Richard Emmanuel And His Remarkable Church Of Installation Art

Art Is A Language, A Visual Language: Jack Castle uncovers an endangered masterpiece of Installation Art in Gloucester MA.

From what I can make of it the 60s was a very odd time. Enormous and contradictory movements abound, characterised by great promise, great change, but a great realisation of the inflexibility of certain structures. Sexual liberation, the hippie movement, huge progress in civil rights, popular uprisings, as well as hangovers of existentialism (Sartre was offered the Nobel Prize in 1964), absurdism, appeals to a by-now paradisiacal Marxism, and the founding of Situationalist International. Revolutions on one hand; on the other: isolation, universal meaninglessness, class stasis and capitalism’s grip on mass visual culture. “If you remember the 60s,” the old saying goes, “you weren’t there.” By this logic I was there, but I have no idea how to reconcile hope, progress, ennui and realisation of visual slavery.

Out of this tumult comes Richard Emmanuel, whose work covers three main areas: War, capitalism, and religion. These huge themes are united in their treatment by his idea of exposing the ‘information economy’ as ‘based on visual camouflage’, as a smokescreen which works as their rotten language, allowing their continuation. To this end, he is a proponent of ‘media awareness and activism to prevent deception’, believing in the ‘visual experience’ ‘as the primal form of language.’

His chief medium is sculpture, in the form of assemblages of found objects and images stacked high on pedestals, reminiscent of the work of The Chapman Brothers, Hans Bellmer and Isa Genzken. Superficially, they use the same thought processes: disparate materials and items thrown together in the hope of creating illustrative associations between them, Emmanuel replaces Genzken’s tendency towards lacquered plastics with the faded painted wood of an antique shop. But the association ends there. Genzken uses items seemingly at random, thrown together. Emmanuel’s work shows a much more focused use of ‘language’. Where Genzken throws together things, Emmanuel throws together well crafted symbols. ‘Art is a language, a visual language,’ Emmanuel has said. ‘It is an attempt to make visible the otherwise invisible. An idea is invisible until some substance is given to it through music, writing or art. This is not art. This is language.’

Emmanuel runs an institution known as ‘The Church’, to be found on East Main Street, Gloucester, MA, which is currently in danger of closure and repossession by the bank. It has been his workshop, living quarters and gallery for 44 years, founded during the days of the Vietnam War. There was no entry fee as such, but in the early years entrants would have to burn a dollar bill at the door, by way of initiation: ‘It was a symbol that capitalism was the new religion,’ explains Emmanuel.

His philosophy is boiled down to three things: ‘One, no one gets out alive; Two, shrouds don’t come with pockets; and three, there is no meaning to life until you create meaning by the relationships you form with other people and with the planet.’ Religion and capitalism hide these three truths. ‘The whole idea is to basically deconstruct belief,’ he has said. ‘In effect we must erase the blackboard and start over. We must examine our beliefs, because our beliefs are killing us.’

Religion and capitalism are, and hide behind, ‘visual camouflage,’ and Emmanuel’s wish is to draw attention to this camouflage, to point out the quiet totalitarianism of symbols. One of his pieces, ‘Three Faiths at War’, is an example of this method. A medical skeleton painted orange, giving it an enflamed appearance, hangs as Christ did on a crucifix, the Star of David hanging above its head, the Fertile Crescent over its midsection. The American flag is draped over the crucifix and the skeleton, via a conversation bubble, is saying, “The war is going fine. Next question.” These symbols are thrown together: the frontispieces of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and America, as well as a gaudy symbol of death, and united under the evading phrase “The war is going fine. Next question.” The war in question is in both the superposition of symbols representing different (and, more often than not, conflicting) interests, as well as a reference to the various battlegrounds of the ‘War on Terror’. The common visual language is shown up. The symbols vie, gain and lose meaning, are shown to be illusory. But as well as showing them to be illusions, Emmanuel’s work also exposes the amount of meaning these symbols are endowed with. Emmanuel doesn’t see ‘content’ as physical. Some of these works predate the Chapman’s by decades.They create a similar tableaux and are equally beautiful, powerful and disturbing at the same time.

The symbol is the most primal form of language, meaning a whole raft of things explicable and not, emotions and thoughts, without actually saying anything. American schoolchildren vow an oath to the American flag every morning; the American flag is burned in protest in the Middle East. The flag – the symbol of the unquantifiable and unqualifiable things America stands for – is loved or burned as a conduit to burning, in the parlance, “everything America stands for” without ever having to say what America does stand for (not to mention creating the tautology associated with America and Goodness: “It’s American; it’s good,” “what makes it good?” “It’s good because it’s American.” See also the political cache of the ‘word’ “un-American”). This is beyond a Nationalist phenomenon – it is a linguistic phenomenon. All the power of the NRA is less than the word “American”, which is less in turn than the power of the American flag.

There is hope in Emmanuel’s work, and power to expose the symbol as just what it is – symbolic, not representative. His work seeks to pull the wool back off the viewer’s eyes, to let them see each other and forge connections between each other. But there is also a sense of struggle there, brought by the flaking paint and memorabilia. These are symbols of no organised religions, no deceptions, talismans of an a-religiousness that can never sleep, but must always check and audit itself. Emmanuel is not offering another ideology, or religion, or political standpoint. Rather, he offers a reminder against all of them. His position is actually that of the true scientist – to keep questioning, testing, and remaining vigilant for new lotuses so as not to eat.

The God Emmanuel worships at The Church is indescribable, invisible to those that move among Him. ‘The real understanding lies in our sense of interplay between the visible and the invisible – we do not see air… but continue to breath… yet sense it as suffocation when it is absent.’ The world attempts to stop this, the ‘information economy’ drives a wedge between these two elements. Emmanuel considers the world a constant transubstantiation. His work tries to ward off evils, like gargoyles. There is no paradise, just constant siege.

The immediate focus now is how to save and preserve this unique, innovative gallery. Recently there was a similar drive in the UK to save Kurt Schwitters Mertz Barn. The almost forgotten Merz Barn was neglected for many years until the late artist Richard Hamilton arranged for the surviving art work to be removed for safe keeping to the University of Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery in 1965, where it is now on public view. The Merz Barn building itself still survives and contains evidence of Schwitters’ original working methods and materials. It is high time that the Boston Contemporary Art establishment wakes up and has another look at Richard Emmanuel’s work, before this unique masterpiece of American installation art is broken up and lost forever.

Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2013

Photo By L. Barry Hetherington courtesy of the artist

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