Altared states

Tim Guthrie’s Unorthodoxy is filled with altars, icons and divine irony

An altarpiece in Tim Guthrie’s exhibit Unorthodoxy.

An altarpiece in Tim Guthrie’s exhibit Unorthodoxy.

Photo by David Robert

Thursday, Feb. 27. Today, in the middle of a snowy morning, I passed by Sierra Arts Gallery. It was staggering to peer through the windows at the hundreds of photos inside, like spying on Robin Williams’ walls in One Hour Photo.

But when I walked in, I sensed something akin to holiness. Tim Guthrie’s voluminous multimedia exhibit Unorthodoxy is so titled, perhaps, because it invites the viewer to become a blasphemer of sorts, responding to the gallery space—a space filled with altarpieces, with hundreds and hundreds of icons—as if it were a cathedral.

The “icons” are small computer-altered photographs with gilded frames. Of the more than 600 images, a good number are above the line of vision, so you are cowed by the enormity of the exhibit, made to feel small under the gaze of all those photographed subjects. As with the Vietnam Memorial, the point is not to scan each entry but to feel the dizzying effect of so many names, of so much memory. When I looked at the photos, at the woman with the melancholy eyes dressed in Renaissance garb, at the man whose face is disappearing into a cloud of cigarette smoke, I felt an eerie sense of recognition. Novelist Doris Lessing once wrote that “the face is the soul,” and I think maybe Tim Guthrie understands this.

A show of the icons alone would have been impressive. But Unorthodoxy is anchored by larger works hung amid the icons, portraits and “altarpieces” that give the show depth and weight. They are beautiful, rich in subtle meaning.

I looked around—there were still altarpieces, portraits, dozens of unseen icons. I decided to return later.

Monday, March 3. Today I talked to Tim Guthrie by phone. “I didn’t want the pieces to exist separately,” he said of the icons. “I wanted them all to exist as one.”

Guthrie told me he’d been working on the icons—mostly family members, some friends—for years. He chose to hang the icons salon-style, a nod to the 19th-century tradition of hanging the more impressive works “on-line.” Guthrie said the most important elements of the icons are not the photos themselves but the objects at the bottom of the frames, objects given to him by the photographed subjects, which give the pieces a “reliquary feel.”

Friday, March 7. 4:30 p.m. I returned to the gallery this afternoon for another look. When I walked in, I heard a faint “hallelujah.” The music came from a kiosk at the rear of the gallery. I walked over to the kiosk and scanned the visual diary that chronicles Unorthodoxy’s creation.

Then I turned to the altarpieces, which include a deceptively simple altar dedicated to Guthrie’s deceased uncle, physician Harry Gerd-Anrode. The drawers of this piece open to reveal a stethoscope, scratched eyeglasses and, most haunting, a wallet containing a driver’s license, American Medical Association card, Social Security card and family photos. It’s so personal, I almost didn’t want to look. I put the wallet back, and the strong masculine scent of leather filled the drawer. On the way out of the gallery, I stopped by the gumball machine by the door. It seemed you could really insert coins and get a little icon of your own, but I didn’t have 50 cents.

Friday, March 7. 8:30 p.m. This was the night of Guthrie’s Side Show at Blue Lyon Studio and Gallery, which featured more of the artist’s recent works and a slide show presentation on Unorthodoxy. I walked into the gallery late, after Guthrie’s talk was already underway. I squeezed in to see Guthrie, a man with keen blue eyes and a boyish, intelligent face, talk about the portraits, icons and altarpieces. When he was finished, a woman in the audience asked, “When do you sleep?” He laughed and claimed that he does.

But you have to wonder.