Jeni Spota’s stunning 2007 debut show at Sister (recently renamed Kathryn Brennan) featured a series of paintings based on a single brief scene from Pasolini’s 1971 film Il Decameron. In the scene, Giotto (played by the director) awakens in the night with a vision he aspires to paint of a hillside dense with worshippers, angels, dangling naked figures, choirboys and the Virgin Mary. Spota worked small but with an epic scope, painting swarms of repeated figures framing the Madonna and Child, and Christ on the cross, in thick, gooey daubs. The surfaces heave with emotion. With their dreamlike urgency and devotional earnestness, the paintings leave an indelible impression.
Spota, currently based in L.A., largely continues to mine religious imagery, and the strength of her new work suggests that she has not yet exhausted that theme. In San Damiano (20 by 22 inches, all 2009), repeated images of the Virgin and Child are stacked at the top center of the canvas; below them are multiple depictions of the Crucifixion. On either side of this spine is a roughly symmetrical, encyclopedic array of the hellish and the hopeful—monks, angels, Adam and Eve, choruses, naked figures hanging upside down. Spota lays down viscous paint in solid colors, her abbreviations immediately legible as iconographic mainstays, such as the tiny swipe of red at Christ’s rib. She handles pigment with aggressive, modern flamboyance, yet her imagery retains much of the unironic austerity of the late Gothic and early Renaissance Italian models she draws from. Her almost musty palette of muted primaries, black, white, gray, brown and flesh tones keeps an otherwise ecstatic materiality in check.
Coats of arms and ornamental patterns derived from Italian ecclesiastical architecture crop up amid the figures in the paintings and take center stage in two of the new works. In Flag (an homage, inescapably, to Johns), a 19-by-22-inch oil on canvas, applied strips of canvas marked with repeated quatrefoils demarcate the horizontal stripes, and in Stripes (11½ by 14½ inches), numerous such bands, varying in width and patterning, wrap around the entire canvas like a package. Both pieces extend Spota’s formal and stylistic vocabulary, but neither is as viscerally compelling as those in which she drives deeply, insistently, into the fertile terrain of Pasolini’s vision. Teeth (16 by 18 inches), the most gripping painting in the show, introduces a new and promising darkness. A Madonna and Child anchors the top portion of the painting beneath a marbled pale blue sky, while below, black veils shroud the corners and multiple crucifixions fan out in the shape of a gaping, troubling smile. The field is more turbulent than ever, crusty with ridges and clefts, tense and alive.
Photo: Jeni Spota: Teeth, 2009. oil on canvas, 16 by 18 inches; at Kathryn Brennan.