In “108 Blessings,” artists Shelley Warren and Cameron Davis explore the boundaries of the corporeal and the spiritual. The exhibition, named for the number of prayer beads used in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain meditation traditions, skillfully interweaves formal rigor and spiritual expansiveness, yielding an environment that is equally rich in stimuli for the eye and the mind.
Davis, a painter and lecturer at the University of Vermont, has long been concerned with the complex relationship between the human experience and the environment. Formally, her paintings blend gestural drawing, layers of acrylic and the chalky sienna of Conte crayon. In the upper right section of the large-scale “Devi Prayer,” sinuous lines of pale yellow paint spread over what look like mounded stones. In the lower third of the painting, a large apple blossom seems to emerge and float on the layers of paint beneath. The blossom’s delicate edges swoop in shades of white and gray.
The left-hand section of the canvas swirls with layers of warm orange and yellow seedlike, organic forms, separated from the darker right section with an almost veil-like edge that Davis calls a “spatial disjunctive moment.” The artist creates a boundary and then selectively transgresses it, perhaps evoking the way memories surface in the present.
Simplified images of apples and bees punctuate the lower left corner of “Devi Prayer.” They allude to colony-collapse disorder, which the artist sees as a signal that our environment is in danger, as well as to Egyptian fertility-goddess symbols. The painting is both visually arresting and a wake-up call to the humans implicated in environmental disaster.
This layering of political and spiritual meanings is also present in Davis’ nine-panel painting “Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night.” It contains allusions to the mass blackbird die-off in Arkansas, the Beatles’ lyrics, and the ancient symbolism of the iris.
Warren’s work is shaped by her Buddhist spiritual practice, her training at New York’s School of Visual Arts and Yale University, and her dedication to the process and craft of art making. To achieve her vision for a video installation, Warren transformed the gallery’s east room by walling over its four windows. She created the two accompanying figurative sculptures by harvesting saplings from her woods, then debarking, carving and chopping the maple into short lengths. From these pieces Warren meticulously constructed two larger-than-human figures, using wooden dowels to attach the maple lengths. One figure lies flat on the floor with arms outstretched in a prayer position; the other kneels with its elbows on the ground and, like the first figure, presses its palms together.
In two separate video projections, a Buddhist nun and a female layperson perform the ritual of prostration. The nun goes through the full expression of the movement, from standing to lying completely flat with face down and arms over her head in a prayer position. The other woman moves only from standing to kneeling. As each projection progresses, the image falls on the wooden sculptures, seeming to animate the figures and then leave.
This repetition perhaps symbolizes continual reincarnation. The back wall of the installation shows projected video footage of a ceaselessly rushing waterfall, recalling the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ statement, “You cannot step twice into the same stream.” The installation evokes the suddenness of birth and death and the deeply personal relationship of the individual to spiritual practice and belief. In fact, observers standing close to the sculptural works may feel almost intrusive, as though there really is a person present, engaged in prayer.
With their paintings and video installation, respectively, Davis and Warren address the paradox of the physical and spiritual through the lens of the visual. Together they have turned the gallery into a sanctuary-like space — a place that invites visitors to be still and contemplate the immediacy of timeless concerns.
Cameron Davis and Shelley Warren, “108 Blessings” at 215 College Gallery, Burlington. Through March 13. The artists give a talk Friday, March 4, at 5:30 p.m. 215collegegallery.com