Chicago

Bob Ross, Cactus at Sunset, 1986, oil on canvas, 18 × 24". From “New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival.”

Bob Ross, Cactus at Sunset, 1986, oil on canvas, 18 × 24". From “New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival.”

“New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival”

DePaul Art Museum

What’s your sign? No, this is not merely a flower-power phrase uttered with a knowing glance, nor a disco-era pickup line retooled at your favorite queer bar. As deployed in “New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival,” this question, asked of the twenty-seven participating artists, was but one crucial approach to rethinking the confluence of politics, environmentalism, spirituality, and “wellness” that characterized the New Age movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Chief curator and museum director Julie Rodrigues Widholm’s decision to identify artists by their birth signs in the exhibition materials (a gallery guide designed by the artist and professional astrologer Whit Forrester even coordinated the sign of the viewer with those of particular artists) emblematized the kitsch sensibility that permeated the galleries. Introduced to an international group of artists through information beyond age or nationality, the viewer had to chart a personal metaphysical course through the works, whose specific and contingent political concerns were nevertheless legible. This approach created nontraditional thematic groupings of works and permitted the curator to grapple with a diverse set of practices often denigrated with the New Age label.

One such negotiation surrounded the show’s cheeky engagement with yoga as a pop-cultural wellness practice legitimated by its ancient esoteric roots in India. Shana Moulton’s video piece Morning Ritual, 2016, pokes fun at the pretensions of yoga with low-tech visual effects and an easy-listening “world music” soundtrack. Dressed in a brightly colored muumuu, the artist’s performative alter ego, Cynthia, takes the viewer through aerobic exercises via a VHS tape. As she clumsily moves through the poses, she is transported to a mountaintop where the moon swirls around the screen and an animated chrome statue serenades her. The hippie-dippie undertones of this video are echoed in Mindy Rose Schwartz’s Summer of Love, 2013, a sculpture that formally plays on dream catchers and macramé—fads of the ’60s and ’70s—with its organic circular forms and wire filigree. 

One strength of “New Age, New Age” was its ability to negotiate the multivalence of kitsch: The exhibition satirized itself, took esotericism seriously as a mode of care, and simultaneously interrogated the terms underlying these alternative practices. Nowhere was this multifacteed approach more evident than in the curator’s decision to include four landscapes by the late Bob Ross, the public-television figure acclaimed for his show The Joy of Painting, which aired in the ’80s and ’90s. Widholm asked viewers to put aside prejudice against Ross, whose work had never before been exhibited in a museum, and think of him as a “true artist” significant because of his “ubiquity yet distance from the art world.”

In another gallery, Rashid Johnson’s The New Black Yoga, 2011, shifted the show’s positioning of yoga. In this instance, the artist’s relationship to the spiritual practice turned workout was less clear. The video is set on a beach where, in the obfuscating light of dawn or dusk, five black men perform a series of enigmatic choreographed movements. The soundtrack is reminiscent of African Americans’ musical engagements with Eastern philosophy during the Black Power era, as emblematized by Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra. Together, the sonic collage and inscrutable physical gestures emphasize that an embodied practice of movement can provide a means (metaphysical or otherwise) of connection and restoration. 

Themes of spirituality and community were also linked in Spirit Woman, 2007, a totemic ceramic sculpture by Marva Lee Pitchford-Jolly. The late Chicago-based artist and educator was born to a family of farmers in Mississippi and trained with Zambian master potters. Spirit Woman formally reflects such African and African diasporic practices while representationally imagining a society of powerful black women. 

Ultimately, this ambitious exhibition posited New Age aesthetics and concerns as tools for personal empowerment and political dissent, while interrogating the extent to which they can effect change. Indeed, this seemingly passé label could generatively encompass the alternative practices of care for the environment, community, and self that are increasingly modeled and desired by artists of color, LGBTIQ artists, and women artists—“strategies for survival” in a world on the precipice of radical change.