"Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists," Sol LeWitt famously wrote. But few conceptual artists have delved into mysticism with as much intelligence and historical perspective as Susan Hiller. Her third eye-opening exhibition at Lisson Gallery features a selection of works made since the late 1960s that the London-based artist describes as "just sideways of conceptualism and neighboring the paranormal." A grid of photographic portraits altered to reveal the sitters' colorful glowing auras is titled After Duchamp (2016–17). A group of first-aid boxes hanging on a wall, some open to reveal glass bottles containing water collected at far-flung holy sites, is First Aid: Homage to Joseph Beuys (1969–2016). Gertrude Stein is conjured here as well through a 2011 installation featuring a writing desk adorned with the spines of books on automatism and the occult.
Hiller's project offers a revisionist history of the avant-garde, casting its key strategies in spiritualist terms. The canonical artists she invokes visualize spirits, transform the base into the sacred, and channel unconscious forces. These strands of paranormal thought, however esoteric, also bind the avant-garde to a broader culture. Psi Girls (1999) is a five-channel video installation featuring edited clips from Hollywood movies depicting feats of telekinesis. From Firestarter to The Craft, these source films cater to a popular fascination with women and girls who harness creative forces beyond rational understanding. The tendency to cast this fascination as "horror" is undermined by Hiller's playful editing and the bright color filters she overlaid onto each clip. There's a different and more complicated kind of fear in Hiller's work: a sense that past a certain point, opening one's mind can be indistinguishable from losing it. —William S. Smith
Pictured: Susan Hiller: First Aid: Homage to Joseph Beuys, 1969–2017, 13 vintage felt-lined wooden first aid boxes, 86 vintage bottles, water from holy wells and sacred streams, and vintage medical supplies, 61⅜ by 74 inches. Courtesy Lisson Gallery, New York.