Down the Rabbit Hole
A little over a year ago, artist Michael Bise wrote an essay for Glasstire.com called "Holy Ghosts." It's searchable at the Web site, and I encourage anyone interested in looking at his recent graphite-on-paper drawings currently on display at Moody Gallery to read it. In it he describes his upbringing in a radically religious family — they belonged to a vaguely Pentecostal sect called The Message of the Hour Church — and the resonance of that belief system in his artistic philosophy.
Bise is admittedly atheist, and knowing that, it might be easy to interpret some sort of political agenda or bitterly judgmental attack on display in this set of stunning works, aptly titled "Holy Ghosts!" But that's not Bise's intent. Take for example his drawing Happiest Place on Earth. Bise depicts himself as a boy, looking very much like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, kneeling next to his bed while his mother whips him with a belt. The scene is devoid of emotion; Bise and his mother both wear blank expressions. We watch from outside Bise's bedroom window; he looks out at us, and it's like he's thinking, "Don't worry, this happens sometimes." The bedroom features his toys, specifically his Castle Greyskull collection of He-Man action figures, his Mickey Mouse curtains and cowboy Smurf sheets, and a large poster proclaiming Disneyland "the happiest place on Earth." So there's plenty of irony here, all the way down to the "Holy Spirit" belt buckle clutched in his mother's hand. Some may look at this scene and see nothing but abuse leveled in the name of religion. But for anyone who experienced corporal punishment, who grew up attending church, who had those toys, those sheets, that Garbage Pail Kids sticker on the dresser, the drawing sends you somewhere deeper than politics and issues. It pushes you down what Bise likes to call the "rabbit hole."
In the 2008 essay, Bise describes attending a Message of the Hour church service years later with his family after the death of his father. Ready to experience pity at his "helpless" family's adherence to the "false" and "misguided belief system," he instead found himself unable to pass judgment and somehow allowed his atheism and their shared experience to attain a sense of equality. That incident unquestionably drove the creation of these drawings.
Four of the works depict church scenes, with all but one displaying the ecstatic fervor one associates with the "revival" — the most arresting one is titled simply Revival. Dimensionwise, it's the biggest in the series (41 inches by 84 inches), and it's loaded with an almost limitless arsenal of emotion. It's a crowd of about 100 women (old and young) engulfed in a state of religious ecstasy. True to the tenets of the Message, all are modestly dressed with long hair, and all are totally different — all shapes and sizes. All but one, who directly engages the viewer with a strangely seductive stare, have their eyes clenched shut in varying degrees of anger, despair and delight. Some women grasp others as if embracing; some appear to restrain another from harm. Many raise their arms in praise or cover their faces in shame. It's the kind of work one might describe as "monumental," because it sustains its force and yields new discoveries upon repeated viewings, as when, on a second visit, a friend pointed out the old woman with withered hands and missing fingers. As in all of these drawings, the detail is unbelievable — the textures and patterns on clothing, the hairstyles, the jewelry.
By contrast, the household scenes keep their emotions bottled tight, as if the church is the place where they're allowed to be uncorked and spewed.
Fantasia is one such image that displays the emotional strangulation at work in some belief system-based households. Bise's mother encounters her son, naked in his bedroom masturbating with a stuffed Mickey Mouse doll that's as big as he is. She looks on with a blank expression, holding her Bible next to a sign on the wall that reads: "As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord." If we accept that this actually happened, we can only imagine the robotic whipping Bise got for that one. Or perhaps his mother just walked away and tried like hell to wipe the image from her mind. Maybe it's the kind of memory she'll rapturously exorcise from her conscience in church. All scenarios work in Bise's version of Wonderland.
But Fantasia also levels the stakes in this narrative. It's funny, but it's also sadly confessional. Bise isn't afraid to admit to disappointing behavior. No matter how you feel about sex, parenting or religion, it's hard not to notice the grin on the boy's face as he defiles a stuffed doll, and not to feel some degree of repulsion. That kind of repulsion a mother feels when she discovers her son's stash of porno mags.
End of the World combines apocalyptic imagery with pop-cultural icons. Bise is asleep while his dream/nightmare unfolds on the wall above his bed. A mushroom cloud billows above a flaming Capitol Building surrounded by swarms of Tinkerbells, and a floating Mickey Mouse Jesus unleashes the monsters of Revelation upon the armies of Armageddon. I wonder if today's young generation dreams of nuclear annihilation the way I did (and still do, only much less than I did in the mid-'80s). What does their apocalypse look like?
In the Glasstire essay, Bise wrote, "I don't believe I can communicate much of anything through my art. The most that I can hope for is that I tell my story honestly and well enough to entertain someone and maybe help push them down their own rabbit hole." With "Holy Ghosts!," Bise certainly managed to shove me down mine.
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