Eleanor Heartney’s Essay
2006 Cue Art Foundation Exhibit

Curator's Statement:

"And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."
Mark 16:17

This short text at the end of the gospel of St. Mark forms the basis for the ritual practice of snake handling in rural Appalachia. Founded in the early 20th century by Tennessean George Went Hensley, snake handling is a variant of Pentecostal Christianity in which devotees "take up serpents", specifically rattlesnakes, in the course of ecstatic transports brought on during religious services. Their immunity from the snake's venom is a sign of God's favor. This practice, which strikes outsiders as both bizarre and willfully dangerous, serves practitioners, as a means of affirming their faith in God and their submission to his will.
The practice of snake handling forms the point of departure for these remarkable works by Tennessee native Gary Monroe. Not himself a practitioner of these rituals, Monroe became aware of the serpent handlers during his childhood in the mountains of Tennessee. In his monumental drawings, he roots this exotic practice in a symbolic system which could not be more familiar to students of Western art history. His paintings meld the legends and famous personages of the snake handling tradition with quotations from the works of artists like Titian, Michelangelo, Rubens, Caravaggio and El Greco.
In Monroe's intricate, pulsing compositions, one can find references to snake related scenarios as depicted by the Old Masters. Among the recurring motifs in his works are figures adapted from the Sistine Chapel's representation of the story of the Brazen Serpent whom the Israelites were punished for worshiping in place of God. Other works quote from Michelangelo's depiction of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden following their encounter with the Satan in serpent guise. Monroe also makes frequent use of writhing figures from the Laocoon, the classical Greek sculpture which represents a father and two sons wrestling with deadly sea serpents unleashed by the god Poseidon. Such snake related motifs are intermingled with quotations from other well known Renaissance and Baroque era paintings, and with sly references to more contemporary sources. In several works one can glimpse Malevich's constructivist cross, the faces of Picasso and Jackson Pollock or even a quotation from the Pollock painting The Deep.
But if these works pay homage to the figurative traditions of Western art, they also are steeped in the lore of the snake handlers. Some of the works commemorate specific individuals. For instance, The Death of Sister Melinda Brown of Parotsville, TN draws on Renaissance representations of the death and assumption of the Virgin to depict the death and subsequent apotheosis of a practitioner who died of a serpent bite after refusing medical care. The Vision of Free Pentecostal Sherman Lawson of Path Fork, KY blends elements from El Greco's version of Laocoon with dancing figures whose poses echo those of Matisse's dancers and suggest the ecstatic vision of one of the movement's founders. More ominously, The Assault of Sister Glenda Darlene Collins of Scottsboro, AL quotes from Rubens Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus to tell the true story of a member of the sect who attempted to kill his wife by forcing her to thrust her hand into a box full of venomous serpents.
In these drawings, Monroe mixes modern and traditional elements-figures in the same drawing may be wearing contemporary clothes and garments familiar from Old Master depictions of the biblical era. Sometimes bits of architecture or landscape echo renaissance painting, while in other works they are based on the vistas and dwellings of modern day Appalachia. This hybridity adds to the deliberate artifice of the works. Unlike more journalistic presentations of snake handling, Monroe's drawings present a spiritual practice filtered through the whole history of western art. We are reminded of the enduring power of religious belief and the unusual forms that worship can take. We are also made aware that the search for religious transport may bring both pleasure and pain. Blurring the line between art and religion, Monroe reminds us that both hold out the promise of spiritual transcendence, and both may cost their practitioners more than they expected.