Día de los Muertos
The LoDi Project
1126 N. Blount St., Raleigh
Through Oct. 31

It’s great that the architects who designed the space for The LoDi Project, a new gallery in Raleigh, kept the original floors of the remodeled former furniture factory.

They’ve been painted in dark tones and stretch across the space in expressive, uneven slatsa study in contrasts against the sleek, contemporary structure of the white space. It’s a way of honoring the history of the space, an architectural homage to its forebears. Put another way, keeping the vintage flooring is a reminder of the former inhabitants of the space, a certain number of whom are, by now, most certainly dead.

The LoDi Project’s inaugural offering is Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a group show inspired by this important Mexican holiday. The Day of the Dead is a hybrid of Catholic and pre-Hispanic traditions that takes place every year on Nov. 1 and 2, a two-day festival to honor loved ones who’ve died. The rituals involve the construction of elaborate altars that are loaded with symbolic ofrendasofferings to welcome the dead back home for their yearly visit.

The image of the human skull is the ubiquitous icon most readily associated with the Day of the Dead. Set in a gallery context, the representation of the skull sparks an onslaught of art and pop cultural associations: Andy Warhol’s indelible skull prints (circa 1976); Damien Hirst’s notorious 2007 diamond-encrusted version; the posters for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; and Max Fleischer’s magnificent 1932 animated film short Minnie the Moocher, a scintillating romp in black-and-white that follows an unsuspecting Betty Boop and her canine sidekick, Bimbo, down to the underworld, where they encounter a supporting cast of ghosts, ghouls and dancing skeletons. In his breakthrough study, Secret Knowledge, David Hockney investigated Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting “The Ambassadors” and revealed an abstract form in the lower section of the composition to be an optically distorted human skull.

The LoDi Project is a collaborative effort by guest curators to present idea-driven shows built around artists who’ve responded to open calls for work. Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Jose Galvez is the guest curator for the current show, which straddles a rather large divide between quality and lesser work. The four photographs by Galvez on viewsaturated color prints taken in Sonora, Mexicoare among the show’s better offerings. Indeed, the lion’s share of the 17 open-call works displayed on the mezzanine wall are of limited interest. This raises questions about the more-is-more ethos of such open-call exhibitions, and it will be interesting to watch how the gallery pursues this strategy in the future.

Among the exceptional works in the open-call group is Talbot Selby’s “Root #1105,” a large gelatin silver print treated with encaustic and other media. The image revolves around a crude skull mask mounted on what appears to be a mannequin torso. Despite the dreamy aesthetics of its painterly encaustic surface, Selby also manages to capture something horrific, a kind of impressionist version of the stark nightmares of Joel-Peter Witkin. Maggie Alcock’s “Sweet Dreams” is a spare construction of wood, string and feather that strikes a balance between tribal ritual object and formal abstraction. Dixon Stetler’s substantial “Death Not Plastic” is rightly placed in the vestibule at the gallery’s entrance. Stetler’s sculpture takes the form of a life-size coffin overlaid with woven discarded garden hoses and filled with plastic flowers rescued by the artist from roadside ditches near Greenlawn Memorial Park in Wilmington, N.C., a resplendent cascade of false hues. If the rest of the open-call group had been dispensed with and these artists had been given space to show a few additional works, Día de los Muertos might have emerged as a knockout first show.

The exhibit includes Garrett Scales’ outsize, ornate stencil pieces, psychedelic reworkings of iconographic images, primarily the face of Frida Kahlo. Scales’ considerable skill elevates Kahlo’s overworked image to some extent, but even in all their detailed glory, the works come across as feats of design and technique rather than as works of art. Raleigh’s “Barrel Monster” sensation Joseph Carnavale makes his gallery debut with “Ultra Mega Tree of Death,” a fairly tame outdoor sculpture with an awesome title. The show also includes three examples of Chip Hoppin’s Fanatic Masks, custom lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) masks done, in this instance, in the team colors of Duke, NCCU and UNC. Presented free-floating in dark vitrines, these absurd constructions communicate a flow of layered meanings, invoking everything from Los Bros Hernandez’ Love and Rockets to Jack Black’s hamfisted comedy Nacho Libre to organized sports and ultimately to fetishware.

The downstairs space is devoted to Peter Eversoll’s Polaroids of a Día de los Muertos celebration in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1998. Eversoll’s use of the Polaroid, a medium of immediacy, gives a sense of energy and urgency to the ritual transformations captured in these works. The experience of these photographs is one of participation rather than distanced observation. There’s a hallucinatory quality in the way the spectacle is witnessed. The blurriness and skewed angles just manage to culminate in poignant details found primarily in the regalia worn by festival participantsa face reflected in the mirrored circles on a devil’s cloak, an approximation of the figure of Bart Simpson in boxing gloves done in oversize sequins, a blue and red yin and yang sort of symbol that appears to be an approximation of the Pepsi logo. Eversoll’s transporting series begins with the image of a pristine shrine before the celebration and ends with an image of the same shrine in the celebration’s aftermath, absolutely destroyed, with a massive burn in the wall.

The LoDi Project’s Día de los Muertos comes just in time for us to build our own altars, light our own candles, decorate our own sugar skulls and make ofrendas to loved ones who’ve passed over. It will be interesting to see what other ideas spring forth from this new space over the upcoming months.