VCU's Anderson Gallery features two visually satisfying and thought-provoking shows. 

Guilty Pleasures

If your vacation plans this summer do not carry you much farther than Virginia Beach, the Anderson Gallery offers a tropical escape to Central and South America through art. Relaxation, however, is not included in this vacation package; rather, culpability, remorse and penitence make their way onto the agenda. Of the four separate shows currently on display at the gallery, two are tied to Latin-American cultures in subject matter and theme. And both attempt to engage the viewer in social and economic issues related to their respective regions.

Jacqueline Bishop's "Terra" is a large, straightforward installation that delivers the Brazilian rainforest to the viewer's doorstep through both sight and sound. In collaboration with the composer, Chris Becker, Bishop creates the environment of the jungle with specific focus on its bird life. As translucent curtains of windblown (by carefully placed fans) fabric lull you into an ephemeral corridor, the exotic sounds of birds, insects and accompanying Brazilian instruments set the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the necessary but annoying air conditioners at the gallery blocked out most of the ambient music, creating a rather unintentional, but wry comment on modern technological impositions on nature and the land.

A second room contains two walls completely covered in a gridlike pattern of tiny oil paintings of various South American birds. This is where the guilt comes in — each portrait depicts a feathered friend that is either extinct or endangered due to the destruction of the rainforest for the creation of cattle ranches. As such, the diorama is more a visual elegy than a naturalistic portrayal of a tropical landscape. The taxonomical placement of the bird paintings in regulated rows, interspersed with various drawings, collages and real nests, further alludes to their waning presence in life and relegation to zoology books and ornithological prints.

A socially conscious work, the stunning beauty of the wall installation is sadly eclipsed by the underlying message of man's destruction of his environment. This, of course, may be the exact analogy that Bishop was seeking.

As if offering an outlet for confession and forgiveness for the bird destruction below, the top floor of the Anderson Gallery features a display of 60 photographs of Jesus icons in contemporary Mexico. Photographed by Robert Lewis, an art history professor at the University of Memphis, the large color prints reveal graphic details of religious devotional objects. Taken during his travels to the Yucatan, Oaxaca and Chiapas, Lewis obsessively documents the icons, mainly of Jesus, used to assist in prayer and worship. Several images, like "Glass Case Jesus" record the strange mannequinlike sculptures of Jesus, bloodied, riddled with wounds and contorting in agony, within a clear coffin-shaped container. Lewis' study seems to be a commentary on the usage of these icons for devotion, as well as the commercialization of such objects. One image displays the interior of a store with crucifixes, prints of the Madonna, Jesus dolls and other Christian paraphernalia — all with prominent price tags.

The images are compelling mainly because of the subject matter itself. Lewis enhances the images by shooting them from different angles or profiling a crucifix against changing dramatic skies, but the power of the photographs lies largely in the icons themselves; Lewis just happens to be the messenger.

Ecce homo and ecology aside, both shows offer enough visual impact to move them beyond social or religious motivations. So enjoy them now and let the guilt wait until later.

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