Ryan Wilks’s new exhibition, “Heaven,” at the Smalter Gallery, is awash in flesh.
One part indictment of organized religion and another part an exploration of the mythology of the afterlife, “Heaven” is a brooding meditation on Christianity’s obsession with the human body and a lamentation of institutionalized religion’s frequent marginalization of the LGBTQ community, a thesis that permeates the exhibit.
Hypocrisy and avarice are Wilks’ targets, and his approach is unsparing. Whether focusing on religion’s effort at saving our earthly forms or on condemning them, each piece forces the viewer to reckon with an institutional addiction for all things corporeal.
Many works explore the myriad ways in which religion’s unsettling fixation on our bodies manifests itself. Pieces like “Christ Child,” a porcelain baby doll covered in mirror paint and clutching a crucifix, juxtapose the Catholic Church’s fetishization of the newly born with the ritualistic sacrifice and consumption of flesh that also attends its ceremonies.
Wilks, who is not a Catholic but has studied the faith, also confronts the sexual aspects of Catholicism and topics that have been in and out of the headlines for decades. The mixed- media work “All Are Welcome” channels centuries of mistreatment and deceit into a disturbing spectacle, with an anthropomorphized church situated in front of a nude boy’s crotch. A tongue emerges from the church door, its saliva pooling at the bottom of the image in a lurid. reminder of the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the Church.
“Safe Space,” the exhibition’s most unique entry, is a static display of a priest’s clothes and collar, impeccably arranged in a scene of austere elegance. But Wilks contends Catholicism’s real safe spaces are reserved for members of the clergy who abuse their young parishioners and are discreetly given new assignments outside the purview of the legal system. Meanwhile, the Church continues to benefit from government largesse, most recently to the tune of more than one billion dollars of Covid-19 relief funds.
Some of the pieces, like “Big Ticket to Heaven 1” and “2, elicit historical parallels. The oil, acrylic and India ink on canvas works depict large, colorful tickets — serialized and perforated in the manner of the finest carnival voucher. The transactional approach to salvation feels like a modern take on the indulgences of the Early Renaissance, whereby the wealthy faithful could purchase documents from their local priest that would absolve their souls of sin. (In a particularly aberrant interpretation of the custom, some believers even had the foresight to purchase their indulgences in advance of anticipated wrongdoings, thus ensuring they could commit evil with spiritual impunity.)
“Heaven” offers a jarring opportunity for audiences to visualize the chasm between the idealized promise of heaven and the tragic experiences of people whom religious organizations have often deemed expendable or unworthy.
“Heaven” continues at the Smalter Gallery, 1802 West 39th St., through Nov. 15. Hours are 3 to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 816.200.2554 or smalterart.com.