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“Dirt Altar” Explores Iconophilia, in Jacksonville

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Jim Draper and Casey James, Dirt Altar, 2014; inkjet print, 72 by 72 inches.

The allure and ubiquity of religious signifiers are explored and interrogated in the exhibition “Dirt Altar”at Looking Lab project space, run by performance artist and public art advocate Joy Leverette. The collaborative effort by artists Jim Draper and Casey James features a handful of works that merge contemplation with conjecture. The brick walls and main window of this storefront-turned-gallery are converted into a shrine devoted to what the artists describe as an investigation into the relationship between “ecclesiastic and secular ‘iconophilia’ (the worshipping of images).” The show is organized by Jacksonville-based critic and curator Staci Bu Shea.

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Jim Draper and Casey James, American Flamingo, 2014; oil on canvas, 60 by 48 inches.

Sharing a fascination with fetishized imagery, Draper and James used a decidedly 21st-century method of process-based collaboration. Utilizing phone calls, e-mails and Instagrams over the past year, James, who is originally from Southern California and now based in New York, and Draper, who lives in Jacksonville, volleyed ideas back and forth; with the hashtag #dirtaltar, you can see the arc of the project from inception to fruition on Twitter and Instagram.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

“I believe that this show is really about shared experience,” says James, alluding to the artists’ long-distance communications as well as their friendly excursions to historic and natural Northeast Florida sites, including Fort Clinch and Big Talbot Island. These forays also uncovered more totemlike materials that only reinforced this idea of icon-turned-fetish. “For the scavenger hunt piece, we wound up looking for shark’s teeth at night. That was just one of many interesting turns and surprises involved in creating these pieces.”

The resultant piece, Stole, is a tan vestment featuring the items that Draper and James challenged one another to find. Tiny bags feature disparate objects, such as currency and a miniature crab; the effect is both playful and decidedly secular. Any religious overtone is found only in the draped garment, which conjures images of various Judeo-Christian liturgical rights and spiritual creeds. Flanking Stole are two prints, For Jim and For Casey, each artist’s respective list of materials to procure for the finished garment.

The impressive titular piece, Dirt Altar, is an homage to stained glass and free association. Placed in the main window of the gallery, a dozen panels, including renderings of animal eyes and flowers, surround an intricate and dazzling wheel of color that pushes the sacred towards psychedelia. American Flamingo offers two variations of the bird suspended upside down in crucifixion. In focusing on the flamingo, a species nearly pushed out of Florida by man—who then replaced it with a kitschy, plastic lawn ornament—this sacrificial-themed piece seems to expand on Draper’s ongoing ecological activism.

Jim Draper and Casey James, Stole, 2014; linen, various found objects, plastic bags.
Jim Draper and Casey James, Stole, 2014; linen, various found objects, plastic bags.

While the works in “Dirt Altar” use overtly religious structures, Draper stresses that they are devoid of any spiritual meaning, instead offering a reappropriation of dogma and transfiguration of those religious restraints into a testament of personal orthodoxy. “The work is not meant to be used in a religious context. I’m more interested in using the form to convey information. The ecclesiastical images that I grew up with are more akin to a ‘Velvet Jesus.’”

“Dirt Altar” is on display through July 9 at the Looking Lab, 107 E. Bay St., Jacksonville, Florida.

Daniel A. Brown is a musician and writer based in Jacksonville Beach. A onetime bassist for Royal Trux and ’68 Comeback, Brown is also a former arts and entertainment editor for Folio Weekly. He maintains a visual arts site called STAREHOUSE (starehouse.com), which profiles Northeast Florida, national, and international artists.