When the lights went out at the opening of Craig Olson’s show at the Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, a painting called “Baba Yaga’s Question” dissolved from a red-and-green cloverleaf-shaped panel into a field of unearthly luminescence. Everyone clapped.
The exhibition is titled 18 Melodies for the Barbarian Flute, and Olson describes the group of works on display as “a poetics of the unconveyed … an invocation to what D.H. Lawrence called ‘an engagement with the ancient science.’”
I’ve had a number of opportunities to talk with Olson about his approach to his art, which deals with the object in a way that goes beyond conventional notions of the metaphysical and makes a bold case for the occult.
This seemed like a good time to continue the conversation:
Thomas Micchelli: Where does the occult enter into the contemporary conversation?
Craig Olson: I don’t think it does. By its very nature it remains hidden. The word occult stems from the Latin occultus, meaning “hidden” or “secret” with further branches to “obscure”, “esoteric”, “erotic” and so on. Contemporary conversation, as an open public dialogue, seems most concerned with the exoteric, or “outer” knowledge, public knowledge. It’s all but banished Eros and beauty. In fact, one of its overriding themes has been a belief in transparency, which is about information. It’s about the ability of the receiver to have full access to the information she wants, not just the information the sender is willing to provide. Transparency, in this public context, has come to mean “honesty and openness,” because to be transparent someone must be willing to share information when it’s uncomfortable to do so, whether in the news media, our social lives, or our social-media lives. We, apparently, want to know everything about everyone all the time. This inevitably leads to issues of surveillance, authority, conformity, etc.
TM: I’m suspicious of occultism for, well, its very nature: the implications of hidden knowledge, of a spiritual realm, of irrational or anti-rational beliefs. Am I relying too much on preconceptions?
CO: Maybe. Preconceptions are the basis of the rational mind. The rational mind preconceives an ordered and knowable universe, easily dissected and dismembered through rational science. But this is a very old story. In the Western world we have this whole philosophical history we’re dealing with, René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, for example. Where the material universe is simply dead matter, and life in a primitive or primary society is “nasty, brutish, and short.” It was James Hillman who so succinctly stated that it’s our philosophy that makes things like strip-mining and deforestation possible. So, when these very preconceptions are challenged in any way, when the idea is put forward that there may be a space outside our ability to rationalize and understand, it becomes very threatening to many people. Spirit, for example, or the life that can exist in a stone–this is inadmissible to many people.
TM: Where does occultism land in the continuum of American Romanticism and Transcendentalism? Do you see it in its current guise as a kind of Neo-Romanticism? Or is it more a 21st-century form of Surrealism? Or have the two merged into some kind of third stream that taps into the unconscious but is also infused with a communal spirit?
CO: Anyone who probes beyond the aura of mystery surrounding the arcane traditions discovers that a true “occult underground” exists and has existed throughout human history. Its roots stretch far into the ancient world, from the red dots on the cave walls, to modern Indian tantric painting, to the amateur astronomer finding information in the night sky. Through it all is an insistence on primary experience as the source of knowledge. Actually having a physical encounter with the living world. This is very different from mediated experience, which is removed and is the dominant mode today, where we have connections between isolated individuals based on the rapid transmission of information across great distances through media, and not local physical interaction, “in the flesh,” as it were.
In terms of art-making, this comes down to what the painter Peter Acheson has called “just showing up,” or “just being there, being in it.” Regressive or heroic, bad or good, oil or acrylic, all this is after “just showing up.” Just showing up is a revolutionary idea because it doesn’t need to accomplish anything. It doesn’t need or demand “meaning.” Action precedes reflection. We are animals after all, even when rooted in our human condition. So, where are we today? In what sort of place do we find ourselves? We are in anima country, as James Hillman says. Imagination. Imagination sees time as circular, going back as a way of going forward.
TM: The works in your current show at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery defy categorization: they are shaped, painted and collaged, some with objects protruding out of them, including burning incense. Many include symbols of your own devising, as well as some with occultist origins. I find these markings somewhat threatening, even sinister. It is not unreasonable to assume the artwork is a code that needs to be cracked. Does that possibility bother you?
CO: Not especially, no. There’s really no code, it’s much more open-ended than that. It would be like trying to say, definitively, what the meaning of a poem is. This is the role of much academic theory or art theory, to tell us what the meaning is. When Emily Dickinson writes something like, “In keen and quivering ration/ To the ecstasy” you can’t possibly claim to know what she means. You can have understanding, perhaps multiple understandings, but you’re not going to extract the one true nugget of meaning. It’s an engagement with unaffected poetics. This current work of mine is rooted in very similar territory. It’s very much an engagement with the image, not the re-presentation of it, or an ironic statement on it, but an engagement with its creation and poetics. So the ends are open, not closed. It’s an aesthetic where the shapes or images may confuse, they may not conform to standard categorizations, but their meaning certainly isn’t fixed. It goes on in your mind. That is, whatever the solution to the code is lies in your mind. You carry it from there.
TM: The centerpiece on the gallery’s east wall is unlike anything else in the show. It is a shaped panel in two complementary colors, an intense, flat shade of scarlet and a textured, almost minty yellow-green. The two colors are set into a clean, graphic interplay, swirling around each other and the four wings of the jigsawed panel. It’s a standout work in itself, but when the lights go out, the green paint glows in the dark. This may sound gimmicky to someone who hasn’t seen it, but to witness its form evaporate into a projection of light was both mesmerizing and profound — a dematerialized object, quite literally, at the flick of a switch. How does that piece in particular fit into your art-making?
CO: Cheap thrills! But it’s the simplicity of the action that’s key. It’s a strange and mysterious work, and I’m glad you were able to witness it in both states – illuminated from without, then illuminated from within. The image you see in it was clearly visualized in my mind very suddenly, a rush of inspiration after spending some time in the woods. The work, or art-making, comes in transferring that vision into material form. How do you make it? What do you make it out of? For this work in particular it was important that it not only be active graphically, but also in its material nature. The phosphorescent pigment allows for an alternative view, one that literally changes before your eyes. So it presents the viewer with a dilemma or question. Can something be multiple things at once?
TM: The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics went to two scientists, Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland, whose work in quantum information may ultimately unravel such mysteries of quantum physics as “the ’principle of superposition,’ which holds that things at the subatomic level” – as Adam Frank, a physicist and astronomer, explains in a recent New York Times article – “can be literally two places at once. Worse, it means they can be two things at once.”
More to the point, with regard to your argument, is the idea that “our everyday assumptions about reality are no more than illusion.” Frank writes:
Another camp claims that superposition shows us that potential realities matter just as much as the single, fully manifested one we experience. But what collapses the potential electrons in their two locations into the one electron we actually see? According to this interpretation, it is the very act of looking; the measurement process collapses an ethereal world of potentials into the one real world we experience.
What do you think of notion that “the very act of looking” is the thing that “collapses an ethereal world of potentials into the one real world we experience”?
CO: That’s a very beautiful image, the collapse of an ethereal world. You know, the deeper science probes into the nature of the universe the more mysterious and strange it reveals itself to be. Unknowable at times. However, this also seems a very Cartesian/Christian idea, an unseen world of potentials existing separate from the world we experience. There’s a famous Hermetic axiom that states, “As above so below.” Which is to say, everything in the universe follows analogy. Man is the microcosm of the universe, and vice-versa. Concretion follows the lines of abstraction; corresponding to the highest must be the lowest, the material to the spiritual. The division between consciousness and matter is suddenly not so clear. There are many echoes here of what is now known as postmodernism. But it’s a funny term, really, very pretentious at times, especially in how innocuous it has become within academics, MFA programs and so on. What’s often overlooked is that it was the poet Charles Olson who in a series of letters to Robert Creeley first coined the term. This is in 1951! So it’s an exploration born of, again, poetics, and not theory. For Olson, postmodernism means an end to deracination–the postmodern artist is fundamentally rooted because he accepts that rootedness is a human condition, not subject to fashion. He emphasizes action as the only important element in art and dismisses the idea that the social can be formative of poetics; only the self, framed by the skin, is the source. Again, Acheson’s “just showing up,” rooted in primary experience is central. Just being there, seeing the flower, just seeing it.
TM: You’ve called this set of works “a poetics of the unconveyed.” To view it in literary terms is to bring to mind the nebulous arena of pataphysics, a term coined by the absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry (1873-1907).
While it has been defined in various ways, pataphysics is commonly taken to mean the imaginary realm beyond metaphysics – a domain that includes the world’s religions. The philosopher and cultural theorist Ian Buchanan, in his Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford, 2010), differentiates it from “so-called general science” by describing it as “a science of the particular, a science of exceptions, and a science of alternative or supplementary universes.”
Does pataphysics play a role in your work?
Can we view a painting like “Baba Yaga’s Question” as dealing with the absurdities of the unknowable? How far afield would it be to think of it as a metaphor for multiple realities, or a material/immaterial duality in a more literal sense, or a reminder that scientific explanations are yet another form of poetics?
CO: Jarry is such wonderful figure in 20th century art, a true artist and provocateur. My introduction to him was through that book by Roger Shattuck called The Banquet Years, where he calls Jarry a “sensible maniac!” As for pataphysics, I couldn’t name it as a direct influence as my knowledge of it is so limited. It’s certainly a branch of the tree I nest in though; it’s just one of those branches that’s up there that I haven’t climbed on yet. I’ve just looked up at it, admiring its twisted shape. Now, “Baba Yaga’s Question,” for me was very much a means of dealing with the absurdities of the unknowable. Baba Yaga, as you may know, is a well-known character in Nordic and Slavic folklore and fairytales. She is the deadly guardian of the initiatory feminine mysteries of the Underworld. Usually found in the deepest, darkest corner of the forest, she is commonly portrayed as a hideous old hag with razor sharp teeth who cannibalistically devours those who naively stumble upon her domain.
She dwells in a magical hut that is surrounded by a fence made from the leftover bones of her victims, illuminated by their glowing skulls. This fence is a clear signal to anyone who would dare to pass through its gate that they must be prepared for an initiatory underworld experience, an experience that could end in sudden death or life-altering enlightenment, depending upon the wits and attitude of the initiate. From such bones, she also brews new life and her home, paradoxically, is a great source of abundance. Generation through corruption, or what Robert Bly calls “the thorough way Nature grinds up and reuses her children, nothing is lost, it is all recycled.” In one tale, a young shepherd boy has to pass through the old forest. He’s been warned by some elders in the village about a confrontation with Baba Yaga. They tell him she’ll ask if he has come of his own free will. If he answers yes, she’ll kill him. If answers that the village sent him, she’ll kill him. So, one night, deep in the old forest, the boy meets her. She asks the question, “Did you come of your own free will?” The boy answers, “Well, I came 86% of my own free will, and 73% because my village sent me.” “Very clever boy,” she says, “your answer pleases me, you can pass!” The boy’s answer doesn’t add up, it’s illogical. It’s a realm of experience where we can’t rely on facts and intellect.
TM: We’ve spoken several times in the past about our mutual love of the blues and of free jazz, Albert Ayler in particular.
There are, as you know, several superficial correlations between the blues and the occult, with blues labeled early on as “the devil’s music” (which gospel set out to redeem), as well as the famous legend about Robert Johnson exchanging his soul in return for his matchless guitar skills. The power of Ayler’s music can be seen as a synthesis of the spiritual and the earthbound, fusing gospel, the blues and marching tunes into pure, anarchic energy.
You’ve titled your exhibition 18 Melodies for the Barbarian Flute. I’m very curious to know how music — as a visceral but incorporeal presence — plays into this work.
CO: It’s everywhere. Like esoteric texts, much blues, especially pre-war, and most free jazz, just isn’t for everyone. Somehow, for some reason, you find them, or they find you. Those who are ready will find their way to it. Blues is really the root of it all. From the beginning, now we’re talking turn of the last century here, which is our first recordings, you have a uniquely American art form that is fundamentally anti-establishment, minor key, and open form, in the sense that nothing is owned — tunes, structures, and lyrics are all passed around, reinvented. Real freedom. Innovation through tradition, and the tradition is so old and very dark. The violence of slavery, Jim Crow, but somehow these voices emerge through the crackling hiss of black shellac and electromagnetism.
Take the mysterious case of Geeshie Wiley, for example. One of the rare female prewar blues singers, arguably the greatest. She cut only two 78’s for Paramount in 1930 and 1931, “Last Kind Words Blues” and “Skinny Leg Blues,” where she sings of crawling up on her lover and cutting his throat. She shows up on just three other recordings from the early 30’s with the equally mysterious Elvie Thomas. Next to nothing is known of her. There are rumors of a traveling medicine show, some claim she wasn’t there at all, a specter of some sort. Either way, it’s poetry of utter desolation, a soul laid to waste, “If I get killed, if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul/ I p’fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole” she sings in “Last Kind Words Blues.” There’s really nothing else like it. It’s a tradition that leads straight through to Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and so forth. It’s the deep waters of American music, the folk-stream, which is a living tradition. What Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America.” To bring this back to art-making, as artists, as image makers, we have the same living tradition. We have images in caves that go back 40, 45 thousand years, we have children’s chalk drawings on the streets of New York City done a few moments ago, and we have everything in between. This is our history. All of it, if one is simply willing to jump in.
TM: Collaboration between artists on a single art object (as opposed to an image/text or theatrical partnership) is something I can’t ever see myself doing, but it is a frequent part of your practice. I imagine that, ideally, the resulting artwork is the realization of a shared vision, as unpredictable and enlightening as the music of an improvisational ensemble.
Does such a musical analogy work for the pieces you do on your own? In other words, are they solos that are open to engagement with other players, or are they a different form altogether?
CO: They’re definitely an open engagement. Collaboration has been an enlightening experience, again, something not necessarily for everyone. Big Ego has to jump out the window and Eros the connector rushes in. It’s been a way to get out of my old habits of working. At other times it’s been a way of establishing an entirely new persona, or a way to work in anonymity and obscurity. You have to pay attention when you’re collaborating, practice what Gary Snyder calls “the etiquette of freedom.” You lose your self, your control, and yes, there is much unpredictability. But therein lies the joy of it. When it’s all over, and we return to our studios, we see things just a little differently. It’s a place where we can take ourselves as no more and no less than another being in the Big Watershed.
Craig Olson — 18 Melodies for the Barbarian Flute continues at the Janet Kurnatowski Gallery (205 Norman Avenue, Greenpoint, Brooklyn) through November 11.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.