On Beauty, Religion and Decay: The Art of Deborah Prior
by Craig Middleton
Deborah Prior explores concepts surrounding religion and the body: the irreconcilable divide between the religious body and the human body – or vessel. She examines the intersection between the beautiful and the [humanly perceived] grotesque that stem from religious conceptions of the incorruptible saint.
Prior works with textiles to explore these themes in an experimental and overtly intuitive manner. Her solo exhibition Tangled Saints presents nine ‘flesh-coloured’ [artist’s flesh] works in the dark, low-lit gallery space of the Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF) in Adelaide.
Each work is highly decorated with delicate features such as pearls and beads juxtaposed with confronting elements including sweat stains on used pillows and detached human hair.
Pentecost is both a Christian festival that celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit and the title of the first work the viewer meets when entering Tangled Saints. This highly decorated and detailed piece is instantly suggestive of female genitalia. Varying shades and textures of pale pink illuminate the oblong shape that is lined with soft but pointy teeth-like adornments and covered in small freshwater pearls and beads. Layered with different textiles and natural fibres, the work presents a central circle that shrinks as it nears its core.
Are we being led down the rabbit hole by this form?
Moving from one side of the false wall to the other, the viewer is greeted by a suspended, almost floating, shape that delivers a haunting conclusion to Pentecost. Prior has re-purposed a human body bag as a depiction of the Holy Spirit that undeniably advocates death.
The work is what the artist refers to as ‘a big scary vagina that will eat you and kill you on the other side’.(1) The viewer is confronted with conflicting notions of beauty, fear and death intertwined with the conceptual juxtaposition of human form and spiritual notion. The use of ‘pretty’ materials to convey a much darker subject matter is intentionally challenging.
The defining characteristics of Pentecostalism are literal interpretations of the Bible and a belief that supernatural gifts and events cited in the New Testament should be part of the churches contemporary experience.(2) It could be argued that based on Pentecostal belief, this is a physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit that presents itself when realising ones faith.
Prior’s work is at once haunting and mesmerising. Tangled Saints presents a platform for conflicting feelings towards aesthetic and conceptual beauty underpinned by notions of the incorruptible saint who does not decay as others do but remains beautiful in a way that signifies the hand of God. Here, the concept of beauty and death in the realm of religious theory is powerfully present.
Deborah Prior, artist talk, Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide 27 August 2015
ABC, Christianity - Pentecostalism, www.abc.net.au/religion/stories/s820631