Objet d’Occulte: ‘A Charm Against All That’ Opens at projects+gallery

 In Culture, Event

When, within the span of a year, both Allure Magazine and David Brooks stake claims for the occult, it’s safe to say that its appeal has touched—or subtly ensorcelled—a popular nerve in American culture. Suddenly less wacky than genuinely meaningful, magic has hit the mainstream; the empirical feels inept, the esoteric utterly germane.

“I do think it is in response to this feeling of mass helplessness in the face of so many large-scale, uncontrollable conflicts that we’re amidst,” says curator Jessica Baran, whose exhibition “A Charm Against All That” opens Jan. 16 and runs through March 14 at projects+gallery in the Central West End. “For better or for worse—depending on how ‘normalization’ is valued—we’re only just now normalizing what historically has been deemed marginal, referred to pejoratively or even banned.”

Swapping conspicuous political import for broader aesthetic reflections of the occult, “A Charm Against” includes work from eight artists from four countries in the main gallery—from Hélène Delprat of Paris to Brandon Anschultz of St. Louis to midcentury Vodun objects of Benin, Africa. Describing the show as a “small, lyrical reflection, largely through the lens of how artists have adapted some of the symbology and aesthetics of these impulses,” Baran aims to reframe explorations of the spiritually marginalized. “Artists actually are a bit magical,” says Baran, “in terms of their role in society, to make us rethink orthodoxies and even what constitutes institutionalized versions of the rational.”

In Delprat’s painting “Lost Sleeping Beauty” (2018), the somnambulant siren frowns beneath a swirl of smoke, cartoonish storm clouds hovering around her with googly eyes and cheeky grins; in Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Blue Bald Voice Effects” (2008), the figure of a mound is carefully ripped from azure canvas, bright pink peeking behind, as part of an allegorical dreamscape the artist has revisited throughout his career. In Harley Lafarrah Eaves’s campy yet disquieting take on the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” electric green witch fingers extend like jellyfish tentacles across a gloomy sky; in his mixed media installation, three carmine broom handles form the shape of a pitchfork.

Objet d’Occulte: ‘A Charm Against All That’ Opens at projects+gallery

Harley Lafarrah Eaves, “Thematic Plot Points In The Wizard Of Oz From Childhood,” Memories, 2018, Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of projects+gallery.

As Baran explains, “An aspect of the show wavers between impulses toward the abstract and impulses toward graphic explicitness—like smiley faces or witch hands, things that are overtly legible, appearing amidst purely nonobjective gestures. Just as Delprat’s work exists in this abstract plane of heavily textured layers, Harley Eaves’ images float in deeply atmospheric space. I see this as a way of negotiating the tradition of the spiritual sublime in abstract art and narrative art’s capacity to describe personal and cultural mythologies.”

Fon fetish objects called bocio totemically ground the show—crafted within the animistic Vodun practice of mingling natural and animal parts to channel supernatural powers of protection and vitality. Baran grants these pieces an ablutionary quality. “The turn toward more historically marginalized spiritual impulses is related to this deep anti-institutional distrust … [and] a reconnection to the natural world, which has been feared or rendered antiseptic by traditional religious structures. Now it is seen as a necessary corrective of consumer or technocratic ideologies.”

Objet d’Occulte: ‘A Charm Against All That’ Opens at projects+gallery

“Vodun Fetish Object,” mid-20th century, Fon people of Benin. Made of wood, bone, string, pigment, padlocks and other sacred
materials. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of projects+gallery.

In the rear gallery, a concurrent, complimentary exhibit curated by Margaret Sherer includes works from project+gallery’s collection by Chris Burden, Farrokh Mahdavi and Marilyn Minter, among others.

As we enter a new decade with the prospects for conflict looming, it’s no wonder that we’re (yet again) reckoning with the limits of human reason, open to reconsidering the role of art as much more than aesthetic, or emotional, signifier. “I’m interested in how artists have occupied the role of the trickster, capable of navigating between the ‘rational’ world and alternate ways of thinking and being,” says Baran. From the vantage of early 2020, the liminal and mystical seem the sanest place to steer.

Images courtesy of projects+gallery. Featured image: Hélène Delprat’s “Mirror,” 2017, mixed media.

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