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In ‘Rituals of Devotion,’ the Mundane Becomes Sacred Through Collective Attention

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Long table draped in white clothing covered in bare-bulbed lamps and small figurines wrapped in white string
Portia Munson, 'Bound Angel,' 2021; Found figurines, lamps, candles, string and rope, wedding gowns, tablecloth, extension cords, oval table. (Courtesy of the artist and P·P·O·W, New York; Photo by Henrik Kam)

When curator Amanda Nudelman began looking through the McEvoy Family Collection to organize her first show at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, she noticed a pattern. During the pandemic, she had been thinking about collectivity — the different ways people come together — and, suddenly, she saw it in a new light. She saw rituals: artists forging connections with their surroundings and dealing with the unknown. She saw tools for transformation.

The resulting show, Rituals of Devotion, is on view at McEvoy through May 27. In it, Nudelman has gathered work by 25 artists across a variety of disciplines, including painting, photography, sculpture and assemblage. The show addresses the formal religious practices, mystical sites, family customs and everyday habits that give our lives shape and meaning.

Ritual is deeply connected to religion and spiritual gathering sites — where we forge feelings of divinity through worship, sometimes based on thousands of years of tradition. In San Esteban de Viguera, Spain (Light from the East), a series of gelatin silver prints, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg reveals an isolated sanctuary along a pilgrimage route from Barcelona to Santiago de Compostela.

Schulz-Dornburg’s photographs are taken from inside as light passes through the domed building’s window like a cosmological force. The images insinuate a passage of time — both historical time and the time Schulz-Dornburg spent taking photographs. It’s eerie to see a period of so many years condensed into one moment.

Eight framed black-and-white photographs of an arched interior space hung in grid with one photograph to right
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, ‘San Esteban de Viguera, Spain (Light from the East),’ 1991–1992; Gelatin silver prints. (© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg; Photo by Henrik Kam)

The profound embodiment of rituals can connect us to a timeline where, through performance, we affix ourselves to the past and the future. We create the framework for these performances by repeating certain behaviors. And as a result, the objects used during the performance become more significant — they are made special.

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The connections between the artists and the objects in Rituals of Devotion are clear, and that relationship radiates out to viewers as well. Rituals transform objects, imbuing them with a sentimentality we can experience repeatedly. In Marina Abramović’s Black Dragon, for example, viewers are invited to lean against rose quartz stone cushions hanging on the gallery wall. I placed my forehead and chest against the rose quartz, feeling something I imagined to be supernatural. It was thrilling to relate to the work tactically. It felt like I engaged with it more powerfully — that I was a part of something greater.

According to social science, rituals do create more powerful feelings between ourselves and our surroundings. Researchers have found that, for example, when we perform a ritual while eating chocolate, like clapping, we enjoy eating the chocolate more. Social bonds are also found to be stronger when performing a ritual — and not just for the moment we participate in them. As I saw Abramović’s Black Dragon posted repeatedly on social media, I felt an engagement with the piece that extended well beyond the moment in the gallery, another effect supported by research into the long-lasting effects of ritual action.

A white person with bare shoulders looks out directly and leans head back on shoulder of a blonde-haired person looking right
Still from Zackary Drucker’s ‘At Least You Know You Exist,’ 2011; 16mm transferred to video, color, sound, 16:08 min. (Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles)

Accompanying the exhibition is We Begin Again, a film program curated by Nudelman and McEvoy curatorial assistant Dylan Sherman, which shows work by Cheryl Dunye, Kia LaBeija, Adrian Garcia Gomez, Zackary Drucker, Wu Tsang, Bruce Conner, Caroline Monnet and Alicia Smith. The short films focus on how rituals are enacted through relationships: how they pass along knowledge and memory, how they’re rooted in cycles of renewal and transformation.

In my favorite moment of the program, Zackary Drucker tells the performer and drag queen Flawless Sabrina, “Because of you, I know that I exist.” There are so many times I have felt like this in my own life — where the existence of another queer person is the most transcendent experience of quiet affirmation.

Just outside the screening room, photographs from the McEvoy Family Collection show examples of profound tenderness in relationships, like Lee Friedlander’s photograph of his wife, Zanele Muholi’s images of lesbian couples and Nan Goldin’s images of her friends. These are photos that I feel lucky to have seen in my lifetime. Among the photographs is Dario Robleto’s sculpture Melancholy Matters Because of You, the bones of three hands cast from powderized vinyl records that belonged to his grandmother, his mother and Robleto himself. While the records in their original state would hold sentimental value possibly only to the artist, the intimacy of the skeletal hands was incredibly moving to me.

Three white skeletons of hands in decreasing size on a cream trapezoid mount
Dario Robleto, ‘Melancholy Matters Because Of You,’ 2010; Hand-ground and powderized vinyl and shellac records, cast and carved melted vinyl records, bone calcium, resin, pigments, dust. (McEvoy Family Collection; Courtesy of the artist)

I found this sense of transformation throughout the exhibition, where objects once separate from us become something felt. In Portia Munson’s Bound Angel, found figurines (mostly ceramic angels) collected from garage sales were transformed, wrapped in string and densely clustered on a tablecloth made from beaded and laced silk wedding gowns. If I found a ceramic angel at a garage sale, I doubt I would be drawn to it, but in Munson’s hands, these unremarkable things became otherworldly. I felt the warmth of the sculpture’s lights on my skin, my face softened and I was more present.

I have long thought that meaning depends on someone caring about something. What Rituals of Devotion demonstrates is that meaning is also something we collectively co-produce. Through shared focus, love and care — and by attuning our behavior towards each other — we are able to suffuse the ordinary with a sense of sacredness.

‘Rituals of Devotion’ and ‘We Begin Again’ are on view at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts (1150 25th St., Building B, San Francisco) through May 27, 2023. Details here.

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