closes, the fan is turned off. In this way, the sculpture undergoes the cycle of life and death every day, providing the most explicit embodiment of the exhibit’s larger theme.

Six paintings, adorning the walls of the intimate space, tell the stories of human pain and recovery. While each piece encapsulates each respective artist’s personal — and perhaps a universal — struggle, one stands out in particular. In one piece by Rick Bartow, figures and fish bones emerge from a murky grey and blue background. The central figure grasps a supine body that seems to be floating away, perhaps into heaven, in spite of the harrowed protests of his loved ones. Another figure in the corner, a woman, bears the grizzled face of an animal, a depiction of her struggle to transcend the reality of human mortality. The painting is intensely emotional; and when viewed in light of the title “Give Me Back My Father,” the piece takes on an added layer, as the viewer is allowed a glimpse into the tender experience that Bartow seeks to convey.

Though less of an intimate view of loss, Harry Fonseca’s “Stone Poem” seemed to express a more universal view of grief. Painted only in blue — the color of sadness — black, and white, the figure in the piece is painted both like a cave drawing and graffiti. This mixture of styles suggests the continuity of generations, but also the destruction of each as it is replaced by the next. Small crosses, reminiscent of gravestones, appear next to circles that seem to suggest, again, the cycle of life.

Though the exhibit is small, the collection of seven pieces adequately fulfills the curator’s overall goal of exploring manifestations of grief in art. But for a message so powerful, it’s a shame that the exhibit finds itself constrained to such a small space — given the Gallery’s remote location, a larger exhibit would likely entice a larger audience. The exhibit truly left me wanting more, if only so that I could more easily recommend it to a friend with a free afternoon. Inevitably, for some, it may not merit the schlep.

Overall, the exhibit succeeds in encapsulating likely the most complex human emotions of all: love and grief. For artists, it is difficult to imagine a more daunting task — capturing such platitudes through a convincing material form. But “All That Remains” does just this, albeit in fewer pieces than one might prefer. So if you aren’t up for the walk, jump on the blue line — it’s a ride well worth it.

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