Bell, Book, and Candle

Left: The Parlor Trick (Meredith Yayanos) performing at the opening of the OHC. Right: Elijah Burgher and Jesse Bransford at the OHC. (All photos: Kathryn Kendall)

Raconteur Kristine McKenna once asked the inimitable curator Walter Hopps why he loved art. His response: “Because it’s the most beautiful secret language we have.

Sadly, these days it ain’t secret enough. Art fairs are cropping up everywhere, holding out the promise of instant cultural cachet to any dummy with deep pockets and a few connections. Plebes like me can buy a ticket to lookie-loo at any one of these high-end craft conventions, our new sacred, with the desperate hope of stumbling across something good (which happens… sometimes) or, indeed, even something great (much less than sometimes). Once upon a time, we tried to see God with art. That time might be distant history, but the need for magic, and for the terror and mystery that so often accompany it, hasn’t entirely left us. It’s still out there—in art and, of course, in life—and blessed be to the numinous handful who seek it out to show to the rest of us.

Jesse Bransford and Pam Grossman, two such people, united their charmed energies last weekend to bring us “The Occult Humanities Conference: Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions,” at NYU Steinhardt’s Barney Building in the East Village. Bransford and Grossman gathered an impressive array of artists, publishers, and scholars who work almost exclusively with the history and imagery of occultism. In the building’s Rosenberg and Commons exhibition spaces, there were also temporary exhibitions, organized by Bransford, of magic-influenced art. Sponsored by the Phantasmaphile blog (“art – culture – mirabilia”), Observatory, and NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Art and Art Professions, the conference itself was intimate—a sold-out event of approximately one hundred attendees—and brought together a mixed audience of art students, curious novices, and the esoteric-sympathetic, along with fully immersed, hard-core experts and magickal practitioners.

I’m sad to report that I missed the first lecture, Saturday morning, by Susan Aberth, an associate professor of art history at Bard and author of a book on Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, the subject of her talk. Many spent the weekend swooning over Aberth’s insights into the life and art of Carrington, who, since her death in 2011, has experienced something of a renaissance. And why shouldn’t she? Carrington, after all, was an unsung feminist maker of phantasmagoric images and texts who, when barely out of her teens, abandoned a privileged life of debutante balls and royal connections to become an artist and make Max Ernst—over twenty years her senior—her lover. Fabulous.

I did, however, catch the afternoon session, which included an amazing talk by William J. Kiesel, the director of Ouroboros Press—publisher of some seriously exquisite and lavishly produced books on esotericism. His “Alchemical Vessels: Vehicles of the Hermetic Tradition” was a lecture on the history of the various ovens, alembics, and crucibles used in alchemy, and an attempt to make a distinction between their literal and metaphoric functions as described in ancient alchemical texts. “Read, pray, do your work,” said Keisel. “This was the alchemist’s motto in hopes of cultivating the divine.” Lovelier words never spoken.

Left: Acep Hale and William Kiesel. Right: Pam Grossman delivering her lecture at the OHC.

A little later that evening, Pam Grossman, founder of Phantasmaphile and one of the women behind Observatory, discussed contemporary art and the occult, and explained how she uses magical thinking to détourn the vicissitudes of daily life in New York City. “If only,” mumbled an evil witch in the audience, who was enshrouded in some kind of fucked-up Laura Ashley/harlequin drag. Grossman also framed Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room, 1977, and Broken Kilometer, 1979, as sites of otherworldly power, comprising earth, brass, lucky numbers, and sacred geometries—temples of magic tucked away on West Broadway and Wooster that seem to have much in common with archaic traditions and earth mysteries that go back to that premodern time before Minimalism and Land art.

The highlights continued on Sunday, with Chicago-based artist Elijah Burgher’s talk, in which he showed off his gorgeous, modestly sized colored pencil drawings of wicked pretty boys, ruthless ex-boyfriends, and sigils, some of which the artist “activates” with a ritualistic wank session. “A sigil is an abstraction to which one appropriately responds to by masturbating,” he said. There was also Mark O. Pilkington’s lecture on “magical technologies,” like the Hieronymus Machine and Emery Blagdon’s heartbreakingly beautiful Healing Machine. Robert Ansell, the founder of Fulgur Esoterica, presented on one of modern occultism’s patron saints, the artist and writer Austin Osman Spare, while Dr. Amy Hale discussed her scholarly research into the art and life of Ithell Colquhoun, erstwhile Surrealist, sorceress, and time traveler.

Bransford, the director of the undergraduate studio art program at NYU Steinhardt, wrapped up the conference on Sunday evening with a talk about his decade-long project on the seven planets of antiquity (the Sun, Mars, Mercury, the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn). He opened with a projection of his Aleister Crowley–inspired drawing Every Man and Woman Is a Star. More validating than even a VIP pass to Art Basel, that night, it felt like all of us really were.