LONDON — Hexenmeister, AA Bronson’s first solo show at Maureen Paley, calls to mind his recent House of Shame at the Gwangju Biennial, featuring Bronson’s particular combination of queer themes and shamanic practices. The exhibition is organized in three different rooms, each one with a particular setting and atmosphere. This curatorial choice is probably due to the difficulty of setting up such a heterogenous show, which also includes some of Bronson’s early and highly political works.
In the first room, two works on canvas, made in collaboration with the art collective he helped found, General Idea (1969–1994), appropriate mainstream imagery, a strategy often used by the group as well as by artists and gay activists in the 1980s and ’90s. The monumental painting “Mondo Cane 2 (Nine Figures)” (1984) turns Frank Stella-like abstraction into a continuous line of fluorescent poodles that carry out various sexual positions. The same year of the painting, General Idea also made the camp video “Shut the Fuck up” (1984), in which poodles are described in terms of their “pamper presence and ornamental physique” and “their instinct to please,” and are meant to mimic mass media’s luring imagery.
The second canvas depicts General Idea’s iconic logo “AIDS” (1987) — a famous appropriation of Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” (1967). In their most famous version of Indiana’s work, General Idea kept the font and joyful color palette of the original, turning it into a poster and wallpaper that covered the streets of many cities with the AIDS logo. The image eventually became a powerful symbol of the AIDS crisis and sealed a sorrowful time for the gay community.
“Black AIDS (prototype)” replaces the colorful version of the logo with a layer of black paint, rendered in the style of an Ad Reinhardt black monochrome. In appropriating Indiana and General Idea’s imagery, the work draws on past artistic styles and is a successful conceptual exercise in queering art history.
Whereas the early works are shown in a white cube atmosphere, a more intimate room upstairs houses dramatically lit pieces related to Bronson’s interest in shamanism. The slightly surrealistic atmosphere, characterized by warm materials such as wood and fabric, evokes dream-like sensations that suit the works on view. These form the nucleus of the artist’s current activity, which explores gay subculture in light of various esoteric practices.
Bronson, it’s well known, works as a healer as well as an artist. His interests in occultism brought him in the past years to collaborate with academic Peter Hobbs, with whom he invoked “queer spirits” — the spirits of dead queer people — through largely secret rituals, in four different communities across North America: Banff, New Orleans, Winnipeg, and Fire Island.
Bronson and Hobbs chose to visit places marked by the extermination of indigenous populations, slavery, or the AIDS crisis. In Fire Island, the artist sought out gay communities, hoping to connect with the mournful past of the place, once a popular final destination for people dying of AIDS. The light box piece “Red” (2011) came out of this experience. Made in collaboration with the artist Ryan Brewer, it shows Bronson naked, completely painted in red as the result of rituals in which he communicated with the spirits of the island.
Bronson’s performance as a queer shaman is almost cathartic, particularly when he deals with loss and mourning. He describes the ceremonies as “a hybrid between group therapy, ceremonial magic, a séance, a circle jerk and a quilting bee.”
The artist situates his identity as a gay man and healer in both personal and historical terms. He comes from a family of priests; his grandfather was a missionary dedicated to eradicating animism. He and Hobbs have also made a point of drawing connections between esoteric practices and homosexuality, which they disclose in an amusing and often obscure way in their book Queer Spirits:
Shamanism, like Christianity, is rooted in a healing practice. In the early 20th century, exercise, along with naturism, appeared as an avant-garde and aestheticized form of holistic healing. Gay men were the earliest adherents of this new ritualized endeavor.
It’s through enigmatic statements like this that the artist’s personal approach to both the broad fields of esotericism and homosexuality finds its expression. In a rather particular way, the artist manages to refer, for instance, to US history, witchcraft, and homosexual desire, all at once. The result is a holistic practice rooted in collaboration that, surprisingly enough, works quite well.
Installed in this same section of the exhibit is a collaboration Bronson carried out with young artists Adrian Hermanides and Travis Meinolf to build and weave the linen textiles of “Treehouse” (2015), a tent-like structure that is somewhere between a shamanic shelter and a gay sauna. To accentuate the private and mysterious quality of the hut, the entrance is screened off by some fabric, so that it’s impossible to see what is inside. The taxidermied fox and magpie placed outside the tent reinforces its surreal setting and the mise-en-scène quality of the piece.
The third, and final, part of Hexenmeister, displays yet another of Bronson’s collaborations, his Queer zines (2008–15), a collection of over 100 queer publications from the mid ’70s to today. It is the fifth time Bronson has exhibited the zines, drawn from the collection of Philip and Shelley Fox Aarons.
Bronson is an independent publishing enthusiast: from 2004 to 2010 he was in charge of the artists’ books store Printed Matter in New York, establishing the successful New York and LA Art Book Fairs. He is also currently showing a selection of books he edited and wrote, including some rare pamphlets from his personal archive (including the cocktail book Semantic cocktails (1980) by General Idea) at Tenderbooks in downtown London.
Often made by outsiders rejecting the gay mainstream, Queer zines express the need for communities outside the established ones, which is one of the artist’s main interests. BUTT magazine, one of the most successful underground gay zines, has seen Bronson’s collaboration through interviews and posts for years now. Well-designed and sexually blatant, BUTT managed to create an international sub-community of gay arty people that doesn’t necessary fit the mainstream stereotype of the muscular, young, white, gay man.
While visitors can flip through some of the zines available for reading, they can also observe the wallpaper “What a beautiful world” (2014), by Korean artist Yeonjune Jung — who previously collaborated with Bronson in Gwangju — that depicts traumatic episodes in gay history, including the bombing of the London gay pub Admiral Duncan in 1999. The wallpaper serves as a sort of warning against the risks gay people still face today. The fact that this piece is put in contact/contrast with the collection of gay magazines is thought-provoking, considering the zines are an uninhibited expression of homosexual desire translated into paper.
Overall, Hexenmeister suffers from being divided into three parts. The fragmentation of the exhibition path gets away from the typically inclusive way that Bronson works, weakening the experience of the show. The pieces that suffer the most are the ones related to esotericism and rituals: despite the suggestive lighting, these feel more like digressions rather than the integral, independent works they actually are. Nevertheless, showing AA Bronson in London is important — quite surprisingly, the artist had never had a major exhibition in the city before this. It was about time.