“Language of the Birds: Occult and Art”


It can be tricky to account for the dark arts in the white cube. Though many key modern artists were hardly shy about voicing their enthusiasm for the occult, art historians and curators, working within Enlightenment disciplines, have had a harder time taking seriously esoteric spirituality. “Language of the Birds” feels like a necessary corrective in this regard. Curator Pam Grossman, who is both a historian and a “student of magickal practice,” has presented a deeply felt and extensively researched exhibition that includes work by more than 60 artists, many of whom could be equally identified as magicians themselves. Pieces range from trance drawings by hardcore occultist Aleister Crowley to Surrealist paintings by Kurt Seligmann, an expert in magic, to work by fellow-travelers from the mainstream art-world like Carol Bove, whose sculpture here resembles an arrangement of witchy talismans. Rather than ascribe to some idea about the occult influencing aesthetics, or vice versa, this broad presentation provokes healthy uncertainty about contemporary art and its boundaries: an altar for a 16th-century rite recreated for the show and a sculpture by Kiki Smith might share a common source.–William S. Smith

Pictured: Alison Blickle, New Keys, 2015, oil on canvas and glazed ceramics, 40 by 30 inches. Courtesy Kravets Wehby Gallery, New York.