Paint It Black


Untitled, Henri Michaux, 1983. Oil on linen paper, 24 x 33 cm, © Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.
Photography: Fabrice Gibert

by Erica X Eisen

Black Light: Secret Traditions in Art since the 1950s
Barcelona Contemporary Culture Centre
May 16th to October 21st 2018

Possibly because the current global political landscape resembles less a plausible point on the universe’s long arc towards justice than the dread outcome of a Koch brothers blood-pact with the Lord of the Flies, the years since Trump’s election have seen an upsurge in the number of normal people willing to take witchcraft seriously, a development unprecedented since the heyday of Malleus Maleficarum. The same afternoon I visited the Barcelona Contemporary Culture Centre’s exhibition Black Light, I ate lunch at a table of people talking about their star signs with such intensity that after several minutes I had to turn to my neighbor and ask if it was all a big joke. It wasn’t (oops!)––but then again, I’m a solar Leo with lunar Taurus, which apparently renders me “prone to make errors in judgment,” “lacking in innate diplomacy,” and also (commenters be warned) in need of “complete devotion, eternal love, infinite admiration, and constant sympathy.” All of which is to say that the undiplomatic errors in judgment to follow are basically out of my hands.

But I digress: what is the nature of God? Are there forces beyond the realm of human knowledge? How can we create alternatives to organized religion that help us more profoundly understand the world around us? These and other potent theological quandaries motivated the artists whose work was on display in Black Light, an exhibition about the relationship between art and occultism that runs through October 21st. Yet if the jumping-off point for the pieces in the show was an investigation into the dark mysteries of the universe, a number of the finished products posed a knotted question of their own: what’s the point of getting into all this far-out shit if all you’re going to do with it is draw some triangles?

Snow-Peak beyond Foothills, Libra I8, Aleister Crowley, September-October 1934. Pen and wash on paper, 34,5 x 50 cm. © Ordo Templi Orientis

Hosted in a space that was formerly an orphanage, Black Light includes both artists who dabbled in the occult and occultists who tried their hand at art (those viewers already familiar with Aleister Crowley in his capacity as a terrible human being will be intrigued to learn that he was also a terrible painter). As the show’s introductory text notes, from the 1950s onwards painters, musicians, and filmmakers in the countercultural scene increasingly turned to the visual language of mystical religion, alchemy, and satanism in their quest to critique bourgeois values or broaden the scope of human perception. So far, so good––but unfortunately, interesting premise does not necessarily mean interesting execution. In practice, a number of the works in the massive 350-piece exhibition seem to derive (whether this is an accurate assessment of process or not) from the “take a ton of drugs and paint colors” school of art––contributions by William S. Burroughs, Philip Taaffe, and Fred Tomaselli (who elsewhere has done more interesting work) are particularly guilty on this count.

For other artists, the height of dark, subversive spirituality seemed to be simply adding a Star of David to their paintings and calling it a day, which as a Jew I found too hilariously unimaginative to be offended. If the show is intended to be an exploration of how countercultural interest in the occult fueled a radical break from accepted aesthetic traditions, it quickly exposes just how conventional many of these artists were in imagining what such an escape might look like.

Lucifer Rising (still), Kenneth Anger, 1971

Still, it would be unfair to say this for all of the pieces. Plenty–even a majority–of the art in Black Light is visually striking and genuinely innovative, from Harry Smith’s austere string configurations to Henri Michaux’s calligraphic abstractions to Brion Gysin’s perception-altering Dreamachine, which asks you to “view” it with your eyes closed. The film and video excerpts–which featured work from Derek Jarman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Bruce Conner, and, inevitably, Anton LaVey BFF Kenneth Anger–together constitute the strongest corpus of works in the exhibition. Black Light’s painting contingent also includes plenty of heavy-hitters, from Agnes Martin to Barnett Newman, though here the show begins to lose the plot a little, straying from good, old-fashioned devil-worship into the broader, fuzzier territory of “spirituality” and “Eastern philosophy” (the gallery text’s term) in a way that raises questions about curatorial editing. Among the painters who stuck more closely to the satanic script, almost the only one able to move beyond hermetic self-referentiality and creepiness for creepiness’s sake is Suzanne Treister. Her HFT the Gardener series purports to be the work of a merchant-banker-turned-mystic whose often frantic artworks delineate the relationship between psychedelics and stock performance, a conceit that allows Treister to make clever commentary on such diverse topics as the commercialization of outsider art and the collapse of the world financial markets. Her work succeeds where others falter because she takes aim at real demons, applying the visual language of esoterica in a novel way to examine the tangled web of corporate powers that shape our daily lives under vampire capitalism.

But despite the success of many of the individual artists in the show I’m inclined to come down a bit hard on Black Light because I suspect that, like a kabbalistic interpretation lying dormant and unseen beneath a seemingly straightforward Biblical verse, there’s another layer of meaning here that those apt to regard tarot cards as the trendy spiritual equivalent of mom jeans will miss. Viewed as a whole–which can easily take a couple of hours to do thoroughly–the exhibition begins to sap its own power like an ouroboros consuming its own tail. If Black Light is at least in part the manifestation of Generation #Spoopy’s interest in all things weird and witchy, it’s also an accidental testament (and here I call upon every sense of that word) to the near-total degree to which the cultural products of subversive religiosity have been commercialized and assimilated into the mainstream–with all of the pessimism about the possibility of systemic critique that this implies.

When, via some alchemical process of reverse-Unheimlichkeit, all that was once strange has been rendered familiar, what does that mean for our ability to meaningfully oppose unjust norms and social structures through art? And when, in their quest to open the doors of perception, far-flung artists unknowingly converge on an identical (and in its own ways limited) aesthetic vocabulary, what does that say about humans’ ability to transcend our own constrictive mental habits? These are questions with which the curators of the exhibition don’t engage––but they pose a fundamental problem for contemporary attempts to construct magic(k) as a potent locus of political resistance. The word “occult” may derive from the Latin word for “hidden,” but after seeing the eighth sefirot diagram, the fifth mandala, the tenth star chart all arrayed like some sort of hellspawn “Twelve Days of Christmas,” it’s impossible not to wonder, as I had at lunch earlier that same day, if the term itself hasn’t just become an extended bit that’s gone over all our heads.

About the Author:

Erica X Eisen’s works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Guardian, Hazlitt, The New Inquiry, The Paris Review Daily, The Baffler, The Threepenny Review, The LA Review of Books China Channel, Electric Literature, Ploughshares Blog, The Harvard Review and elsewhere. She received her bachelor’s degree in History of Art & Architecture from Harvard University and her MA from The Courtauld Institute of Art.