There’s something erotic about swallowing…I mean, receiving the Eucharist, isn’t there? Kneeling, mouth open, ready for the sacramental wine to dribble down your chin? Who among us hasn’t felt the impulsive tug to suck on a priest’s finger as he sets that Jesus wafer on your tongue? And if you believe in transubstantiation, well, then we’re entering into a whole new level of kink! Blood play and cannibalism?! Yes, please!
And I know what you’re thinking: Emily, stop trying to impress with sordid sacrilegious shock tactics. We’ve had enough! I’m certainly not the only one who gets all aroused during the Holy Communion. First, filth elder Bruce LaBruce said something remarkably similar last week in Interview Magazine, which I read after I started writing this essay. Secondly, just look at bad seed Alice (Paula Sheppard) from Alfred Sole’s 1976 pent-up Catholic slasher spree, Alice, Sweet Alice, as she stretches her mouth wide and eagerly extends her tongue as far as possible. Perverse!
I bring up Alice, Sweet Alice for a purpose beyond celebrating my newest juvenile delinquent role model. I came across the film while desperately attempting to discover the source imagery for artist Louise Giovanelli’s exquisitely ecstatic Eucharist paintings currently on view in her show Soothsay at Tribeca’s GRIMM. These paintings feature a variation on the same image: a raven-haired girl, mouth agape, eyes rolled back in rapturous reverence, as the sacramental bread is placed on her exposed tongue (less pronounced than Alice but enough to be lewd). Unfortunately, I was never able to locate what 1970s film birthed this Eucharist eroticism. No matter. Its mystery holds an intoxicating forbidden fruit element anyway. I was ready to genuflect right there in the gallery. Hallelujah!
Throughout the exhibition, Giovanelli repeats this image with unhinged devotional delight. All entitled Entheogen, some of the largest paintings layer the found image over a disconcertingly detailed close-up—the whites of the girl’s eyes turned towards the heavens, reflecting the glimmering shine of her two exposed front teeth and calling attention to her beckoning mouth. Others, however, are thin vertical canvases, a format I much prefer since it adds an intimate and illicit voyeuristic quality as if you’re peering at her in the rectory through a crack in the door or one of Degas’s keyholes.
Giovanelli’s choice to render this appropriated cinematic image in paint rather than the ever-popular lens-based art means that the work easily lends itself to comparisons with Gothic and Renaissance painting more than commenting on our current hyper-mediated existence. For instance, the putrid green color washing over the Entheogen paintings not only resembles the refraction of a neon light but reminds me of some of the sicklier and more gruesome zombified Jesus imagery such as Segna di Buonaventura’s The Crucifixion or my personal favorite, the hysterically overblown Pietà by Carlo Crivelli. One of the reasons why I’m drawn to Italian Renaissance art is the sheer emotional overwroughtness that veers dangerously toward Catholic camp. Giovanelli perfectly captures the agony and ecstasy of over-the-top worship as the young woman’s face contorts in pious pleasure. Her lush painterly technique, too, gives the canvas an inner luminosity, which bolsters the allure with a tempting tactile quality.
At first, it is easy to mistake Entheogen’s euphoric reaction for an orgasm, as I did immediately upon entering GRIMM without fully reading the press release. I instantly presumed the paintings exposed yet another take on pornographic imagery and womanhood akin to Marilyn Minter’s gaping maws or some of Betty Tompkins’s more fellatio-focused paintings. Until, of course, I noticed the wafer. This confusion is also due to the presence of a separate series of paintings within the show entitled Magdelin, which, in contrast, do source their material from 1980s porn. Despite this difference, however, Entheogen and Magdelin strangely mirror each other’s sexual and/or spiritual oral fixation, along with a dash of psychedelics as the title Entheogen implies (are they dropping acid?). All altered states, whether tripping, cumming, or speaking in tongues.
A small series of oil on paper, Soothsay, rendered in a ruddy orangish-red like Michelangelo’s red chalk studies, further adds to this slippage. Rather than consumed by bodies like Mike, Giovanelli monomaniacally concentrates on an open mouth that appears to be touched by an unknown object. Is it a finger? A tube of lipstick? Another Jesus wafer? Is this porn or piety? It’s hard to tell. And that’s even before getting into the most ambiguous painting in the show, Savanna, which reveals an elongated exposed neck, harkening to the suffering throws of Saint Sebastian or the Virgin Mary, her neck craned in adoration.
In all of its holy glee, Soothsay showcases, at once, the near-orgasmic experience of religion and the near-sacred experience of an orgasm. Yet these open mouths and stretched necks aren’t just about smut. There’s a theatricality that comes with some forms of Christianity (especially Catholicism). All those vibrant towering stained glass cathedral windows, ornate gold-flecked altars, or, as I recently experienced in Windsor, Ohio, a gargantuan 50-foot-tall mosaic sculpture of Our Lady of Guadalupe towering over a rosary lake at Servants of Mary Center for Peace. While perhaps not as awe-inspiring as watching people lay bouquets at the feet of giant Our Lady of Guadalupe (though what is), Giovanelli, too, understands this theatrical nature as evidenced by the inclusion of Stricture, a painting of a shimmering golden curtain that wouldn’t be out of place in a tacky nightclub. Hung in the middle of all this toe-curling physical and spiritual elation, this painting seems like a jarring choice and yet, positioned centrally, Stricture points to a vaudevillian sense of performance. The curtain acts as a reminder that all these heaving acts of sleaze and devotion may be just that: an act. Is that girl really so enthused about the Eucharist or is she hamming it up for the priest? Is that porn star really drooling in anticipation for the money shot or is she just mugging for the camera, waiting for this scene to be over?
Given the distinction made in those two questions, the pull is to slip into that tired Madonna/Magdalene, Mother/Whore, or, in this case, pious young woman/porn star binary debate. And while these contrasts are blatantly obvious within Soothsay, they’re also not quite as integral as one might imagine, precisely because of the blurred lines that occur throughout the show. I mean, that pious young woman is also being a bit raunchy with the host, isn’t she? Instead, what is most apparent is the centrality of women’s bodies and sexuality to these performances. Porn is more self-explanatory, but women’s sexuality is also fundamental to Christianity—as something to repress, regulate, and control or as something that comes popping up unexpectedly like in Entheogen.
That is the point, if you can find one, of Alice, Sweet Alice. In the film, Alice careens towards a pubescent life of crime (or at least pranks) and takes the blame for Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton)’s bloodlust—with a heavy emphasis on the lust—driven by her psychotic yearning for Father Tom. In the film, flesh and faith are a twisted toxic death drive with Catholic knickknacks looming above the sexually motivated homicidal mania. So much so that the film has been criticized as being explicitly anti-Catholic. Alice, Sweet Alice is certainly not alone in its depiction of female sexuality bursting through the seams of Catholicism with other notable films like Paul Verhoeven’s 2021 nunsploitation insta-classic Benedetta.
But even films that avoid the more berserk end of Catholic sexuality feature a clear obsession with sex. Though nowhere near as camp as the previously mentioned, Laurel Parmet’s 2023 feel-bad fundamentalist debut feature, The Starling Girl, showcases a similar adolescent sexual curiosity that is inherent in claustrophobic religious communities. In The Starling Girl, nearly everything is about sex if you’re a woman, even if it’s anxiously avoiding or apologizing for impure indiscretions like *gasp* wearing a white T-shirt with a visible white bra or not being sufficiently faithful while performing in a dance troupe. The horror! The shame! In this stifling atmosphere, which is juxtaposed with the lush pastoral beauty of rural Kentucky, it’s no surprise that 17-year-old Jem Starling (played heart-wrenchingly by Eliza Scanlen) would seek freedom in the form of fucking the Church’s rebel, a pushing-thirty sullen married youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman whose tight-lipped affect recalls Big Daddy Bill’s). Despite an age difference that will have most clutching their pearls, Owen comes off as less predatory than deeply pathetic, confessing to Jem that she—again, a 17-year-old—is the only one who understands him, likely another stunted developmental consequence of being raised in that closed fundamentalist environment. Throughout the expanse of the film, there is a painful push-pull between eroticism and shame, maturity and childhood, freedom and repression, all playing out through the fraught intertwinement of Jem’s physicality and faith.
Both The Starling Girl and Giovanelli’s Soothsay portray women’s sexuality as inextricable from even the most paternalistic forms of Christianity. While this may not exactly be cutting-edge breaking news either on film or in art, Giovanelli’s works, in particular, don’t feel like they retread some tired old critique. I bring this up as while working on this essay, I’ve been observing the art world reverting back to antiquated arguments about the sacrosanctity of modern art and Picasso while also retreading 1970s feminist rhetoric about the Cubist painter (Who gives a fuck?!). What is seriously lacking on all sides of that debate is a sense of humor. Thankfully, Giovanelli’s show isn’t suffering from this malady. Soothsay retains a refreshingly joyous and infectiously naughty transgressiveness in its balancing act between the sacred and the profane that has as much to say critically as it is simply titillatingly amusing. And amen to that.