Gotthelf Gallery offers uncommon perspectives on faith in La Jolla

'Seeing is Believing' exhibit on display through May 27 at Lawrence Family JCC

Talk about eclectic: Imagine an art exhibit that includes an elegant neo-Gothic cathedral made out of metal crutches, Vatican-approved marble reproductions of the heads of Michelangelo’s famous Pieta figures, fragments of Bible pages turned into Rorschachs, a 3-D “Mother of all Buddhas,” and a penny-filled cross that tells the future (sort of) to anyone who drops in a coin.

It’s “Seeing is Believing: A Reinvention of Articles of Faith,” on view at the Lawrence Family JCC’s Gotthelf Gallery. Curated by Debby and Larry Kline, prizewinning artist-provocateurs who love to turn convention upside-down and get people talking.

This exhibit was two years in the making.

“We knew we wanted to do something about different religions and how they borrow from each other, how traditional symbols get immersed in popular culture, and how questions of faith are still relevant as subjects for art,” Debby Kline said. “And the Gotthelf seemed the perfect place to do it.”

The Klines had curated two other shows at the Gotthelf: a textile exhibit called “Shmata Nouveau,” and a show of Jewish feminist artists called “Ms. Behavin’.”

This one was a little broader-reaching and some of their favorite pieces were deemed too irreverent by the gallery’s directors.

There was, for example, a pinhole camera made from airplane aluminum and shards of the World Trade Center; bits of sacred Islamic, Jewish, and Christian texts; and photos of rabbis, priests, and imams holding their holy books. You won’t find them, or in fact, any Islamic pieces, in this exhibit.

But there’s still plenty to see in “Seeing is Believing.” The centerpiece is Cheryl Nickel’s Cathedral, which actually calls forth the same feeling any great cathedral does. Nickel, one of the founders of Space 4 Art in San Diego’s East Village, was raised in a family of religious fundamentalists and medical professionals.

From that background, Nickel seems to have drawn inspiration, and here, out of crutches, laboratory pipettes and X-ray images, she has fashioned a graceful structure, where science, spirituality, and irony converge. The gallery’s rear wall features two of her pipette mandalas, “meditations on science” that manage to lift the heart.

All of the artworks on display call out for responses, but several are truly interactive. Dave Ghilarducci’s “Change for Salvation” is a clever, many-pennied construction; bring along some spare change to check your fate. And Paula Levine’s “Bible Rohrschachs,” created from fragments of Old and New Testaments offer a chance to write down what each image suggests to you.

If you find yourself missing the missing parts of the “Pieta,” there’s a consolation: you can get closer to the marble faces of Jesus and Mary than you ever could in Rome. And if you look behind the disembodied heads, you can see the seal of the Vatican’s approval.

Whatever your own beliefs are, “Seeing is Believing” will get you thinking, and admiring the ways different artists deal with questions of faith. u

IF YOU GO: “Seeing is Believing: A Reinvention of Articles of Faith” will be on view through May 27. Gotthelf Gallery at the Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive. (858) 362-1114. lfjcc.org

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