Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson
Blessed Be: Mysticism, Spirituality, and the Occult in Contemporary Art
September 15—December 30, 2018
Even as traditional religious practice wanes in American life, pop culture is laced with pseudo-spirituality, from mediums turned TV stars to tarot cards as party trick. Enter the art museum, hailed as church for the religion-less by Blessed Be curator Ginger Shulick Porcella. Embracing social justice as the new spirituality, Porcella built a compelling altar to inclusion.
The outside of MOCA Tucson was hung with Mikala Dwyer’s “The Expectors” (2018), large-scale fabric banners imbued with eclectic symbolism. Here, the museum staked its claim as sacred space, and never let go. Inside, a cavernous gallery functioned like a medieval cathedral, large windows and other architectural elements invoking a sense of awe. Other dimly-lit spaces resembled the passageways of ancient catacombs.
Works by 19 artists were exhibited in these spaces, where plays on the contrast of dark and light prevalent in several religious traditions heightened the artwork’s collective impact. Primarily large-scale works, including three of Christopher Carroll’s “Magic Squares” frescos (2016) and Scott Treleaven’s “Animal Chapel” drawing (2015), hung on white walls inside the main gallery. Open space abounded, giving each art object the aura of a precious relic.
The Cassils’ installation took center place in the midst of all this. A large black box—similar in size to to a Catholic confessional—the exterior of the piece featured performative photographs of the artist vigorously working 2,000 pounds of clay. Inside, recorded sounds from Cassil’s labored quest darted all around, signaling the power required to manifest things unseen.
Several artists in the show work with non-conventional materials such as body fluids, grape Kool-Aid, and tincture from poisonous plants, prompting reflection on practitioners from pagan sects to cult leader Jim Jones. Mystery was a common thread here, imbued through materials, subject matter and the curator’s magical use of space.
A door led to a series of small rooms, one including Candice Lin’s video recounting 19th-century forced labor in the Caribbean (“La Charada China,” 2018) and a related mixed-media installation that takes the form of a shamanist offering (“Despacho for Chinese Coolie Laborers,” 2018). Nearby, another room was filled with documentation for Adam Cooper-Terán and Steven Johnson Leyba’s decade-long practice of publicly cursing corporations that fuel war and injustice, with a hex altar inviting viewer participation (“INVOKATION OV RECKONING: A Curse on Your Corporate Masters, A Magickal Retrospective,” 2008-2018).
The exhibition thus linked spirituality with social justice. Perceptions of unseen worlds magnified the need for action in the known world, rather than promulgating escapism or apathy. It was particularly poignant in the context of contemporary American life, now seeped in fear of the “Other” and rife with disenfranchisement. Exhibition materials referenced “the human impulse to belong and participate,” conveyed by artists who privilege feminism, indigeneity and queer identity. Zadie Xa’s trio of garments bearing fantastical images, for example, are rooted in a form of feminist indigenous shamanism in Korea.
More than a mere survey that happened to explore spiritual impulses, the exhibition relied directly on the power of art to generate mystical experience, translating that power into action.