Voodoo Lounge

Rhonda Lieberman on a séance for Caspar David Friedrich

New York

Left: A scene from the séance for Caspar David Friedrich. Right: Jackie Barrett.

It's hard to find a good séance these days, so I schlepped to Jack the Pelican Presents in Williamsburg Thursday night where “world renowned psychic medium” Jackie Barrett conducted a voodoo ceremony to conjure the spirit of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Why him? Well, Don Carroll, who runs the space, kinda likes the guy, though he also considered Henry Fuseli, who’s “very cool too.” The gallery's current group show is a multimedia mélange in which mutants, introverts, and tweens echo the nineteenth century nature-mystic's gloomy vision. Friedrich didn’t seem particularly sociable on this side of the veil—so I wondered if he'd feel like chatting now that he's crossed over.

When I arrived, Miss Jackie (as she is known to her home church in New Orleans, where she commutes from her Williamsburg base) had laid out the full voodoo spread to “bring down the spirits” to the white-walled gallery. Her husband, “Papa Bones,” was drumming away, with white (bone?) stripes painted on his face. Incense was burning. A smattering of artist-types hovered about, not knowing what to expect. Carroll was like a delighted birthday boy. On the floor, beneath a wall drawing of veiny tubers, Miss Jackie had chalked veves (glyphs) for the various loas (voodoo saint-types). She'd scattered offerings of pink petals and red peppers, a pineapple speared by a knife, and a stuffed red “voodoo” doll within a circle of white candles, hoodoo powder, and blue glitter.

“Voodoo is a religion,” Miss Jackie said. “It's spirituality. Hoodoo is mojo.” This ritual would bring protection and prosperity to the gallery—or so it was hoped. “Spirits are energy we give form to.” Jackie herself was radiant with “chi,” sparkly body lotion, and the intense, open gaze one would expect from a soul-maven. In stretchy leggings and tunic, a short black bob, exotic beads, flip-flops, and a fresh “vamp” pedicure, her spiritual activewear look was Louise Brooks-meets-Peter Pan. Shaking a maraca, she held out her hand and gestured me into the circle. Did she want to clear my bad vibes? She gazed into my eyes, shook the maraca around my aura, took my fuzzy hat off, and flung it across the room. What was she looking for? Was this a voodoo staring match? I gave her a quizzical look and she smiled and hugged me. She then repeated this icebreaker with all the guests.

Finally ready for the séance, we sat at a long table draped in black, headed by a Morticia Adams-style seat for Miss Jackie and adorned with a heavy gold crucifix centerpiece for Friedrich. We applied holy water to our hands and heads, then an oil mixture from a bourbon bottle, and joined hands while a blast of “Ave Maria” from the nearby CD player staved off evil. “I need you all to stay with this,” Jackie intoned as she politely coaxed “dear, beloved Caspar” to appear. She had spoken with him earlier in the week, she said, and he had RSVP'd yes. Another spirit—an unnamed German soldier—said he wanted to stop by, too.

“He’s here!” the medium announced. “Are you willing?” she asked a young woman in a red scarf, who assented, looked eerily toward Jackie, and then slowly turned her head away with a zombie-blank stare. Our medium moved next to her, to contact the spirit, who seemed to be ambivalent about showing up. Alas, no words. “It felt nice, though,” the girl said later. Jackie implored Friedrich to try again: “We mean no harm.” She asked another woman to touch the artist's cross. This one, Debbie, aptly dressed in a black velvet coat, with long gray tresses, no makeup, and a gentle demeanor, seemed to get the most occult action: “Very sad,” she reported glumly. “It never ends . . .” Jackie leaned across the table and asked, “Caspar, where is your heart?” “What heart?” Debbie really did seem tuned into something bleak as a Friedrich cragscape. “I'm thinking about art—not religion. About drawing . . .” She got up and did some automatic scribbling.

The unnamed soldier “entered through the back” of a pasty-skinned hipster who had mentioned that he used to do magic tricks and saw spiritualists as the “enemy.” “He's stuck,” said the hipster. “He doesn't know why he died.” Then he saw “a monster, like Miss Havisham.” “Visions are good,” Jackie nodded, supportively. “Whatever comes, it comes from the spirits.” But clear reception proved elusive. The three visitees said they definitely felt a presence. “It was hard to put words to. You're the same there as you are here,” said Debbie. “So you should try to solve your problems now.”