Strange Magic: Why occult-based art is about to cross your radar (if it hasn’t already)

By on January 14, 2016

Despite the vast evidence against it, human beings today seem more willing than ever to believe in a divine creator. Over the past decade, the number of atheists has increased only marginally, while percentages in major religions—Islam especially—have risen at a much faster rate. A surprising statistic is the reemergence of alternative, or “other” religions, which have also grown from 6% globally in 2007 to nearly 12% today. As expected, art is following suit.

This week, NYU’s  80WSE Gallery, next to Washington Square Park (Manhattan), debuted its newest exhibition: Language of the Birds: Occult and Art; last month the Stephen Romano Gallery (in Brooklyn) opened Hieroglyphica, a group show of contemporary occultic art; and next week the Folk Art Museum (Upper West Side) hosts Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection.

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Entrance to 80WSE Gallery (courtesy the author)

All over New York City—from fine art to street art, to alternative comics, even advertising—magic and the occult are de riguer. The trend (if it can be called that) has been little cogitated by the mainstream art critics; yet in outlying circles (read: beyond the high-brow galleries of Chelsea and the Lower East Side), the proliferation of pyramids, cryptograms, all-seeing eyeballs, and shamanistic visions is difficult to deny. The reason for this upsurge is harder to pin down.

The Language of Birds show—curated by writer/historian Pam Grossman—attempts to clarify the situation. It features over fifty artists, whose eclectic work spans more than a hundred years. Grossman has categorized them by theme: works in Gallery One explore the concept of the cosmos; Gallery Two touches spirits and ghosts; Three represents visual wizardry and homages to magic-making, including a self-portrait by the controversial British occultist Aleister Crowley. Gallery Four is intended as an active altar-space, honoring occult/surrealist forebears Kurt Seligmann and Enrico Donati, while Five exhibits artworks that were intended as actual magical spells.

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Aleister Crowley, Kwaw (Idealized Self-Portrait) (1935), ink on paper (courtesy of 80WSE Gallery)

By curating the show this way, Grossman draws attention to the strange, timeless qualities of occultic imagery. Yet the works seem inexorably of their time as well, having run parallel to, and in many cases, influenced the dominant form. Take, for instance, surrealism. Historically, it was seen as an artistic offshoot of Freud’s research into dreams and the subconscious. Georges Bataille’s essays on surrealism (later collected in the book The Absence of Myth) foretell an end to spirituality altogether, confounded by World War 1 and the general anarchism pervading European modernists. And yet it is difficult to imagine oeuvres like that of Dali, Magritte, or Man Ray devoid of their basis in metaphysics. Even moreso with Max Ernst and his brief partner, Leonora Carrington, the latter of whom is represented here by an evocative oil titled El Nigromante (The Conjuror) (1950).

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Leonora Carrington’s El Nigromante (The Conjuror) (c. 1950), oil on canvas (courtesy of 80WSE Gallery)

Surrealist-style paintings by Seligmann and Donati fill two whole walls in Gallery Four and each deviate from their age as much as they mirror it. Seligmann’s Noctambulation (1942) is the most Dali-esque, with its central figure foregrounded over a deserted landscape. He is rendered anatomically, from incongruent elements—animal carcass, soup pot, horse hooves, human hair—that blend together like something out of a nightmare. (It also bears an echo of Picasso’s Guernica, with its terrified horse face turned upwards.) The easy thing to do is call works like these derivative, their creators ‘paranoid hacks.’ But that would be a mistake.

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Kurt Seligmann, Noctambulism (1942), oil on panel (courtesy of 80WSE Gallery)

A nearby photograph of Seligmann and Donati, performing a magic circle (circa 1948), encapsulates something of the era’s divergent attitude towards the occult. Both men wear full suits and carry magic wands, standing inside a pie-chart circle drawn on the floor, which is filled with various symbols and talismanic objects.

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Enrico Donati, La Ronde des Lutins (1945), oil on canvas (courtesy of 80WSE Gallery)

The packed crowd around them is mostly youthful—collegiate types looking distinctly clean-cut—who display everything from fascination to hesitation. A couple sitting on the floor feign pleasure, whilst a female to the far-right looks on with such mistrust that the abnormality of all this to conventional eyes is clearly marked. Today we’re used to seeing oddballs look odd, but these kids look too terribly normal. Indeed, whatever their spiritual proclivities in 1948, the occult had yet to become stylish, much less popular lifestyle.

Strange then that the postwar era becomes sort of a centrifuge for the show’s content. Hollywood’s real-life witch, Marjorie Cameron, is the only artist represented in multiple rooms. The pioneering abstract filmmaker Harry Smith (who also compiled the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music) is shown twice in Gallery One/Cosmos.

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Detail of Harry Smith’s Tree of Life in the Four Worlds (c. 1958), collotype and silkscreened colors (courtesy of 80WSE Gallery)

The first is a tall silkscreen titled Tree of Life in the Four Worlds (1958), which features an interconnected series of symbols and geometric shapes, landing somewhere between the flux capacitor in Back to the Future and a contemporary computer science model. Pages from Smith’s hand-drawn notebooks are nearby, under glass; they, like most other examples here, defy conventional wisdom about these artists and the decades they worked in. The sense one gets is of men and women who have something to say and who are willing to take risks to say it.

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Marjorie Cameron, Fossil of Raven (1958), white ink on paper (photo by the author)

Perhaps that is why the gap widens between the show’s postwar examples and the present. There are, in fact, just five works total from 1967-2003. One wonders why, given the proliferation of cults in America and abroad during the late ’60s/early ’70s. Perhaps it is because those artists making occult-based works during the psychedelic era would’ve been so drastically out of step with the nascent post-modernists of the time. Indeed, where minimalism, pop-art, conceptualism, and performance art were deconstructive and intellectual, hippie art was decidedly sincere, often campy, and more easily-digested, content-wise, than those artists who came just before.

Kenneth Anger (represented in Gallery Five) manages to overcome such prejudices, but it’s a pity that psych-era artists like Steven Arnold and H.R. Giger were not included, not to mention Dutch painter/designer Marijke Koger, whose vibrant ’60s murals and fashion lines for the Beatles, Cream, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience captured the hopeful side of alternative spirituality. Which brings us to the present.

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Paul Laffoley, Astrological Ouroboros (1965), oil, acrylic, and vinyl press type on canvas (courtesy of 80WSE Gallery)

Of the nearly 90 works on display here, more than half come from the last decade. Not that it is easy to tell; Grossman’s thematic curation does much to help the pieces selected maintain an out-of-time quality. There are some, however, like Jesse Bransford‘s The Emerald Tablet (for the Magic Flute) (2015),—a cryptogram produced in latex paint, applied straight to the gallery wall—that feel less devotional, more like anthropology. Indeed, the closer I looked at such current works in the occult milieu, the more I recognized the sense of radicalism having nearly evaporated.

Where magic and occult-based art once exemplified a dangerous alternative to mainstream religion and monotheism, today it seems more like an alternative to mainstream art instead. Artists like Bradford pose as new outsiders, though as the genre inches ever closer to the mainstream, such standardization threatens to turn mystic visions and symbology into trendy design.

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Detail of Rithika Merchant’s Lilit Births the Djinn (2015), gouache and ink on paper (courtesy of 80WSE Gallery)

One could say the same of the ’70s psychedelic artists, or go even further back, to the late 19th century, with its pagan-obsessed Symbolists, Pre-Raphaelites, and Art Nouveaus. And yet, as mellifluous as those trends were, they scarcely crossed over to the institutions and intellectuals in the same way today’s magic-seekers have. Besides being taught in universities and exhibited in museums, every week a new symposium or new coffee-table art book on the occult emerges readymade for the educated, culture-obsessed aesthete. Specialists like Grossman are surely out in front of any trend, and will likely be around still when it passes.

Yet, what makes Language of the Birds stand apart from similar shows that might be perceived of as fashionable is its emphasis on identity politics. In the press release, Grossman employs the idea of “slippage” — a term first applied by Harvard scholar Homi Bhabha to oppressed artists who subconsciously mimic their oppressor — as a way of explaining why these particular artists, who also happen to be devoted spiritualists, have been overlooked so long by the establishment. Simply put: their work repelled even as it sought a stable audience; which informs us now that an open mind and sincerity of purpose eventually pays off. (Brian Chidester)

Featured photo: Ira Cohen, Dr. Mabuse 1966-70, pigment print(courtesy of 80WSE Gallery)

About Brian Chidester

Brian Chidester is a regular contributor to "The American Prospect," "L.A. Weekly," and the "Village Voice." He was a former editor with Yahoo.com and the author of "Pop Surf Culture" (Santa Monica Press). Chidester lives in New York City.