Of Mythic Worlds
On ViewThe Drawing Center
Of Mythic Worlds: Works from the Distant Past through the Present
March 8–May 14, 2023
The Drawing Center’s latest exhibition is full of portals: artworks that beckon us to a mysterious elsewhere and enable us to tunnel deeper into ourselves at the same time. Titled after a 1980 album by Afrofuturist composer Sun Ra with his Arkestra, Of Mythic Worlds: Works from the Distant Past through the Present constellates artworks—predominantly, but not solely, achromatic or chromatically subdued abstractions—by thirty-one artists engaging with various forms of spirituality, mysticism, and occultism. Independent curator Olivia Shao, who also organized this year’s White Columns Annual, applies this loose framework to poetic effect, drawing out aesthetic and affective resonances among work—drawings, paintings, prints, collages, and a lone video—produced from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries across far-flung geographies (Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America) as well as in diasporic contexts. Pieces by established artists are interspersed with those by outlier artists, individuals from other creative disciplines, and religious practitioners; though some of the represented makers view themselves as the authors of their work, others identify as co-creators or mediums. While the absence of explanatory wall text allows the pictures to be rhythmically experienced in a decontextualized and nonhierarchical fashion, short biographies devoted to each artist in a free-to-read catalogue ensure that their critical differences are not ultimately flattened in service of some ideal of universality.
The groundbreaking exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, first shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986–87, famously posited that the history of Western abstraction was tied up with histories of spiritualism and occultism; while the idea was radical at the time, and took two decades to gain traction, it is now fairly well-trodden ground. A quiet show, Of Mythic Worlds seems less interested in theses or claims than in seeing what forms, feelings, themes, throughlines, and incongruities rise to the surface when works informed by alternative personal belief systems are juxtaposed. Made on the occasion of the show, graphite abstractions by Duane Linklater, an artist of Omaskêko Cree descent based in Ontario, challenge a misperception around spirituality and art—the notion that work by Indigenous artists must necessarily or solely be read through the lens of spirituality. Characterized by layers of short, neat lines in semicircular formations, Linklater’s intricate drawings represent a perceptually altered state that he has experienced but one that is typically understood as secular: the works are titled Migraine 1, Migraine 2, and Migraine 3 (all 2022).
Of course, an embodied or somatic experience can be a spiritual one—for example, when an image springs from the movement of a spiritual medium’s hand across the page. During the Shaker Era of Manifestations, which lasted from 1837 to the mid-1850s, young women called “instruments” experienced and expressed spiritual visions through shaking, dancing, singing, and “gift drawings,” the latter of which increased in proportion after a new rule declared visions had to first be shared on paper with community elders. Indexing an ecstatic body, Word of the Saviour (1843), by an unknown Shaker artist, features three delicately inked circles nested within a larger design of eight semicircles, all sprouting flowers and shivery asemic writing. Corporeality and spirituality are also entangled in a San Francisco experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson’s Brain Drawing works on paper (both 1952), which depict floating orbs enlivened by coronas made of squiggly lines. By simultaneously evoking a closeup of a brain and a snapshot of outer space, Belson—a devotee of physics, Eastern philosophy, and psychedelics—suggests a cosmic consciousness. The wonder that cosmic phenomena can inspire and the belief systems that they scaffold are referenced throughout the exhibition, taken up by works by Lenore Tawney (Eclipse ), Betye Saar (Taurus ), Mel Chin (Study for Mercury: The Principle of Polarity–The Orbital Rebus ), and occultist artist-poet Cameron, whose Pluto Transiting the Twelfth House (1978–86), a skittering ink drawing representing an astrological period of rumination on death and endings, is a remarkable little universe unto itself.
For all the texts that brushes with the mystical and the miraculous have generated—this review, in some small way, among them—esoteric experiences can also seem to exhaust language’s capaciousness, pushing writers to explore other modes of communication or representation. In his 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes wrote of the codes, tendencies, habits, and language of love; in the same decade, he made more than five hundred drawings, which he called contre-écritures, at his desk, a number of which he dedicated to his lover. Born of a need for expression beyond language, Barthes’s Sans titre-22 octobre 1973 (1973), an electric thicket of green, brown, and blue tendrils punctuated by red and orange splotches, suggests that love may be another mystic impulse,1 invisibly moving the artist’s hand.
- “I am seized with that exaltation of loving someone unknown, someone who will remain so forever: a mystic impulse: I know what I do not know.” Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 2001), p. 135.