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Jesse Bransford first visited Iceland in 2013, and soon after began painting sigils inspired by the country’s deep history of magic. The New York-based artist spent time exploring Icelandic folk magic at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in the northwest coastal town of Hólmavík, and delving into historic manuscripts at the National and University Library of Iceland in Reykjavík. Although Bransford’s new interpretations of these “staves” appear simple, with just a few graphite lines and shapes accented with watercolors, each is a meditative use of art as magic.
The staves contained here are magical talismans. They were made considering magical thinking. Art in this instance is a technology deployed in the interest of magic. The staves are things and pictures, and their meaning is only complete in the hands of the viewer.
They include the “ghost stave” whose lines suggest a shrouded figure with one blue eye, and the “stave against sorrow” with its muted central colors surrounding by a circle dotted with bright primary hues. The eerie “speak to a hanged man” has a form like a gibbet with an adjoining triangle and square shaded in messy colors. Many of these spells have nested contrasting colors reminiscent of Josef Albers’s color theory works. One section of A Book of Staves focuses on moon rituals; another is on the elemental control of water, air, earth, and fire.
Like Fulgur’s previous publications on the occult and art, such as the 2017 Touch Me Not facsimile of an 18th-century manuscript of the black magical arts, the monograph is beautifully designed, with a stave visible beneath the dust jacket, embossed in silver on the black cover. All of the interior text is presented in both English and Icelandic, including selections from the Old Norse poem Hávamál (from a translation by Carolyne Larrington) which relate to a series of 18 staves. For example, for the “to calm the ocean” stave:
I know a ninth one if I am in need,
if I must save my ship when afloat;
the wind I can quieten upon the wave
and lull all the sea to sleep.
Selections of these staves were exhibited last year at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn, alongside larger watercolor works that reflected Bransford’s study of color theory (which he teaches as an associate professor at New York University). Bransford has long considered ritual magic as an artistic process. In the 2016 Language of the Birds: Occult and Art at NYU’s 80WSE Gallery, Bransford restaged Swiss artist Kurt Seligmann’s magic circle, which in 1948 he drew in chalk in his Manhattan apartment as a ritual to summon the dead. Several of Bransford’s stave pictures were developed through a collaborative project with artist Max Razdow, in which they spent six months on independent rituals in an attempt to synchronize their dreams.
“[Bransford] is less the earnest hierophant scrutinizing arcane symbols in a tome-filled library-cum-lab, more the playful trickster disrupting what is ‘high’ art and magic with ‘low’ cultural references,” writes Robert J. Wallis in a book essay. “He is re-envisioning how old folk traditions of sorcery might have worked with injections of postmodern ‘subjective truths’ — or in his own words, ‘real magic reinscribed into the pop/fantasy space.’”
There is quite a bit that may be arcane to casual readers who happen upon A Book of Staves, whether references to rune lore or Hermetic philosophy. Yet even viewed as abstract art, the staves have a compelling energy in their subtle alchemy of lines, color, and geometry. As the artist states, “I feel I have elaborated this magical language to speak to the elemental forces present in the Icelandic landscape specifically and the natural order as a whole.”