Witches: September Gallery

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September Gallery via their Facebook page

Sometimes living in hipsterville has its benefits: September Gallery is definitely one of them. They only opened last year but they’ve already won a fan in me with this show. Witches brings together a variety of powerful works by women. Marjorie Cameron‘s name drew me in, but there were other pleasures to enjoy. It was wonderful to see her drawings up close and marvel at her fine lines and free compositions. Stunning and powerful.

Her work was surrounded by contemporary artists animated by the same questing spirit. Laurel Sparks describes her work a kind of sigil magic, overlaying a dizzying array of colours, textures and materials in her Magic Square series. They sparked some ideas in me. Rosy Keyser’s work likewise mixes materials and colour but in a more abstract way. I loved her Terrestial Mime which hangs materials on a wooden grid with wild layers of paint. It feels like the work behind a painting made visible, a sort of swirl of anarchic energy summoned.

Marianne Vitale’s Very Fine Gander has a whimsical charm, like toys made giant — but charred, too. So there’s also a feeling of something horrible gone wrong. There’s a great description of it in the exhibit essay by Susan Aberth (who wrote that fabulous book on Leonora Carrington — but argh! ‘The Burning Times’ and the Middle Ages are not synonymous. The height of the witch hunts was the 16th-17th centuries: the Early MODERN era).

I was absolutely bowled over by Anna Betbeze’s untitled sculpture of burnt objects on a rug. It felt like an artefact from the past, like a fire that consumed the witch who summoned it or what was left of the village after a curse. Like her piece Howl the literalisation of burning anger feels great.

“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.” ― Maya Angelou 

Best of all, the show culminated in a performance night last Saturday. I arrived to find the place in darkness as it had already begun (so much for being fashionably late). Melinda Kiefer led the audience in an opening ritual “to create [a] sacred yet wacky” atmosphere. Then the fabulous Pam Grossman (who probably alerted me to this show via her blog Phantasmaphile) gave a short version of her talk on the image of the witch in art. She was the organising genius behind the Occult Humanities Conference and exhibit last year that’s still resonating loudly in my head. I was glad we had a chance to chat afterward.

Shanekia McIntosh gave a wonderful performance with amazing code switching in a story about her family and the power of premonitions. There was an interesting Sonic Sigil piece, an invocation and prayer to Hecate by Sarah Falkner, Rebecca Wolff and Jonathan Osofsky (I liked the use of flags). The band Dust Bowl Faeries performed and wow! I was sharing pictures from their show with the Folk Horror Revival group because I knew people would dig it:

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They’re playing Helsinki Hudson on the 7th of May. Be there!

Laurel Sparks wrapped up the evening with a performance that had us back in the dark while she paced a circle around us, reading from huge slabs and then painting herself in dayglo colours with a kind of ritual precision that managed to be both humorous and compelling without ever giving in to the over-seriousness that performance pieces can fall prey to. All in all a fantastic evening.

On Medievalism and ‘Realism’

I’m going to be brief because I don’t watch the television show that prompted this post, yet I’m irritated by the notions behind a certain author’s constant defensive claims about ‘realism’ as the excuse to fill a narrative with frequent rapes of women (although seemingly the show runners are more interested in how the rapes affect the men — which of course makes them reprehensible, but that’s another issue).

Yes, rape happened in the Middle Ages, sometimes as a part of war. Men were also raped in the same manner, young boys too. Does that show up in their ‘realism’? No?

But let’s look at reality: most of people’s time in the Middle Ages was devoted to making sure they had the necessities of life. People worked the fields for long hours, planting, harvesting and then preserving and finally preparing food. People also spent a lot of time hunting — particularly if they were well-to-do folks in the courtly era for it not only provided food, it bound them together, and demonstrated prowess in times of peace. Clothing and furniture was made by hand, wood had to be gathered for fires — and even among those who did not toil at manual labour, the world in which they lived was a very different place, one where choices had to be made with a greater sense of the repercussions.

Are there books in the narrative? Do you know what it takes to make a book, even a small one in this time? You need leather for the covers, and vellum for the pages — leather which must be treated, stretched, scraped and cut until it is paper-like. Then you need ink to write which must be ground from materials that must be gathered whether it’s oak gall for black ink or gems or bugs for the vibrant colours and then tedious long hours of writing out the text.

The truth is a truly realistic portrait of the Middle Ages would be a long Warhol-like slog — just think how long it takes to get from place to place. So filmmakers are always selecting from that reality even if they aim to be realistic (and they do not really aim to be realistic from the clips I have seen).

There’s a lot to select from: if you choose to show so much rape, it has nothing to do with the reality of the Middle Ages and everything to do with your modern sensibilities.

In most cases rape was against the law, so the people who perpetrated it generally did so against people who did not have the power to use that legal system against them, i.e. people who had far less cultural cachet. Here’s a good piece from the Public Medievalist on rape in the Middle Ages.

[Thanks to the feminist mad max tumblr for the image]