A Bare Sleight of Hand – Chicago’s Occult Artists

by Stephanie Cristello

Chicago has a very haunted history. Although, whether or not that has to do with the recent art being made on the scene is suspect. Lately, it seems that a lot of artists have taken a drink of the black magic kool-aid, from reference to occult superstition, mysticism, alchemy, and ritualistic processes, many young Chicago artists have cultivated a niche of counterculture aesthetics that are rapidly gaining popularity. Dieter Roelstraete’s 2009 essay Great Transformations: On the Spiritual in Art, Again about the 2007 Moscow Biennial lists a number of artists and curators who have adopted an occult framework, which points that the trend is far from new. However, it appears Chicago artists are approaching the dark side quite differently from a narrative standpoint, through compositional and material appropriation. The use of the occult as source material, beyond existing as a symbol for things both hidden and secretive, lends itself to enchantment more so than disillusion – which the following artists have integrated into their work as a subversive springboard for a broad variety of related subject matter.

Corkey Sinks, The Time is Now, 2010.

Carrying the aesthetic quality of a low-budget horror flick, installation and fibers artist Corkey Sinks filters a variety of historical, sociological and cultural models through the fabrication of subculture environments. Often alluding to the oddities in existing forms of American capitalism, consumer systems, folklore, and most recently doomsday theory, Sinks bridges the split between the vastnesses of her subject matter by focusing on the shocking similarities between systems. Her latest plans for an upcoming installation called We Buy Gold, is a hybridization of apocalyptic theory and syndromes of mass collection.

Delving into Chicago’s Hull House history, Sinks has been compiling a timeline that permeates her latest body of work, “I had read a Jane Addams essay where she attempted to explain how the story started and why it spread so quickly throughout Chicago communities. I began researching the ‘Devil Baby of Hull House’ phenomena and its relationship/possible influences with the novel and film Rosemary’s BabyThe timeline and map reveal a paranoid and viral quality, and it implicates me in the process and the product.  I think I am most interested in maintaining that tone with other sculptures, drawings, and installations”. Sinks’ timeline prompted a series of patterns exploring the balance of light and dark, a process she replicates imperfectly, but honestly in her sharpie zines, animations and fused plastic pieces.

Sinks’ treatment of the balance between light and dark is also present in Elijah Burgher’s material considerations. Through the modest and conscientiously innocent use of colored pencil and crayon, Burgher’s choice of materials collides with the provocative imagery in his drawings. Staging narratives of ceremonial magic, Burgher’s figures tacitly engage in ritualistic processes that elevate the occult into a homo-eroticized, and often domestic setting. The figures’ motivations for desire within the image are obscured through the ambiguity of the illustrated acts – it is unclear whether what the viewer has been brought to witness is sexually stimulating or spiritually cleansing. Perhaps recalling Kenneth Anger without as deep a focus on the abject, Burgher’s work illustrates the same quality of spectacle, welcoming the ‘private’ into an arena of exhibition.  His figures, unabashed and unconcealed, explicitly suggest an intimacy that supersedes the role of social deviant conventionally associated with homosexuality.

Elijah Burgher, No Irreversible Sentences.

The complicity of his figures is also particularly striking. Not quite disinterested, but perhaps under Burgher’s spell, No Irreversible Sentences depicts two male nudes, one carving a voodoo symbol (perhaps a hybridization of a hexagram and a verve) into the other’s chest. Both figures, entranced and at once clinically removed by the act, seem completely unaware of the viewer’s gaze, adding a level of clairvoyance that seems to be a trope shared with the works of Ivan Lozano.

Lozano’s imitations of ritualistic spaces speak to queer identity as much as they do to theatrical depictions of traditional folk religious systems. Resembling stage sets of altarpieces or possible sites for séance, Lozano’s work evokes a spiritual or sacred significance similar to Burgher’s that is coldly undermined by its crude and readily traceable source material. Appropriating images from online gay-pornography and fabricating his sculptural structures out of colloquial materials such as house paint, chains and scrap wood, Lozano mends familiar sources into ritualistic compositions from Latin American occult symbolism.

Ivan Lozano, A HERMA (DEAD EYES OPENED), 2011.

The physical form of Fantasy Vision Meditation Version 2 and more recently A Herma (Dead Eyes Opened) perpetuate an object that is seemingly spiritual, although the viewer’s expectations for some meta-realization are seldom met.  In fact, all these works do little to elicit the spiritual experience that the form seems to promise. Perhaps it’s because the enchantment imbued within Lozano, Burgher and Sinks’ work uses spirituality with a false sentiment.

Rather than elicit a transcendental response, the work more actively elevates an awareness of our culture’s spiritual void through its display of phenomena we have no choice but to approach as novelty.  The occult framework, although not effective in a sincere sense, is advantageous in a way that is much more secular, and allows each artist to broaden their respective subject matter. Using the novelty of the aesthetic to their advantage, these artists among others are producing a matrix of ideologies to serve a multitude of oddly related platforms – in such a provocative and energetic way that makes me think maybe a little superstition could do us some good.