London

“Voodoo”

Riflemaker

True story: I took a disaffected, directionless high school senior to the opening of “Voodoo,” and, wildly enthused by this show, she applied to art school the next day. That’s how inspirational this gem of a group exhibition was. “Voodoo: Hoochie Coochie and the Creative Spirit” roughly coincided with Nicolas Bourriaud’s grand Tate Triennial, a twenty-first-century mission statement on the future of curating filled with large-scale, theoretically au courant works. In contrast, “Voodoo”—crammed floor to ceiling with some fifty-five works dating from the nineteenth century to the present—represents a more relaxed and accessible curatorial hand. Its familiar exhibition strategy might read: Pick a nonart theme (say, “voodoo”); gather artworks and other objects that fit beneath its broad thematic umbrella; publish a matching catalogue.

Yet “Voodoo” soared above this formulaic curatorial conceit thanks to the efforts of indefatigable gallery owner and curator Tot Taylor, whose choices swim all over the topic. These ranged from hallucinatory works by artists as different as Dash Snow and Yayoi Kusama to an original 1839 aquatint, Idols of the Mandan Indians, by artist-explorer Karl Bodmer. Low points included more literal, figurative works such as the voodoo-doll-like Corpus Christi, 2008, by Adrian Di Duca. Much better were the unexpectedly abstract works, such as a spectacular, glistening copper wall sculpture in a complicated geometric pattern, Annabelle Moreau’s Formatione Zig-Zag, 2009, or an Arte Povera–like sculpture of bubbling hot wax, A Bed of Time, 2007, by Maria Novella Del Signore—scalding, entropic, dangerous, unpredictable—that enhanced the witchy feeling of the whole show. The posthistorical overload of art, book covers, music, psychedelic graphics, and more, stuffed into this already haunted and claustrophobic space (built in 1712), abundantly produced the desired Wunderkammer effect.

“Voodoo” struck the right note between coherent lateral thinking and total chaos: The tiny accompanying catalogue added cohesive layers of interpretation to the works on show with an essay on wax by Marina Warner; Taylor’s short historical introductions to the different sections explaining, for example, the connections between Haitian voodoo and slavery; and Zina Saro-Wiwa’s very funny short story, “Lina of the Red Oil,” which tells of the beautiful mixed-race Lina and her Pentecostal family, who “didn’t go in for any form of pagan devilry” such as yoga classes. Both exhibition and catalogue remind us of the exoticizing and anthropologizing potential of the subject, apparent in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Bueno/Malo, 1982, a drawing about its own fetishization. “Voodoo” may represent what is, by now, an established curatorial format—cross-generational and multidisciplinary works; postcolonial savvy; site-specificity; a questioning of the white cube—but it was magisterially executed. Dear Riflemaker Gallery: Would you kindly consider relocating elsewhere, to allow “Voodoo” to become a permanent alter-museum, to inspire budding (if easily seduced) art students forever?

Gilda Williams