The Veneration of Santo Guerro
By Diana L. Daniels, Curator of Contemporary Art, Crocker Art Museum
In the crypt of the Medici Chapel of Florence’s Basilica of San Lorenzo reside displays of reliquaries—the ornamented, jewel-encrusted vessels of gold and silver containing slivered remains of the sainted. Once decreed atop every altar in Christendom, reliquaries developed into gleaming sculptural forms, specially housing the zealously collected body parts—tongues, heads, femurs, and the like, or the odd personal effect—prized by individual churches up until modern reforms marginalized their use. In prior centuries, however, these ornate and handsomely crafted works functioned as important symbols.
While reliquaries enhanced the liturgy, their physical presence importantly provided a focal point for the veneration of Saints. Today, relic veneration no longer occupies the central place it once did, and reliquaries themselves are now relics. But the encounter with a body part encased in a bulb of centuries-old blown glass makes for the uninitiated a macabre display. Paying admission to see tens of them gathered into museum cases only heightens their uncanny effect. The bits and pieces offer grisly reminders of mortality, but their containment is a glorification as opposed to a desecration. The faithful do not question the matter.
In San Lorenzo’s crypt, in 1995, Al Farrow encountered the inexplicable strangeness of a withered finger thus ensconced. The event sparked a cascade of thought in which he questioned the mystery, paying no mind to the saint, finding himself powerfully stirred by the finger’s presentation: bent and lean, encased in glass, and surrounded by worked silver. Its fantastical appearance, locked like a finger with stenosing tenosynovitis (better known as trigger finger) in its artful home struck him not only as bizarre, but incongruous. His mind made an associational leap landing on an inarguably brilliant concept, ironic, droll, and critical in equal measure.
To flush out the potential, Farrow considered the many paradoxes he might riddle if he regarded this symbol as a construct through which to examine our contemporary political climate and shared global fate, religion and war, history and culture, rationality and belief, problematizing how we form and maintain the attachment. How the work was constructed he saw as integral to the readings gleaned by others. The conceptual basis of his thinking turned concrete when in his studio he turned attention to the material meaning imbued the new sculptures. As Farrow states, “something clicked when I started using real guns and bullets.”
Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Farrow notes that on the East Coast “you are immersed in your identity. Your ethnic and religious background looms larger than anything else about you. Breaking free requires moving away.” He interjected the distance in 1967 by bringing his family to the Bay Area and letting go a comfortable, salaried living two years later. He acquired a studio in San Rafael and established himself as a professional artist. Through these acts, he shed his conformity, his early frustrating experiences with organized religion, and the tensions between the American identity his father had insisted upon and the Old World identity of his grandparents. His personal as opposed to intellectual indifference to religion is thus rooted here.
At the time he enacted these shifts, Farrow, possessing an activist’s heart and an intellectual’s curiosity, identified with the activism the social turmoil of the 1960s engendered among many nonconformists, especially in Northern California. In his earliest works, he made critiquing statements that were hardly subtle, being instead deliberately provocative and explicitly argumentative. As a wage-earner he had experienced anti-Semitism firsthand and witnessed other prejudices forestall the progress of others. But he believed there was the opportunity for social change. Different now from then is Farrow’s personal realization that “an artist cannot hope to instruct others.” Thus, with the associational leap from a beatified, bent bone to the finger that pulls the trigger of a gun, Farrow exercised how agile his talent for argument can be.
After his experience in the crypt, the historic and contemporary dynamics of religion and power begged his examination. He desired a bold, yet nuanced statement, and so he sought a provocative rather than reactive art, which required insight and reflection. The clairvoyance that might engage others, he intuited, relied on the play between sets of incongruences such as an object’s appearance and its meaning. This balance he had already explored in a series of cast resin bowls (1992—1993) whose contemporary themes were communicated using the slip-painted style of Southwest Mimbres pottery.
But what Farrow now envisioned would be larger in scale, more complex and multifaceted. All of his acquired mechanical drafting skills (formerly his profession) he augmented with the study of medieval architecture, mining art historical and popular sources, including the detailed renderings of David Macauley’s illustrated histories. The research process decoded aspects of faith or doctrine encoded into the architecture servicing religion. Farrow anticipated using weapons and ammunition literally and figuratively to frame invented reliquaries, cathedrals, temples, mausoleums, and mosques. Nothing could be more incongruent than using the tools of destruction for creation, except for the awe inspired or pique raised by doing so.
Farrow’s desire to create assemblages composed of bullets, shell casings, and gun barrels introduced him to a subculture—one with its own religious overtones—of which he knew very little. Every ammo round, bored barrel, and action tallies centuries of advances in chemistry conjoined with cumulative, minute improvements of material and design—all to force the propulsion of a projectile with lethal range and accuracy. As a result, an astounding variety and a numbing diversity of makers exist; each and every one offers slight functional deviations that affect aesthetic appeal. In particular, the deliberate engineering and articulation of individual components—from stocks, trigger guards, and grips to the modern ribs and sights on a gun barrel—entails a vast assortment of formed metal bits.
Visiting Farrow’s studio is thus an education in the modern inventory and vocabulary of firepower. No longer the outsider, he figures as a seasoned and sharp insider who finds it surprisingly painless, albeit costly, to acquire used firearms, boxes of new and pounds of spent shell casings, and lead shot ordered by mail or purchased at gun shows. His bullets and components are sorted by size, metal—steel, brass, copper, aluminum, and lead—and the nationality of their make. Bullets are most often lead, their jackets sometimes made of copper, and shell casings commonly brass. Their sizes are as many and varied as their weights. None of it ever gets cheaper. The ease, however, remains, having improved with the internet. And, for all the size of his hoard, Farrow jests that your typical survivalist stockpiles far more—still another provocative rabbit hole for thought. (Pondering the environmental costs of all this extracted ore being another.)
In the guns disassembled on his worktable Farrow derives the elements of architecture, from Doric columns to jamb figures, flying buttresses, and even minarets. The specificity of parts comprising a bullet or an automated rifle is quite surprising when parsed and viewed according to distinctive appearances. Gothic architecture boasts the elaborate embellishments made ever more fantastic by centuries of development. Yet, Farrow is able to distill these many and varied points, vastly reduce their scale, and locate their equivalents, no matter how unexpected, in the dissembled pistols, revolvers, and assault rifles he amasses. The transformation Farrow gives this hardware lights the imagination. Deftly rendered arched clerestory, combination lancet, and rounded rose windows, and gables, niches, archivolts, and spires built of bullets and trigger assemblies defy the materials of which they are made.
The fine detail of Farrow’s distillations is apparent in Synagogue III, from 2010, a miniature temple framed out of four revolvers, two partial Uzis, and four machine gun barrels. Designed in the Romanesque manner, its exterior is a combination of texturized and articulated surfaces. Oxidized lead shot suggests stucco, and tarnished lead shot gives the paneled front doors the weighty appearance of their real-life bronze counterparts. Treatment by type continues in the bullet jackets describing the support posts for the temple’s rounded window arches and the colonnade above. This is capped by an ornate dome composed of bullets intersected by decorative, arcing lines made up of the flat nose variety. The resulting geometric pattern follows the balanced and rational symmetry of Romanesque architecture. Every detail is perfectly composed and expertly realized, which is true, too, of the contrast of surfaces, from blackened metal to warm copper and shiny brass.
Farrow sees in the work a dollhouse appeal, an aspect central to the work’s reception in many regards. His inventiveness and expert craftsmanship is indeed eye-catching. But arguably, our fascination with scale, rendering the large small and vice versa, may be an innate trait shared no matter the viewer’s gender or age. We prize that which showcases spatial and conceptual abilities surpassing the norm, whether by exacting copy or inventive recreation. Often such exercises in the hands of architects, model makers, and artists become feats. But feats of the mind and hand do suggest in either direct or unexpected ways the further accomplishments possible of our species. In this regard, Farrow’s reconceptualization of monumental religious architecture into sculptures on display pedestals may not be entirely nihilistic.
Nevertheless, the fundamentalisms, cultural misunderstandings, and perversions of morality, power, and purpose that have existed for thousands of years will not be resolved by the dialogue Farrow seeds. Competitions, cataclysms, genocides, suppressions, brutalities, and extinctions continue apace, all of which we view through our own experience. Thus, Farrow is heedful of the gap in knowledge our 21st century, Anglo-formed culture has of Islam. He has had to instruct himself in order to be thoughtfully engaged, especially in undertaking his first mosque. His most recent mosque further complicates how stereotypes predispose expectations.
Bombed Mosque (2014) features the central dome plan of Islamic religious architecture dating to the 15th century—a parallel development to Northern European late Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles. The vegetal ornament (in this instance, the foliate designs) and inlaid geometries of Islamic architecture emerge from the precise patterning of contrasting oxidized and polished brass shell casings. Such complexity in Islamic art is deeply rooted in tradition and ultimately offers meditations on life, unity, and the infinite. About the mosque’s partially destroyed condition, Farrow intends it to be regarded—not as might be projected, about conflict between Western and Islamic cultures—but as a theme addressing the conflict dividing a shared culture.
The destruction he portrays concerns the internecine struggles of Shia and Sunni denominations. This is a soliloquy on how symbols differ not only outside of cultures, but within. A similar circumstance figures in his Protestant house of prayer, Revelation I (2009), in which a more austere architectural tradition reflects tenants of faith far different from that of the medieval Catholic cathedral evoked by Trigger Finger and Two Ribs of Santo Guerro (2007). Farrow brings his talent for argument to our reading of Bombed Mosque by magnifying the meaning of such nuanced symbolisms for us. To begin, the crescent finial, oft misconstrued as a universal of Islam, is in fact a modern emblem only minted in the 20th century. Farrow uses this finial to represent aspects of Sunni orthodoxy, a weighty artistic choice as the mosque itself Farrow conceptualizes as Shia. Thus, the black trigger connecting the crescent to the polished brass dome becomes critical and dually provocative. As he explains “the use of color, for me, represents the black flag of fundamentalist Islam. A Sunni finial on a Shia mosque is tantamount to raising a black flag.” And, in 2014, here in the West, we cannot escape considering the emergence of the militant group ISIS, which carries the black flag as its standard.
About his medium—guns and steel—Farrow recounts with some amusement a comment once posted to the internet about his use of “chopped up” Lugars: “Now there is a sin I can’t live with.” It is fact that he is criticized most for what he is doing to a “good gun” by his cuts and welds than for any thematic ground traversed. If the work is misinterpreted, or causes offense, he finds far more revealed about the viewer than himself. Farrow does not mistake his own indifference as proof of others’ defects. The work denigrates no one belief, being critical—discriminating, careful, and exacting—of all. Even the titles he bestows provoke an intellectual reading, Santo Guerro being an invented Saint of War and Heilige Kreig of sacred wars.
As the reliquary has changed in its relevance, most signs and symbols, even the sacred, are prone to shifts and slippages in meaning. What endures finds new inflections. History written by the winners gets new treatments, but in so doing new incongruences are woven into the epic. Likely to be interpreted one way today and far differently tomorrow, Farrow’s art, whether it inspires awe or heavy meditations, does something remarkable by jarring the viewer just as the relic at San Lorenzo did the artist.