Michele Silver "Acceptance" (2014) (photo courtesy of the artist)

Michele Silver “Acceptance” (2014) (photo courtesy of the artist)

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 "Drip Head" 2014 (photo by author)

Justin Sanz “Drip Head” (2014) at 114 Forrest Street (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

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.

Ayane Kurai "Untitled" (2015) (photo by author)

Ayane Kurai “Untitled” (2015) (photo courtesy of the artist)

Chris Ams "Equanimity" (2015) (photo by author)

Chris Ams “Equanimity” (2015) at 70 Wyckoff Avenue (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Michael Mejia "Untitled" (2015) (photo by author)

Michael Mejia “Leopard / Cheetah with Skulls” (2014) at 360 Jefferson Street (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)


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.

Laila Lott "Hungry Sweaty" (2015) (photo by author)

Laila Lott “Hungry Sweaty” (2015) at 114 Forrest Street (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Daya Yoga Studio "Sacred Space" (2015) (photo by author)

Daya Yoga Studio “Sacred Space” (2015) at 360 Jefferson Street (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Chika Kobari "Untitled" (2015) (photo courtesy of artist)

Chika Kobari “Untitled” (2015) at 1609 Dekalb Avenue (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)


“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.

Jason Palmeri "Impetus" (2012) (photo by author)

Jason Palmeri “Impetus” (2012) at 13 Central Avenue (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Michael Robert Miller "Untitled" (2009) (photo by author)

Michael Robert Miller “Untitled” (2009) at 238 Melrose Street (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Bradley Teitelbaum "Untitled" (2015) (photo courtesy of the artist)

Bradley Teitelbaum “Untitled” (2015) at 362 Jefferson Street (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)


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.

Don Pablo Pedro, "Nice Horse" (2015) (courtesy of the artist)

Don Pablo Pedro, “Nice Horse” (2015) at 114 Forrest Street (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Mike Estabrook, "Troll" (2010) (photo by author)

Mike Estabrook, “Troll” (2010) at 238 Melrose Street (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Pendulum Visual Art "Untitled Performance" (2015) (image courtesy of Pendulum Visual Art)

Pendulum Visual Art “Kings and Queens” (2015) at 408 Jefferson Street (image courtesy of Pendulum Visual Art)

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. 

A man once knocked Daniel Larkin off his bar stool and flung mean words. He got up, smiled, and laughed as the bouncer showed him out. He doesn't give anyone the power to rain on his parade. It's more...

14 replies on “Mysticism Sparkles at Bushwick Open Studios”

  1. Where is all this Native American conjecture coming from? The author is trying to fit these unrelated works under some umbrella argument that really isn’t there.
    Aside from the first (and possibly last) image in this article, I see no
    connection here; demons, skulls, and plants are themes that are not
    exclusive to Native American culture. Other than living on the land once
    occupied (a very, very long time ago) by Native Americans, I’m not
    really sure what relationship the author is talking about. Even that’s a
    bit of a stretch.

    1. hey there Alessandra… thanks for sharing all of these ideas… I think that today’s New Age spirituality borrows extensively from certain segments of American Indian spirituality… I wrote more in response to LH… feel free to talk a look… I think it’s great to explore this topic more…. thanks for pushing me to explore my ideas futher

  2. I’m torn about how to respond to this article. On one hand, hooray! Someone is remembering that American Indians exist. As our author points out, we can be a bit hard to see these days, what with genocide. On the other hand, ouch. I feel like I’m explaining to someone that in 1854 Chief Seattle actually did not make that eco-friendly, romantic speech that Ted Perry wrote in 1971. (http://www.ecopsychology.org/journal/gatherings2/scull.htm)

    Oh wait, I am. The author did try to quote Chief Seattle, and of course, he picked something Chief Seattle actually didn’t say about there being no death and only a change of worlds. (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Chief_Seattle)

    I feel like there’s some appropriation of American Indian culture going on here that isn’t quite warranted. Or at least, American Indian culture is herein being reduced to some painfully general stereotypes. And I’m saying that the most delicate way I know how.

    I’m not sure where the list of “palpable American Indian tropes” comes from–but replace “‘American Indian” with the name of any other cultural group and see if it isn’t about as credible? I wish I could say that I believed that American Indian culture truly did shape contemporary American culture in subliminal ways. Can anyone even make a defensible conjecture about subconscious influence, anyway?

    Next I want to talk about these three sentences, because I had a very visceral reaction to them: “[…] [In] Bushwick, the lack of actual American Indian artists was dismal. […] It is a profound loss for which there is no suitable pithy proverb. But this powerful influence remains.” First of all, who’s to say that American Indian artists are clamoring to be recognized by the Holy Bushwick, anyway? I appreciate that this might be making a statement about institutional and unspoken prejudices in the art world, and there’s some truth there, but please. When Bushwick is ready to be the right forum for fountains of it, American Indian art will still be here. That brings me to my next point. It is still alive. It does not rely on the Bushwicks of the world to exist. Sometimes you don’t even recognize American Indian art as American Indian art because it just looks like “regular” art. But I do thank Congress for the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, don’t get me wrong.

    I don’t find the lack of American Indian artists showcased to be a loss that is terribly profound. Thanks for noticing, truly, but…it just is. It’s an event. An event that will happen again. That no one is arguing about. It’s *profound* that Leonard Peltier is still being held as a political prisoner. Finally, that third sentence. The one that makes me wince the most. This Powerful Influence. This is the place where are the [mis]attribution gets neatly tied up, and the stereotypical noble savage gets the footnote that is the least we could do for stealing all his ideas and imagery. Ugh!

    American Indian culture isn’t defined by mysticism. Or shamanism. Those very words are Eurasian in origin, coined to describe Eurasian cultural phenomena. How can American Indian spirituality (which, I might add, is a very, very, very broad term and subject to different interpretations in different historical periods, including the present, where you might get conflicting interpretations from real, live, spiritually-inclined American Indians) be haunting people who can’t tell you the first thing about it?

    Try arbitrarily tying pieces of an art exhibit to some Vine Deloria, Jr. quotes and then we might be getting somewhere regarding American Indian cultural influence (or the devastating lack thereof).

    1. Hi LH!!!!!! First of all, I am so honored and thrilled that you took so much time to read through my article and to give so much feedback.

      I was so sad to learn that certain phrases made you cringe.

      We haven’t met in real life before, which is such a shame because I am sure that we would have so much to talk about. I love talking with smart people!

      I’ve done comprehensive research on whether it was fair to say that Chief Seattle said those words about death. You are correct that many sources online erroneously quote a screenplay written in the 70s.

      However, I was careful to quote the only extant primary source for the speech, which is an article written in the Seattle Sunday Star on Oct. 29, 1887

      That said, there is a healthy debate about whether or not this speech as it was printed and translated in the Seattle Sunday Star is an accurate and faithful transcription of Chief Seattle’s words. The truth is we can’t say for certain because no recording survives.

      Historians have tried their best to fit together the pieces of the puzzle but it’s hard. Either way, perhaps it’s better to say purportedly. Many written sources for speeches from the 19th century are problematic since literary embellishment was common. Most speeches don’t meet today’s standards of fidelity. For more about the tricky task of figuring of what Chief Seattle actually said and when, and sorting out fact from fiction, here is a great link


      I feel like a failure as a writer that this article comes off that I am an essentialist and peddling stereotypes. I want everyone to move beyond basic cliches.

      When I look at the New Age spirituality that inspires so many artists in Brooklyn, I see so much appropriation and borrowing from the various tribes of American Indians. And I am a fan of precision and I wanted to name the source. Some of these appropriations are conscious. Some are more subliminal.

      It’s very challenging to write about this topic because there is such a marvelous diversity in the manifold different indigenous peoples of North American. Any characterization about American Indian spirituality runs into the same tricky problem which is different American Indians believe different things.

      I should have more directly addressed the orientalist effect. Similar to Edward Said’s conception of Orientalism, where westerner’s imagine an exotic east and project it onto every perception of the far east, it would be fair to observe a similar romantic mental pastiche of American Indian “orientalism”, that often filters and frames how non-Indians perceive American Indians. As a writer, I wish I would have more explicitly clarified this nuance. And I appreciate your comment and Alessandra’s comment pushing me to clarify further.

      But I also think more is in play. I personally know that many members of the New Age community in Brooklyn go out of their way to support American Indian economic enterprises, seek out to learn more about the herbalist traditions of indigenous peoples, and read and reflect upon poetry and prose written by American Indians, it informs their spiritual practice and the ideas they share with their networks. A ripple effect spreads out. I think that ideas derived from American Indian writers and spiritual practitioners that are open to performing rituals with individuals of any race are spreading out. Although these ideas are now integrated as fragments in a new symbolic system. But I am trying to get at how ideas that specifically originate from American Indians are circulating.

      I observe appropriations from American Indian culture such as seeing the wisdom in animals, drawing closer towards herbalism, the futility of anger (which one could also argue has Buddhist precedents), and a different notion of death are circulating in New Age circles in Brooklyn, and informing the iconography of the mystical art being produced. These ideas have become generic – and the connection to American Indians is now not always explicit. But I am a fan of history, giving credit to sources and roots.

      I am also aware that one could argue that what I am observing originates more in certain strands of American romanticism. One could also argue that all artistic appropriations of American Indian culture may well be distorted through this romanticist lens. However, based upon what I’ve read of the English, German and American romantics, there is still some unique characteristics in today’s new age spirituality that I think are more directly connected to American Indian texts that are widely published, and informed by how many people go to sweat lodges, attend tribal events, and participate in rituals where all races are welcome, and these insights spread out across their network and influence the new age discourse.

      My aspiration with this article was to shed light on the American Indian influence on today’s new age spirituality that comes alive in so much of the art I saw in Bushwick. New Age spirituality is a pastiche that draws from many traditions but I think that the borrowing from American Indian traditions is extensive and often unacknowledged. I wanted to speak up and say what I was seeing.

      I am such a perfectionist and I love being held to a higher standard. I love hard work. I was up at 5am yesterday writing this article and resizing images because I believe in art, and I believe in acknowledging the contribution of American Indians. I am sorry that my article did not live up to my passions and that certain sentences rubbed you the wrong way. I am committed to doing better in the future. I want to learn more about how to talk about the rich pluralistic tapestry that is contemporary American intellectual culture. So thanks for the taking the time to read my words carefully and give me feedback. It’s the only way I can grow as a writer.

      It sounds like you know so much about the nuances of American Indian culture influence. If you live in the New York area, I would love to take you out for a coffee or tea to continue the dialogue more. There isn’t a ton of literature on this subject. It would be really incredible to meet if you are open to it.

      1. Thank you for acknowledging my comments in detail. It sounds like you’re looking to develop your sensitivity, so I would encourage you to read and attend events. Vine Deloria, Jr. is an excellent starting point; he set the terms for a lot of discussion in this realm. His books will lead you to other books. Indian Country Today Media Network is a good source for articles (http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/department/headline-news).

        The NMAI has a calendar for their NYC and DC locations, and list of symposia (http://nmai.si.edu/press/) and events. The Native Art Market at these locations is usually in December.

        The NCAI is also a great resource (http://www.ncai.org/news/press-releases).

        1. thanks for all of the links… I just looked up Vine Deloria and he has so many different books… could you suggest a good one for me to start with… is there one that particularly deals with the arts and artistic influence?

        2. I am literally going to the new york public library tonight to dig up Vine Deloria, so if you have any more hints about what to read from his extensive bibliography, I would appreciate any tips.

          1. I responded to this but it got flagged as spam. I shot an email to hyperallergic support; no response. Sorry. 🙁

          2. Read whatever sparks your interest the most! I’d probably start with Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. However, I should note that his focus isn’t really how to discuss the influence American Indians may have on art. It’s just my opinion that the way he framed discussions in his work blazed a trail for other conversations. Like Urban Outfitters calling some of their panties “Navajo” a few years back. (http://www.racialicious.com/2011/10/10/an-open-letter-to-urban-outfitters-on-columbus-day/)

            It actually sounds like the person whose viewpoints might help you most is Dr. Adrienne Keene. She has a great blog. http://nativeappropriations.com/ Also Dr. Jessica Metcalfe and her fashion blog – you might try specifically her article on Etsy: http://www.beyondbuckskin.com/2012/02/etsy-is-breeding-ground-for.html

            The history/origins of “influence” also seemed interesting to you. This article on Pendleton is one take: http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/why-the-native-fashion-trend-is-pissing-off-real-native-americans/

            Finally, an article from the Journal of Social Issues for a strictly academic look at media representations: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/josi.12095/abstract

            To quote the conclusion of that article(multiple authors): “Moreover, Native Americans have little control over how or when their group is portrayed in the media. In other words, they are not making an active choice to be represented in these negative and limiting ways and although they can contest or reject these representations, they cannot control the impact of these representations on how other people think about Native Americans.”

            I hope this helps!

          3. thanks for sharing all of these links… I will check them out… that’s too bad there was a glitch when you tried to share them earlier when I ran off to the library… Custer Died for Your Sins is a great book and helped me to get a really good perspective… Deloria is also a really humorous writer and that really shined through….

  3. “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… this eclectic shamanism in Bushwick’s mystical art draws from American Indian precedents.”

    No. No, no, no, no, NO. You are not describing artists finding inspiration in American Indian culture- you are describing artists finding inspiration in APPROPRIATED INTERPRETATIONS of American Indian culture. This is not remotely the same as identifying a “powerful influence” from actual American Indian artists or cultural figures. If the artists in Bushwick are drawing on dream-catchers and mystical shamans and new age meditations to create their work- something I’m not certain I buy, anyway- then they are in NO WAY actually connected to genuine native traditions or tropes. They’re doing what artists have done for the last two centuries: borrowed from heavily constructed images of American Indians as “spirit guides” who are “close to animal natures” and other 19th-century stereotypes.

    I can feel in your writing that you had genuine and good intentions, but this article paints an image of the American Indian influence as a mystical glow cloud made up of the spirits of past elders, hovering in the dreams of Bushwick painters. This is damaging and works to obscure ACTUAL influence and impact in the form of living, very real contemporary native artists like Marie Watt, Nicolas Galanin, Charlene Teters, Wendy Red Star, Merritt Johnson, Sara Sense, and on and on and on. Their work raises the visibility of native communities’ traditions of art and art-making, expands the boundaries of what is considered “American Indian” art and craft, and is no way restricted to the kinds of “talismanic” themes you identify. Their works are in fact wildly diverse: alternately personal, global, intimate, grand. Their art is multidimensional and multivocal. It cannot be summarized by a new age book on reaching your inner forest spirit.

    Hyperallergic, this is 2015. American Indian culture is not a tool to be casually borrowed for Jungian self-exploration. Do better. (And as far as relying on new age’s borrowings and influences from native culture…. they’ve been heavily criticized over the last three decades for their oversimplifications of traditions and rituals, so I would be very very careful about what I chose to adapt from the new age community.)

    1. Hi E. Berry… thanks so much for your thoughtful comments…. you see I am such a perfectionist… and I have really enjoyed the responses to this article like yours… and it’s given me such incredible food for thought…. and I really love how smart the comments on this page have been… because I think hyperallergic at it’s best is a forum for thoughtful engagement about contemporary art… and the entire conversation about cultural influence is complex…

      As I mentioned in my long note to LH, I wish I would have added an “orienatalism” paragraph to clarify further that “influence” is tricky… and to draw a distinction between the actual diversity of American Indian spiritual practice… and a few particular Amerindian fragments isolated from the whole that new age spirituality seems to fixate upon… and that now circulate among artists…

      it was my intention to give credit where credit is due… and to acknowledge that today’s new age iconography in contemporary art draws upon certain American Indian precedents… but obviously they are fragments integrated into a new symbolic system… and I should have gone further to explain that their isolation and estrangement….

      I agree that there is a thicket of reductive stereotypes about American Indians… and it can be frustrating for American Indians to always be cast as spiritual mystical guides in the contemporary imagination…and I can now see how if I don’t acknowledge the stereotypes explicitly in a piece of writing like this…. then it seems like I am playing into it and perpetuating the warmed over romanticism that still frames how many people view American Indians…

      It’s complex because many American Indian individuals find it empowering economically to sell herbs and herbalism consultations, offer ritual experiences to non-Indians in sweat lodges, and to write and sell books about American Indian spirituality. And I do think that their efforts ripple out and have an impact of the discourse… And I don’t want to diminish these practitioners that are sharing their wisdom with the wider community…

      I am struggling to find a way to filter out stereotypes and acknowledge American Indian contributions. there is a long pattern of not acknowledging the prolific influence of American Indians and I was trying to call out what i see. obviously, I could have been even more nuanced as a writer and I appreciate being held to a higher standard. it is the only way I can grow as a writer. thank you for taking the time to explore this topic with me

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