Art review: Terri Phillips' 'Chapel of Yes'

Fredric Koeppel/Special to The Commercial Appeal
The main portion of Terri Phillips’ “Chapel of Yes.”

Fredric Koeppel/Special to The Commercial Appeal The main portion of Terri Phillips’ “Chapel of Yes.”

Notions of what is spiritual in the lives of human beings do not necessarily have anything to do with established religions or the tenets of orthodoxy. The mind’s capacity for awareness of the transcendental exercises its powers in myriad ways.

Whether one spends a meditative hour at the Rothko Chapel in Houston or stands awe-struck on a hilltop in Mongolia where shepherds have been piling stones in a circle for a thousand years; whether one sits in a concert hall transfixed and overwhelmed by the final passages of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 or dips into the sublime luminosity of Dante’s “Paradise” — the profoundest works of human endeavor tease us out of ourselves into realms where questions of art, death, love and time seem merged with our deepest yearnings for understanding ourselves and others and our relationship with nature and the universe.

A bit of the sense feels inevitable, however small the scale, in Terri Phillips’ installation “Chapel of Yes,” at Tops Gallery through July 14.

The compact underground space, highly polished in some ways, bluntly industrial in others, is a perfect fit for this spare exploration into the force of light and shadow, stasis and motion, the revelation inherent in much that is enigmatic and the insinuation of suggestion.

On the gleaming white gallery floor is a backless white bench, just the size for two people; appropriately, its upright side panels lend the bench the aura of a church pew. The bench faces a plain white altar-like construction that bears a mysterious dark portion at the top. To the left is a truncated arrangement of three steps, also white, perhaps symbolizing that every effort toward transcendence requires ascent.

The artist’s brilliant stroke was to coat the wide sloping surface of the building’s former coal chute with silver leaf. A round hole in the sidewalk above (normally covered) allows not only diffused light to enter and fall upon the silver leaf, but actual rays of sunlight at the right time of day.

As I approached the “altar,” I was startled by a quick movement in front of me, and I don’t mind admitting I was astonished to see that the dark area was really a tank of water, in which swam a large, shadowy blue-gray catfish. Now this modest chapel was not only a still point in a turning world, but also a refuge of silent life and subtle animation. (The catfish are fed and regularly replaced.) While the conjunction of these elements may seem more clever than profound, the intuitive leaps required to meld them nevertheless are impressively seamless, a feat of the emotions and the intellect as incisive yet paradoxically expansive as a well-turned haiku.

Terri Phillips, ‘Chapel of Yes’

At Tops Gallery, 400 S. Front (basement level, entrance on Huling), through July 14. Open 1-6 p.m. Saturdays and by appointment. Call 901-340-0134.

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