The Chiefest of Ten Thousand
September 22 – November 3, 2018
Over the course of her career Celeste Dupuy-Spencer has set out to create paintings interrogating the American experience, a subject that she began to believe could not be addressed without attending to the question of religion. The resulting body of work gathered for her exhibition The Chiefest of Ten Thousand offers a depiction of our moment through a series of portraits, religious scenes, and landscapes. Taken together these works present a view that is conflicted, terror-filled, absurd, and marked by a powerful tenderness. This show exposes dark palimpsests of our culture as well as warmth, pleasure, and humor.
The paintings themselves are a tour de force, moving between styles, gestures, and a history of Western painting to create images drawn from everyday life and embellished with strange, imaginative metaphors and tangents. The artist deploys an almost collaged breadth of visual languages—from sanded erasure to delicate, realistic rendering, from fast and loose brushwork to cartoonish figuration. Just as the images themselves depict a kind of existential grappling, so do the painterly gestures; each canvas feels wrestled, fought, and barely tamed. Dupuy-Spencer’s paintings ask how might we live through this history and presents images of varied answers, modes of being and seeking. While many of these images are drawn from or make reference to her own life, for Dupuy-Spencer, her figure functions as a stand-in within these works. Many of the paintings take religion and a search for the divine as their central subject, but also address questions of family, love, and nature, creating a cacophonous but singular vision.
In Through the Laying of the Hands (Positively Demonic Dynamism) (2018), Dupuy-Spencer depicts a figure at the center of a “laying of hands,” surrounded by a swirl of grotesque, Ensor-inspired people. A pastor clutches a microphone in one hand and with the other coaxes a noxious miasma from the central figure’s mouth that culminates in a cloud of monstrous faces. The artist has included an arm extending from our vantage point, implicating us in this scene. Another painting shows a baptism, depicting a figure as they prepare to be submerged into a deep pool churning with images of distorted animals. In these inverse compositions, Dupuy-Spencer depicts both the ritualized Christian paradigm of sin and redemption and suggests other ways of understanding these concepts that correlate to a world that while dark and filled with conflict, also contains the possibility of light and forgiveness. These works represent religion and a culture of whiteness that define much of America, as well as aspects of religion that speak to the formation of community and the transcendent possibilities of belief.
In other works, we see Dupuy-Spencer engage familial mythologies and questions of love. The Chiefest of Ten Thousand (Sarah 2) (2018) is a frank painting of the artist and her partner, Sarah, on the bed, in a messy, lived-in bedroom. We are only shown portions of each figure within the richly detailed domestic space, which can be read as a subtle, diffuse vanitas. Here
desire is turned in on itself; it isn’t performing for our visual consumption. This work is a complement to Sarah (2017), which appeared in the Hammer’s Made in LA 2018 and shows the same figures playfully embracing each other with their partially clothed bodies open to the viewer. These are the intimacies that define our closest relationships. They are the love we perform only for each other, depicted as only we experience them.
Don’t Lose Your Lover (2018), in which we see a catastrophic vision of the California landscape on fire as a menagerie of animals flees in the foreground, brings together the themes of this exhibition. In the center of the painting two figures kiss in front of their broken down car as their exaggerated shadows are projected by the still-illuminated headlights. Dupuy-Spencer began painting this work directly after the 2016 presidential election, and while the allegorical lovers are not going to escape this end times scene, at least they have each other. The title of this exhibition, The Chiefest of Ten Thousand, is drawn from the Old Testament book Song of Solomon, which focuses on love and desire. Dupuy-Spencer’s paintings suggest that might be the only salvation, even as everything burns down around us.
This body of work is a record of the deeply felt task of trying to be, and be good, in the contradictions of this moment. The polyvocality the artist brings to each painting, through their images and gestures, make them purposefully hard to grasp, refusing to cohere even as they have a razor sharp affective import. They picture a self that cannot be reconciled as a manifestation of a society that refuses reconciliation. Dupuy-Spencer suggests that there are real and profound ways to save ourselves—finding grace in the mire is an unending and complicated process, but love and community might be an ongoing redemption.
Celeste Dupuy-Spencer (b. 1979 New York, NY) received a BFA from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY in 2007. Recent solo exhibitions include Wild and Blue at Marlborough Contemporary, New York (2017), And a Wheel on the Track at NINO MIER GALLERY, Los Angeles (2016) and (mostly) works on paper at Artist Curated Projects, Los Angeles (2015). Group exhibitions include Made in L.A. at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2018); TEN at Artist Curated Projects, Los Angeles (2018); The Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum, New York (2017); Summerfest 2017 at Max Hetzler, Berlin (2017); Tomorrow Never Happens, The Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University, PA (2016); Frida Smoked at Invisible Exports, New York (2016); In Plain Sight, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York (2012). This is the artist’s second solo exhibition with NINO MIER GALLERY. Dupuy-Spencer lives and works in Los Angeles.