In Rithika Merchant’s “The Intruder” (Sleep Paralysis), the rooted appendages of a tree-like creature wrap themselves around a body. It’s a familiar enough nightmare scene, echoing the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s latest exhibition, “Opus Hypnagogia: Sacred Spaces of the Visionary and Vernacular.” Defined as “the transitional state between dreams and waking,” it is Hypnagogia that plagues Merchant’s victim, stuck somewhere between vision and reality. Like the futility of recounting those loosely connected images that pass beneath our lids every night, so too does the experience of curator Stephen Romano’s collection elude precise terms.
“Esoteric” is the word Romano first settles on to describe his exhibit during a walk through the museum halls. Certainly this seems applicable when confronting Martin Withfooth’s “Shaman I” depicting a fern-puking whippet, William Mortensen’s harrowing manipulated photographic series, “Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft”, and Romeyn de Hooghe’s seventeenth century etching, “Hieroglyphica— Symbols of Ancient People 1753” (just one of the many to feature winged beasts.) Yet in the time it takes for Romano to circuit the room, dozens of visitors have passed through the exhibit, contradicting the connotations of obscurity often associated with esotericism.
“I think people are more apt to question things nowadays, which is what I think makes this kind of work and place the perfect antigen,” says Romano, who worked as a private art dealer for over a decade after serving as director of the Ricco Maresca Gallery from 1996-2003. Romano locates his sensibility in this spirit of questioning. “It’s all highly personal,” he says of what attracts him to the varied artists he collects. “Their work is not in the forefront of, or in dialogue with, their contemporary art world.”
Romano is driven by a similar impetus as his artists: to realize a vision, irrespective of the implications its views hold for society. Given the malignant streak running through this collection, what precisely then are these artists saying about the world and our human condition? “They don’t necessarily state an alternative model or construct in terms of reality, but they certainly open a door to that,” says Romano.
One particularly terrifying door is William Blayney’s “Whore on Beast,” which depicts a tiara-crowned woman in painted face riding a creature with seven heads under an apocalyptic sky. The painting conjures an overwhelming sense of impending doom— appropriate, given it was inspired by the book of revelations. In the early 1960s, Blayney — originally an auto mechanic from Pittsburgh— transformed himself into a self-ordained Baptist minister. Driving his Winnebago-come-studio, Blayney hit the road to spread his art and the Word. “[Blayney] would make these paintings, go to shopping malls, and begin preaching to people in parking lots, using them as visual aids to his sermons,” says Romano, emphasizing the proselytizing nature of Blayney’s work. “He believed his art and preaching was the fulfilment of a biblical prophecy.”
Irrespective of Blayney’s intended motivation, by dogmatically pursuing his searing imagery of the world, Romano believes Blayney earned his status as a “visionary” artist. And rather than pointing to a work that counters Blayney’s bleak view of existence, Romano goes further down the rabbit hole by drawing attention to another beastly portrait belonging to Brazilian surrealist, Darcilio Lima.
While Blayney preoccupied himself with a single text during the 1960s, Lima was busy delving into dozens of “consciousness expanding materials,” that, according to Romano, contributed towards his nervous breakdown. “He oversaturated himself with a lot of science fiction, alchemical, and religious texts. It was such a hybrid of information that he just burnt himself out.” Following some time spent in a mental hospital, Lima began to channel his stream of consciousness into his art practice. The result, unsurprisingly, was work that pushed itself to “the edge and beyond.”
Lima captures the “beyond” in the form of an anthropomorphized hound with the figure of a woman, holding aloft a snake-like creature, its head a collage of several faces. “His images are so visceral that they’re bordering on taboo, particularly for the societal context of that time,” says Romano, who discovered Lima’s work by chance at an “obscure art auction” several years ago. For Romano, it was the technical proficiency in Lima’s intricately rendered line work that truly caught his attention. This combination of self-taught technique together with Lima’s strong concepts is the primary basis Romano uses to judge all his artworks. An artist’s ability to master their craft to the point they can seamlessly render their subconscious onto the page is how Romano deems his artist’s “credible.”
In Lima’s case, despite due “credibility,” his work largely faded into obscurity, until more recently, nearly two decades after his death, Romano finally brought Lima back into public view through an exhibit of his work. Why did it take so long for Lima to receive his due recognition? Partly the result of Lima’s own eccentricity (“he spent his final years living in the backroom of a Baptist church, trying to destroy his work for redemption”), more so, Romano believes it was Lima’s lack of recognition by a critical community. Acting as an arbiter of this community, Romano continues his explanation through example, by approaching Kris Kuksi’s “Churchtank type 12.”
“He’s like a kid in a sandbox,” says Romano, broadly smiling beside Kuksi’s scale model sculpture, which as the name suggests, depicts a mobile cathedral-morphed army tank. “There’s an element of play here, which all these artists share. There isn’t that self-consciousness with how their work fits in within the hegemony of the art world.”
Here, together with vision and technical proficiency, Romano reveals another critical thread running through his collection: creativity as play. Exemplifying the intersection of these elements is Charles Dellschau and his “mandala-like” watercolour airships (or “Aeros” as Dellschau named them.)
Of the little known about Prussian-born Dellschau, it’s clear sometime in the late 1840s he moved to Galveston, Texas, later resettling near Houston, where he took up shop as a butcher. At some point, Dellschau was briefly associated with the mythic “Sonora Aero Club,” a group of flight enthusiasts, whose pursuits Dellschau would archive and immortalize through the paintings he created in the later years of his life.
“In his mind, was it art? We don’t really know. There’s no evidence that he ever had any arts education or interest in art,” says Romano, who upon discovering Dellschau, became particularly obsessed, noting the mysterious internal logic contained within his work. Spread over hundreds of pages, Dellschau’s art appears closer to an a-historical study collaged with newspaper clippings, diagrams and dates, all seemingly connected. Through Romano and his colleague’s attempts to confirm Dellschau’s detailed historical narrative, the true value of this artist’s work was revealed. “It’s what we call aporetic,” says Romano of the still unknown source of Dellschau’s enigmatic Aeroes.
It’s here, while speculating on the mystery of Dellschau, that Romano finally alludes to that wordless mystery lying at the source of his artists’ inspiration—hypnagogia, or, as he puts it, “the crack between the worlds.” What is it though about the artists that explore this place—not quite dream world, not quite real—that so fascinates Romano?
“There are two strains for me: the Warholians, who are all about the monumentalization of mediocrity and celebration of banality. Bold, graphic dumbed-down one-liners,” says Romano. To counter this category of artist, he cites Fluxus movement founder Joseph Beuys. “Beuysians are all about art as a social healing device, a weapon or tool of self-empowerment. Art as a carrier of a social message of the unification of the species, as opposed to its divisiveness.”
Taking this as his manifesto, it would seem Romano’s collection at its heart, aims to bridge the divide between seeker – creators and viewers alike. “It’s all about re-empowering the artist as having a shamanic role in our culture, re-injecting magic, mystery, and a sense of infinite possibility and self-empowerment back into our culture through their image making. That’s the art that I champion.”
Looking again at Romano’s collection of highly personalized visions, an overwhelming sense of darkness undoubtedly pervades. For Romano, though, it’s only through delving into these depths that we might find some sort of meaning.
“We’re building a frame of reference, a context,” says Romano, smiling as he gestures toward his strange array of ephemera around the room. “These are all affirmations, for anyone who’s seeking, that there is no set of rules. It’s not about saying this is the question you ask because there is no means to that end, rather, we’re saying that their search has validity.”
Opus Hynagogia runs until October 15 at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus Brooklyn.