At galeriepcp in Paris, London curator and prolific art writer Francesca Gavin has kicked off the new Paris art season with a tasty show called Champignons (Mushrooms). In it, she explores how some mycological scientists and contemporary artists have depicted both gastronomic mushrooms and trippy magic mushrooms (a.k.a. shrooms), with an emphasis on the latter. Curiously, Gavin points out in her curatorial statement that goofy-looking mushrooms are related more to humans than plants, but she might have added that they operate along the lines of the internet in that they emerge above ground from a rhizomatic tangle of branching, multi-cellular fungal threads hidden under the soil. Most contemporary artists are drawn toward them for their flexible diversity (they have hundreds of ‘sexes’) and their occult, psychedelic-spiritual qualities. There are 1.5 million species of fungi and 209 species of hallucinogenic mushrooms that grow between life and death in turds, in damp caves or along dead tree stumps. Gavin also states that her own interest is in blurring the relationships between organic things like mushrooms and technological realms — the branching hyphae of mycelium akin to an internet for mushrooms.
The first thought I had when entering the gallery was: Where is the John Cage work? Alas, there is none. There is only a Cage LP record cover that has a drawing of mushrooms on it placed within a wall display of reference material. More’s the pity, for in the art world the Cage-mushroom connection is well established and iron clad. Cage’s writings on mushrooms began in 1954 when he moved to the Stony Point Artists’ commune, and in 1959 Cage further formalized his interest in mushroom identification by co-teaching a class on the discipline at the New School in New York City. Famously and enigmatically, in the same year, Cage participated in an Italian game show called Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing) for which he chose mushrooms as his special subject of inquiry. He won around $8,000.00 (in lire) by recounting the 24 names of the Agaricus fungi and used the money to buy himself a piano and a Volkswagen van later used in touring his partner Merce Cunningham’s new dance company. Three years later, Cage fully realized his mushroom obsession by co-founding the New York Mycological Society. This artistic interest in edible mushrooms took a further culinary turn by French artist Jean-Charles Blanc with his delightful book of 365 mushroom recipes that was published in 1990.
I don’t understand this major Cage oversight. It’s not like the show doesn’t include other pieces from the time period. It does: Dr. Jung, Koch, and Quentell’s “Chalk Board Style Pull Down Chart of Mushroom” (1963) and Dr. Auzoux and P. Sougy’s “Chalk Board Style Pull Down Chart of Mushroom” (1966) are included and are both quite delightful. So why omit a copy of the 1972 book portfolio (edition of 75) that Cage co-created in collaboration with the mycologist Alexander H. Smith? Called the Mushroom Book, it contains 10 lithographs by Cage and 10 lithographs of mushrooms by botanical illustrator Lois Long, and is filled with recipes, Cage’s diary entries, and brilliant quotations by Marcel Duchamp, Henry David Thoreau and Buckminster Fuller. Old hippies will also find missing The Allman Brothers Band’s double album Eat a Peach with its opulent gatefold mural of a whimsical landscape of psychedelic mushrooms and bejewelled fairies drawn by W. David Powell and J. F. Holmes.
Most of the works in the show, as with the waggish paintings of Alex Morrison (that evoked the dancing mushrooms in Walt Disney’s 1940 trip-friendly film Fantasia), Sylvie Fleury’s trite fiberglass sculptures, Ghislaine Leung’s night lamp “Shrooms” (2016) and Carsten Holler’s “Untitled” (2015) perforated digital print, enjoyably depict the impish phallic/hat form that defines a mushroom. This collection of 15 artists’ work is certainly pleasurable to scrutinize from that perspective, but for the most part, the show is disappointing in its attempts to assimilate shrooms’ malleable psychedelic effects on perception in formal terms (the way Lucio Fontana’s psychedelic crucifixes do). This exterior view of mushrooms amounts to a show about drinking that shows paintings of beer bottles, rather than relaying or describing the effects of imbibing them. People who consume magic mushrooms are most likely to experience an altered sense of time, euphoria, synaesthesia, and visionary scenarios that often amount to a beneficial spiritual awakening. Mind-expanding shrooms can make you feel like you’re dreaming when you’re awake. Nimbus colors, woozy noises, and wobbly objects can appear preposterous, generating phantasmagoria and feelings of disorientation. Given their wonkiness, magic mushrooms can create a headspace where erudition and imagination become artistic affiliates.
Here, the trickster disorientation of collage is the closest we get to that experience — with the wild work of Seana Gavin and Lara Ogel. I particularly enjoyed Ogel’s piece “Subconscious Network” (2017), an intriguing slap-dash collage that nods to poète maudit Antonin Artaud’s peyote experiences with the Tarahumara people in 1936. Gavin too is outstanding, and her piece “Mindful Mushroom” (2017) personifies the high fun with mushrooms that is obtainable with their judicious use. Also her “Mushroom City” (2016) transmits something of the beautiful craziness of shrooms seen in ethnobotanist Kathleen (Kat) Harrison’s weirder line drawings within the 1976 book Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide written pseudonymously by Terence McKenna and Dennis McKenna.
P.A.M.’s woolly, woven “Frog Life” (2017) is also entertaining with Pepe the Frog in bikini drag sprouting a fuzzy mushroom trilogy from its head. It as well cleverly inverts and perverts the scene in Lewis Carroll’s famous 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland of a hookah-smoking caterpillar on a mushroom beloved by pot heads everywhere.
Jeremy Shaw’s Kirlian photography piece “Unseen Potential (Psilocybe Atlantis Sclerotia)” (2013) attempts to relay the mushroom experience from the inside, but I was not convinced it worked (though it might look awesome as a blacklight poster in a college dorm room). Shaw captures on a photographic plate electrical discharges from his thumb while he listens to music, creating a record of the electrical energy of the moment.
So there is some slim, visual fun is to be found here, if you like mushroom shapes (and if so, do see Arik Roper’s paintings of magic mushrooms, which are not in the show). But there is nothing terribly avant-garde, elusive, or enigmatic here. Subsequently, Champignons provides a pleasant but insufficient visual metaphor for the strange otherness that mushrooms actually offer and embody.