September 3rd – October 25th 2015
By Kim Power
Aficionado of the esoteric and champion of the outsider art aesthetic, Stephen Romano has reopened his gallery in Bushwick with an invitation to those of curious mind to peruse and ponder. With the intent of displaying what he describes as, “metaphorically speaking, entries into a fictitious lexicon,” Romano has curated an eclectic assemblage of painting, photography, antiquarian books and objet d’art, inspired by the Dictionnaire Infernal (1863), a French dictionary of demons published by J. Collin De Plancy which includes a set of 69 illustrations created by M. L. Breton, seen on display front and center in the gallery. Loosely structured with the idea of creating a dialogue between the artworks that is not necessarily linear, we are given the impression of entering a mystical and psychologically complex wunderkammer.
If the devil is in the details then welcome to his playground. There is plenty to discover in the highly complex visionary worlds of Shawn Thornton and Stephanie Lucas. Thorton’s Brahmastra for A New Age (UFO/Time Machine) appears, at first, to be a very colorful example of an integrated circuit with thin lines connecting hieroglyphic symbols. A winged saint seems to be manning the helm of a penis-shaped vessel and one almost expects it to move forward with kinetic energy. Lucas’s Welcome is no less frenetic but grows more organically in a Gaugin-like jungle populated by monkey figures and fantastic creatures dancing, hiding and playing in a celebratory tapestry of paint.
Romano’s ongoing fascination with William Mortensen’s photos is represented by Mark of the Borgia, portraying the quasi-religious imagery of a woman and man tied to a stake just outside of a distant village. Its presence might seem out of place unless you are familiar with Mortensen’s other occult imagery. His work was a large influence on the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton Szandor LaVey.
The sacrificial female figure is represented again in A.Fiorello’s Budgets Measure the Will To Kill, a hand-painted plaster relief that Romano acquired for his collection. Nothing is known of this artist beyond the work he has left behind. A wild-eyed fire-breathing dragon is seen feasting on human flesh while the skull of Lady Liberty peaks behind his scales. Scratched into the perimeter are a series of phrases, “At the dragons well; we need a world liberation front; budgets measure the will to kill; the right to arm is the right to kill; arms fire; freedom to kill arms the world,” in mantra-like repetition.
Moving on in this panoply of visions, we find Acteon painted by David Molesky. According to Greek myth, Acteon was a hunter who, upon seeing Artemis bathing naked, was turned into a stag and hunted down by his own dogs. Molesky portrays the scene at the point of capture before the final metamorphosis is complete. In some ways it can be seen as a less dynamic, pared down version of Paul de Vos’s 17th century Stag Hunt and speaks to a very primal urge for survival.
Elizabeth Shupe displays the spoils of such a victory with a triptych (Beautiful Creature I, II, and III) of resin coated acrylic paintings portraying a ghostly trophy rabbit and a deer head which peer at us with double pink eyes. The body of a dead bird perches stiffly on the silhouette of a flower filled hand. Each creature is pierced by the symbol of an arrow and adorned with pink paint decorated with reproductions of 19th century botanic wallpaper designs. The words “But I love you, but I love you, good thing,” and “So beautiful, so beautiful my dear,” are written in scrawled writing implying a valentine from cupid that has gone badly wrong.
This theme of sweet innocence gone astray is carried over in Cendrine Rovini’s Kali in which she portrays the Indian deity as through the body of a four-armed child, waving a knife with red stained hands and mouth as she sits on the image of a man while holding the head of another in one of her four hands. It is as if traditional Indian artistic convention conspired with Balthus and Nicoletta Ceccoli.
The theme of the possessed or supernatural innocent accentuates the uncanny as in the pallid young girl in Caitlin Karolczak’s Unspoken. Her vacant stare has echoes of the character Wednesday in The Adam’s Family or a post-mortem Victorian portrait subject, as she gazes eerily out from a crimson-curtained booth, a large plaque pendent of an ear resting on her tunic, unexplained and emblematic.
Almost as a panacea but no less mysterious, Rithka Merchant’s Luna Tabulatorium, lives amongst these mythic and maligned creatures, protected by the walls of a separate room, Merchant’s gouache and ink series of fifteen drawings embody a personal mythology drawn from various cultures all linked by the symbol of the moon. Color and format similarities to Navajo sand paintings reinforces the sense of ritual imbued in these works, as does the carefully folded pleats that are impressed in the paper, giving it a feeling of a precious document or map. One wishes to be witness to the implied ceremony.
Pandora’s box and all it’s contents seem to have been emptied in this wide reaching exhibit of over forty artists. Here, I have given you only a finite view of the plethora of works represented in this animalarium of strange and fantastic creatures that represent primitive ancient and personal psychological beliefs. In keeping with the definition of outsider art, the works are indeed out of the mainstream of the art world and its institutions. Others simply embody a sort of idealism of the esoteric. All are chosen as an encyclopedic compendium of imagery guaranteed to arouse the curiosity of both the connoisseur and the uninitiated.