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At first sight, the gallery feels stark. When I turned the corner at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and saw All That Glitters, a solo show by Mandy Cano Villalobos, that was my first impression from a distance: a sterile chill. More shadow than glow; more somber than glitter.  

But as I inched into the space, the glow began to emerge, though incongruously. In a makeshift grotto, all manner of gold-painted tchotchkes and kitschy artifacts twinkled amidst electric candles. The gilt grotto hallows the sacred totems inside. But when you enter its devotional space, you’re struck by the eclectic collection: piggy banks and Barbie dolls; Superman and assorted gnomes; the Holy Family and a hockey player; bell peppers and a baseball; Precious Moments schlock alongside Nativity scenes; Magi amid kittens. And a single pair of women’s shoes, pumps with a strap, battered like Van Gogh’s fabled boots. Where did she go?, you wonder. Is she…gone? Is this what she’s left behind?

I turn to the walls that surround the grotto and see an array of painting and sculpture. The paintings are a series of handmade dots—each different, inexact, bearing the marks of a hand, a human being. There is a painstakingness to these dotted images that speaks to a precise care for the minuscule, ongoing attention to what is easily overlooked, which just might be the shape of a life which is so often taken up with caring for what is unseen and invisible to everyone else but us. And God.

Perhaps that’s why these paintings seemed calendrical in a way, like “counting our days.” Having recently taken a stroll through a historic cemetery in the city, I was reminded of the headstones on which our forebears counted their days with exactitude: Here lies Jacob Wallenstein, age 37 years, 4 months, 14 days. The math of mortality.

These two-dimensional images are interspersed with three-dimensional works on shelves and suspended on the wall—an array of gilded globes and bundles. Each is an amalgam of burlap and rags, bundled scraps of worn-out garments that still bear their stitched hems and buttoned pockets. Did this hint of a skirt used to match those shoes?

I’m reminded of Plato’s Apology, recording one of Socrates’ disputations before his death, in which an interlocutor argued that the body is like a garment for the soul, and while the reincarnated soul would wear several different garments, it would eventually reach a point where its final garment would outlast it. What if it’s not only blouses and boots and bodies that wear out?

On this late Sunday afternoon, I had the gallery to myself and could wander contemplatively, sometimes puzzled, sometimes unsettled. On the floor surrounding the grotto are several burlap sacks filled to overflowing: one with dirt, another with rocks, another with salt, and a fourth that is curiously brimming with feathers like an erupted pillow. Some of the feathers are now strewn by the “winds” of the air conditioning like spritely indoor fairy tumbleweeds. Maybe that’s why this feels like a ghost town.

But rising above all this is one tapestry that climbs the wall. I will learn later is is called Sermo Humilis I. A humble patchwork, the pieces unmistakably ascend skyward (heavenward?). The bottom is stained (Is that blood?), but the earthen, multicolored dream quilt clambers upward. Here the rags rise.

All that glitters is not gold, of course; here not even what glitters is gold.

But then you also realize that things don’t have to glitter to matter, that value is not always the valuation of a market—that maybe even the humble, the banal, the discarded can be taken up and made into something new. Though even our righteous strivings are like “like filthy rags,” as the prophet Isaiah so memorably put it, there is a grace that promises to clothe the mortal in immortality. It is the same grace that sanctifies the quotidian, the million unseen acts of care and devotion and homemaking that seem fleeting and meaningless. Each deserves its own gilded grotto. Villalobos lights a candle to it all.  

All That Glitters is open through September 8, 2019 at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith is the editor in chief of Image.

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