The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2013

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MAR 2013 Issue


On View
Kent Fine Art Gallery
Paul Laffoley The Boston Visionary Cell
January 4 – March 9, 2013
New York
On View
Suzanne Treister Hexen 2.0
January 17 – February 23, 2013
New York

Paul Laffoley and Suzanne Treister are two rare artists who don’t fit into the current art discourse focused on politics and critical theory. Laffoley and Treister are more suited to a gathering in the Samovar Tea Room at the Museum of Jurassic Technology than a Whitney lecture. But then times are changing, with even Massimiliano Gioni reading Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. Kircher, a 17th century Jesuit, was one of the greatest polymaths in an encyclopedic age. He printed Sanskrit; attempted to decipher hieroglyphics; and studied botany, Asian languages, optics, sound amplification, electromagnetism, alchemy, and the heavenly bodies. Kircher’s museum in Rome became a model for many later science museums and work by Laffoley and Treister would have fit nicely into it. Luckily, several museums are taking up where Kircher left off—Laffoley has an exhibition coming up at the Hayward in London and the Henry Gallery in Seattle. The Science Museum and the Tate in London have exhibited Treister. Work with Laffoley’s encyclopedic scope, or Treister’s linking of the Tarot to the dark side of the scientific and political, has not been seen in any time I can remember. Both artists’ works take us into a world of multiple dimensions (including an expanded notion of body) and possess a dense scope of encyclopedic proportions spanning multiple time periods. Their scholarship is staggering.

Paul Laffoley, ”The Ectoplasmic Man,” 2011. Ink, acrylic, vinyl lettering on board, 21 1/8 x 21 1/8”. Credit Line: Courtesy of Kent Fine Art, New York.

To write about Paul Laffoley and Suzanne Treister you have to dust off the Ouija Board—both exhibitions include a séance. In 2000 Laffoley held a séance in the New Yorker Hotel room where Nikola Tesla lived and died to discover what Tesla was doing the last 10 years of his life. A painting in the exhibition provides the answer; Tesla was making clothing of ectoplasma. Treister’s exhibition contains a large photograph of the Cybernetic Séance from 1947 attended by Macy Conference attendees with the 20 participant’s hands poised on the edges of the table. We are unsure if the photograph is real or a manipulation sent from the ethers. Treister also resurrects Tesla as the King of Wands with his promise of free electricity, as one of the good guys in her Tarot deck.

The Macy Conference is a dominant theme in Treister’s exhibition that includes complex thematic works like “HEXEN 2.0: From National Socialism via Cybernetics and the Macy Conferences to Neo-Totalitarianism.” We see the Macy participants both in her Tarot deck as well as a painted plaque describing each member. The conference was also known as the “Man-Machine Project,” and was launched in 1942 by participants such as Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, Arturo Rosenblueth, and a host of visitors including Max Horkheimer. These engineers, biologists, neurologists, anthropologists, and psychologists devised experiments in social control, cooperation between the branches of science and how a society could be programmed for a purpose. The Macy Group produced some Dr. Jekylls. Gregory Bateson was to become the director of the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital and MK-Ultra, where he conducted secret experiments with mind-altering drugs. MK-Ultra and other mind-control efforts by the United States and British governments are well documented. In a series of diagrams based on the Tarot deck Suzanne Treister presents us with a complex, scholarly history of the group drawn in the style of alchemical illustration plates. MK-Ultra with its human guinea pigs is shown as the Three of Swords, a card that conjures up some potentially wounding or disturbing event. The themes portrayed on the cards are brought up to date with characters like Ken Kesey and a drone card—the Queen of Swords. 

Suzanne Treister’s grasp of complex psychological, political, and historical movements is impressive. Her portrayal of the Frankenstein monster these studies produced when seized by governments is interlaced with contemporary themes such as Internet governance. In an age of simplistic or reductive arguments, Treister unmasks the complexity and the dual nature of the Macy Conference and its spawn; we are shown the good, the bad, the ugly, and the out there.

If Suzanne Treister takes us to the dark side, Paul Laffoley is quite another matter. Each work encompasses a carefully researched theme that is captured in a beautifully executed and colorful large mandala painting so detailed that it may take more than a year to complete. The works present a kind of chart for spiritual, evolutionary, and scientific transformation into a realm beyond binary opposites. To understand Laffoley’s encyclopedic vision it helps to read his utopian writing. At heart Laffoley is a believer in a 19th century concept of progress, “perfectibility,” a mass enlightenment for all with no “holiarchies, hierarchies, or heteroarchies.” Laffoley writes about Utopic Space, which “has no natural directions such as those associated with Cartesian coordinates. It can receive any amount of information without organization.” To Frankfurters who view occultism through the lens of Adorno’s The Stars Down to Earth, Laffoley’s work is likely to send them screaming for the fire exits. He is a brilliant gadfly who brings their simplistic dismissals of esotericism crashing down. Laffoley’s work has it own order and exists outside of critical controls. This has caused his work to be dismissed until recently; he is an original thinker and no acolyte. In the art world independence can come with a price, the artist as nerve end and visionary is no longer supposed to exist. Laffoley does exist. He states,

I believe we are heading for a new Zenith of civilization. This time, given our imperative to explore both outer space and the micro-space of quantum dynamics, there is the very likely possibility that the scope of a future conventicle could be the entire physical universe and all of its inhabitants.

Though no Christian moralist, hopefully Laffoley’s vision of a “rapture” experience will take the whole art world up in the bus heavenward. Lord knows it needs a lift off.

How does one approach work by these two extraordinary artists?  It would require crates of books and hours of reading on a slow boat to China. An extensive study is well worth the effort. I would very much recommend the following: 

Kent Fine Art LLC: 210 11th Ave. // NY, NY

PPOW: 535 W. 22nd St. // NY, NY


Ann McCoy

ANN McCOY is a visual artist who teaches in the Yale School of Drama. She is the winner of a Prix de Rome, a D.A.A.D. Berliner Kunstler Award, and others. Her work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Hirshorn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and others. Currently she is working on a fairy tale she has written. It will be projected on the front of the Pfaueninsel Castle in Berlin. She worked with Dr. C. A. Meier, Jung’s heir, in Zurich, and has studied alchemy for 35 years.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2013

All Issues