Or, What's the Difference Between Art and Magic?
William Powhida has been warned. "This dabbling in the occult seems highly dangerous," a commenter wrote on Powhida's blog, after reading about the show Powhida co-organized at Seattle's Platform Gallery,Magicality. "I have unleashed forces in a painting before. Nasty things can happen."
Fortunately, there's a sculpture designed to ground and cleanse negative energy in the middle of Magicality. The sculpture sits on the floor. It's a pile of dark local dirt with a white marble on top, like an earth breast with a reverse-colored nipple; next to it is a glass bowl of water with a sheet of gold leaf at the bottom and an illuminated lightbulb dangling over it. The sculpture, by Man Bartlett (son of noted painter Bo Bartlett) is called transmission : host, and it's dated 2009–12, which implies that it can only do what it does through 2012. (A span of dates on a work of art usually refers to the years between when it was begun and finished—its gestation—but does this one suggest expiration instead?)
Next to transmission : host on the floor are the granular remains of a magic show: At the opening, Powhida and his cohort, artist Eric Trosko, cast a series of spells summoning the spirit of Larry Gagosian—art's superdealer, based in New York—and ordering him to wheedle rich collectors like Paul Allen and Bill Gates into buying from this small Pioneer Square gallery, to work his own Gagosian magic. Unlike Bartlett, Powhida is not a true believer.Circle of Protection: The Grand Conjuration of the Gogo (Gogo is Gagosian's nickname) was a joke, like the hexes Powhida has put on art-world insiders over the years, but given the economy, it has its serious side. And if the art sells, who's to say it didn't help? Powhida's hexes have had real consequences, after all. Hex-ees and critics with mass audiences have responded, endowing Powhida with borrowed power—and raising the possibility that there isn't any other kind of power, anyway.
Does Powhida take apart art or put it back together again? All 14 artists inMagicality exploit the natural links between art and magic. Both are not entirely transparent operations that bring about some change in the world, or promise to, that may require faith or inspire faith; and becoming a practitioner requires learning rituals, language, symbols. Art doesn't require religious subjects anymore because the category of art itself is a religion. Some believe, some are converted, some doubt, some are agnostic. The precise nature of the operation and the change it effects in the world remain a mystery.
"The earliest experience of art," Susan Sontag starts off in the essay "Against Interpretation," "must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.)" This same logic came from the lips of Seattle artist Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes at his recent show at Pun(c)tuation gallery in Seattle. He called the show a "ritual exorcism"; these particular demons had taken up residence one 2005 night, when he was beaten brutally on the street by four police officers. "We're trying to use this shit"—art—"for what it's really for," Alley-Barnes said, implicitly critiquing commercialism and pretension in art, and promoting a return to ritual. "This shit's really for healing."
Magicality is an art show, sort of. Some of the objects are ritualistic (Trosko eats meat, then paints the bones with sayings to make them into talismans), while others are cartoonish depictions of rituals. Jade Townsend's painting of a magician (in full top hat and mustache) reanimating a dead and bloated Dorothy (we're not in Kansas anymore) hangs in stark contrast to Meghan LeBorious's candlelit temple made of wax and salt, called Salt Offering (or should it just be "salt offering"?). It's not just that the two artworks signify different meanings; they are different orders of objects entirely.
In the department of symbolizing real situations rather than participating in them is Townsend's allegorical sculpture Of Alchemy, Dreams and Revolution; Ticking Like a Fucking Bomb Brick. It's a small white house resting on a gold bar, black handkerchiefs spilling from its overinflated sides, in an allegory about the dangers of confusing rituals (economic practices, in this case) with sciences. Letha Wilson's lethally pragmatic Right Back at You is a flashlight resting on rocks, shining up at a photograph of a sun hanging on the wall. Humor (human), 1; divine light, 0. Jacqueline Skaggs demonstrates the magic of the literary metaphor—what look like constellations in the night sky are actually black carbon paper stamped with only the periods from pages of Dante's Paradiso. Suggest replacing one thing with another to an open mind, and poof! Both things shift off their centers.
What does it mean for an artist to be a charlatan? That you don't believe the art or s/he doesn't? Garric Simonsen paints the letters of "abracadabra" next to his convincing illusions of three-dimensional objects. The Polaroids from Nick Fortunato's "thoughtography" are documents from a booth he set up; he took requests to create images using only his mind, then secretly Google-imaged the requests on a computer hidden inside the booth and snapped Polaroids of the screen results, which rolled out looking all ghostly and beautiful. The pictures are marked in pen with the "Target Image" (Saratoga Springs, for instance), time and date, and the artist's signature.
The weirdest, least classifiable object in the room is the burned and gem-laden wooden "magic staff" standing in the corner—it was made as a gift for Genesis P-Orridge, the occulty, pandrogynous, 60-year-old performance artist, who never retrieved it. Powhida and Trosko ran across it in the back of a gallery in New York and borrowed it for the show.
How to use this shit for what it's really for? Alley-Barnes's taut description brings to mind the sculpture currently sitting in the parking lot at Seattle's Western Bridge, called, coincidentally, Use It for What It's Used For, by Eli Hansen and Oscar Tuazon. It's a raw, open skeleton of a pavilion, made of concrete, wood, steel, cinder blocks, and a solar panel so it lights up at night. It invites you inside, but its form doesn't dictate what to do once you're in there. A skater ollied all over it one day; other times, people lean on it and smoke. The art—the magic—is not the object, but the uses people think up for it. Yet nothing happens without the object.