Mysticism was a recurring motif in several artists’ studios at Bushwick Open Studios. It was so prevalent that this article leaves some notable artists out. On the West Coast, a cliché circulates that New Yorkers are neurotically driven but spiritually empty creatures. No more. There was so much Hocus Pocus in Brooklyn one might be forgiven for assuming BOS was a reenactment of a Portlandia episode.
Why Does Your Brain Crave Mysticism?
Justin Sanz’s relief sculpture “Drip Head” (2014) does a fine job illustrating the brain as a hot mess. With all its crazy connections, knots, uneven splatters, and discombobulated chambers, one can hardly blame the face for scowling and squinting. We all bear this inner mess. Our minds, imperfect and flawed as they are, crave to be lifted up beyond and above the clamor. But how? The obvious 2015 pluralist answer is there are many paths. And Bushwick artists dabble in many different mystical strands. Nevertheless, animals, plants, skulls, and demons were recurring shamanistic motifs.
An old Sioux proverb waxes that “The frog does not drink up the pond in which it lives.” Animals do not severely pollute and scar their habitats, irrevocably deplete resources, or live as unsustainably and recklessly as humans. Ambition leads humans to do such destructive acts. And when the Nez Perce proverb humbles us to observe “Every animal knows more than you do,” the listener is asked to reflect upon living in harmony and peace with his or her surroundings.
Chris Ams‘s “Equanimity” (2015) makes this harmony its focus with a wolf at its center. Ayane Kurai‘s “Untitled” (2015) shows an entire group of animals enveloped by energetic painterly flourishes. Michael Mejia‘s “Leopard / Cheetah with Skulls” (2015) depicts a cheetah with skull tattoos. In each case, the artists invite the viewer to reflect upon the wisdom of animals that don’t drink up their own metaphorical ponds.
Plants and herbs appeared in many works. When Morning Dove, the first widely published American Indian woman novelist, once wrote that “everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease has an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the indian theory of existence,” she was equivocating upon how there is an herb to treat whatever ails you and an herb to propel you towards wherever you aim. Herbalism and harnessing the power of plants is a multicultural and multigenerational endeavor. Many Brooklyn artists are rejecting the pharmaceutical mentality of the 20th century and seeking to redefine a 21st century more inspired by ancestral traditions of holistic herbal medicine.
Laila Lott‘s “Hungry Sweaty” (2015) collage features a wigged figure bombarded by chattering lips and a military helicopter, foisted upon with drinks from male hands, while a nice bowl of green beans sits front and center. Daya Yoga Studio‘s flower-adorned altar isn’t destined for the biennial circuit but it captures this flower power moment in Bushwick. One of Chika Kobari‘s untitled 2015 photographs from her David series features a nude man with glowing skin clinching a fern-like plant. It’s evocative of the power of drawing closer to plants.
“There is no death, only a change of worlds,” is a proverb often attributed to a speech by Chief Seattle. This challenge to redefine our conception of death, and to reflect upon transition, resonates with many artists today in Bushwick. It is why the skull appears again and again in contemporary art. Your task as a viewer is to deepen your own mystical relationship with reflecting upon death, so that you can get more out of gazing at skulls.
Jason Palmeri encloses a green brain within a skull in “Impetus” (2012). In Michael Robert Miller‘s “Untitled” (2009), a masked woman sips tea amidst the surrounding chaos. She crushes an hour glass with her stiletto and its sand spills out onto an upside down skull. Bradley Teitelbaum‘s two-faced print exposes how there is a skull underneath everyone’s skin. In Michele Silver‘s “Acceptance” (2014) (above), a woman dons an animal skull to find cosmic acceptance.
Anger and rage can turn all of us into demons at moments. While it is nice to reflect upon the wisdom of Hopi proverbs like “There is never a valid reason for arguing” and “Do not allow anger to poison you,” it is inevitable that we find ourselves furious at moments and struggling to channel our anger constructively. Anthropomorphic monsters visualize when we allow our dark sides to take over and can serve as cautionary tales for reflection.
Don Pablo Pedro‘s “Nice Horse” (2015) captures this tension with red demons taking over an otherwise nice, white horse. “The Troll” (2010) outside of Mike Estabrook‘s studio likewise depicts a creature who allows his base and cruel instincts to rule him. It might be a stretch to call the performance artists from Pendulum Visual Art demons. But their show Kings and Queens at the House of Yes was about release. The role of shamanistic ritual and mysticism in performance is often about creating a space where participants can release or transmute their rage and other negative emotions before they turn them into demons. And Pendulum Visual Art is channeling this spiritual sensibility in their hybrid works that combine visual art, performance art, and dance to enhance self-expression.
The observant reader will notice American Indian proverbs in every section. Every Brooklyn artist has a relationship with American Indians, who once lived on the land they now create upon. This artistic influence may not be conscious. But American Indian tradition shapes contemporary American culture in understated, subliminal, and subconscious ways. In these artists’ striving for harmony, in their open-ended talismans to connect more with animals and plants, to transform what death means, to release rage and anger that might make us into demons, there are palpable American Indian tropes. Artists find inspiration from many sources and traditions. But this eclectic shamanism in Bushwick’s mystical art draws from American Indian precedents. Although artists may not immediately recognize or be cognizant of this Amerindian origin, it’s inseparable from the DNA of this country’s artistic and intellectual culture — despite what some white male thinkers counterclaim about constitutional history or Nietzsche’s reductive observations about American Indians’ “savagery” permeating American Culture (see also denial).
While the influences of the many different tribes now labeled American Indian can be detected in Bushwick, the lack of actual American Indian artists was dismal. Is anyone surprised? Centuries of genocide and oppression have systemically denied American Indian artists opportunities and significantly reduced indigenous populations. It is a profound loss for which there is no suitable pithy proverb. But this powerful influence remains. American Indian spirituality is haunting Bushwick artists, their talismanic art, and their shamanistic performances.
Bushwick Open Studios 2015 took place June 5–7.
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