At Socrates Sculpture Park, the 4.5 acre greensward in Long Island City, a 13-foot tall Virgin Mary stands pensive and composed. Like a cathedral sculpture from the Renaissance, the figure’s robe cascades into folds of drapery, her arms gracefully extend as a gesture of maternal embrace, and her countenance is unguarded as she looks outward rather than up to heaven or down as if in prayer. Cracks in the work’s surface suggest a historic piece. But the sculpture, by Fernando Mastrangelo (American, born 1978), isn’t made of marble or from a plaster cast like the Our Lady of Guadalupe figurines from Mexico where the artist grew up. The sculpture, titled Feed, was painstakingly carved in birdseed.
As the sculpture stands outside, it offers both sustenance and sacrifice to nature: birds will peck at the work to feed on the seeds and the Virgin Mary will slowly disappear. The artist looked at popular birdseed wreaths and ornaments and tweaked a formula of gelatin, flour, and corn syrup into an edible glue so that the Park’s birds could safely consume the sculpture’s material. The artist has said that he doesn’t choose to theorize on the disintegration of the figure he has created, but rather surveys and documents the sculpture’s changes with an automatic, outdoor time-lapse camera. “I just present the situation for it to happen and allow nature to take over from there. It was a way to position myself neutrally, ” he explained.
Mastrangelo’s work straddles irony and adoration. “The birdseed piece was a way to ask questions about symbols and religious iconography. Birdseed seemed the most eloquent and poetic resolution,” the artist said in a recent interview. Responding to the open-air site and working to steep sculpture in message, Mastrangelo chose a religious subject he has taken on before in other materials including sugar, goat’s milk, and gunpowder. “There is always politics tied to materials, controversy of some nature. I can’t even imagine making a sculpture that doesn’t reflect that. If you are approaching a subject, how would you not use the material to describe it?” he questioned. Here, birdseed serves as a literal and symbolic offering. Pigeons, warblers or sparrows will feast and finally overwhelm the figure who serves to nurture them.
Mastrangelo, who received his MFA in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2004, and who maintains a studio in Brooklyn, is keenly aware of the art historical and contemporary precedents of bringing the Virgin Mary into his work. And the tradition in Christian iconography of tending to animals is storied; perhaps the resonant example is of St. Francis of Assisi, who preached to the birds. Mastrangelo has studied and visited the great churches where examples of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque niche sculpture of the Virgin Mary are framed by an architectural surround. “Classical sculpture is so beautiful and so powerful, I love going into cathedrals to look at these works. I try to re-contextualize them in a new way,” he said.
He has also focused on contemporary practice where artists Andres Serrano, Robert Gober, and Chris Ofili, for example, have been challenged for their provocative and controversial use of Christian imagery. Yet, the iconography of the Madonna was not simply art historical but palpable for Mastrangelo who grew up in Mexico. “Guadalupe is in just about every corner of every neighborhood…I grew up seeing the Virgin everywhere I went, in my friends’ homes, on the side of the road. And the same thing in Los Angeles,” he said referring to his move to California in 2010 to pursue a sculpture project.
Despite the tangible roadside iconography of his youth now seeded in memory, Mastrangelo is an atheist. It is ultimately the sculptural presence that drew the artist to make work which relies on a traditional form with wholly contemporary materials. “It’s all part of the dialogue of trying to expand on this one image, this one symbol which is so powerful,” he said.
Feed is on view at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens, through March 31, 2013 in EAF12: 2012 Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition. Brooke Kamin Rapaport is on Socrates’ board.