On March 16, President Donald Trump released his budget proposal for the fiscal year of 2018, which included plans to eliminate all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The news, though not quite a surprise, was a devastating blow for the countless Americans who cherish the necessity of creative expression and a vibrant cultural community.
New York-based artist Ventiko had already embarked upon her project “Phos Hilaron: From the Masses Rise the Saints” before Trump officially announced his agenda to slash the NEA and NEH. But Trump was certainly on the artist’s mind when she began to photograph beloved members of her creative community and frame them as patron saints.
“The thing that really inspired me was the election,” Ventiko told The Huffington Post. “This series was the result of wanting and needing to take action. I had to reclaim my power. I’ve been blessed to know so many talented people and this was my chance to actually exalt them.”
Ventiko enlisted 100 of her friends, collaborators and muses to serve as the subjects of her divine series. “I was brought up Jewish,” she explained, discussing her interest in religious imagery. “When I was younger, there wasn’t a lot of iconography in my moral teachings. I’ve always been drawn to the communication of morality through imagery and have played a lot with the subversion of symbolism.”
For the project, subject and artist collaborated to determine which “patron saint” the model would embody. The unorthodox roster of holy ones includes everything from “Patron Saint of Beauty” to “Patron Saint of Gender Fluidity” and “Patron Saint of Night Night.” The subjects donned full costumes and makeup to wholly personify each holy figure.
Far from the traditional cast of holy saints, Ventiko’s creative idols are individuals of all ages, genders, races and styles. The fantastical series captures all the different ways people can embrace the holy spirit ― be that spirit of tea time or 5th Avenue.
Ventiko then attached each image to a votive candle, and arranged the lot of them in Chinatown Soup gallery. Together, the illuminated portraits converge to form a divine altar with one foot in the New York art scene, the other in the sacred beyond. The glittering lights illuminate the ongoing importance of art-making in a time when the future of creative innovation is riddled with uncertainty.
For the artist, however, the holy homages respond more to Trump’s agenda in general than the proposed elimination of the NEA. “I really wanted to showcase the beauty of difference and individuality,” Ventiko said. “It’s about owning our stories, owning our truths. Not ‘if you come from this place you are a terrorist,’ or separating people out with walls. There is room for all of us us to establish our identities and to be who we are.”
“Phos Hilaron: From the Masses Rise the Saints” runs until April 2, 2017 at Chinatown Soup in New York.
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