Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Entering the Cave of Bones: A Preview of "Doorways to the Underworld"

Through Doorways to the Underworld, the Minneapolis Collective of Pagan Artists' Samhain 2014 exhibit, we enter into the disquieting—sometimes disturbing—dreamscape that is both Samhain and the world of contemporary pagan art.

In Anne Marie Forrester's Bear Priestess, the viewer stands at the mouth of a cave literally packed with skulls and leg-bones. Between us and the cave sits the bear priestess herself, all breasts, belly, and thighs, dressed only in the head and skin of (apparently) a bear cub. She wields that classic shamanic tool, the frame drum, in her role of go-between for living and dead, past and present.

The painting disturbs on a number of levels. Content is one: corpulence, nudity, powerful female eroticism. Another is scale. The priestess' head is too small for her mountainous body, the bear's head that she wears too small for her own too-small head. One cannot help but be reminded of Paleolithic “Venus” figurines, whose heads and feet dwindle into unimportance compared with their massive bodies, the true center of their power. Small as it is, though, the priestess' head is still much larger than the skulls that frame her in the cave mouth. The viewer experiences a dizzying loss of sense of proportion.

Focus is another source of disquiet. The canvas moves in and out of focus depending on where one looks, but not in any predictable way. The skulls and bones are sketchily rendered, almost cartoonlike, but the detailing of the priestess' breast tattoos, necklaces, and nipples have an almost photographic quality to them. Do we stand in the world of the literal or the figurative? Both? Neither?


Clearly this is the shaman who moves between worlds, as the viewer moves between focus and un-focus, between comfort and discomfort. Only she can speak to us on behalf of the dead, the past, whose wisdom we stand before her to hear. This is articulate work. Forrester's earlier compositions are sometimes weakened by an absence of outline and negative space which at times can amount almost to horror vacui. In this painting, we see the maturing artist, if not wholly overcoming this tendency, at least controlling it for her own purposes.


We encounter similar themes—nudity, the archaic, the animal—in Paul B. Rucker's coyly- (if not archly-) titled Nude with Antlers. In this photograph a naked, deer-headed man, white with body-paint, passes before us along the fire-lit walls of a cave. Here we have entered the cave itself, and the stag-man raises his light to show the way. Where is he going, where is he leading us? Does he know that we are here? Have we entered a ritual in progress, or is this some archaic power of nature whose passage would occur whether we were here to witness it or not? The photo reads as a single frame, a still from an ongoing film. We have entered into story: we know there was something before and will be something after, the exact nature of which remains elusive.

If the title alludes to the ongoing stream of art in its more recent manifestations, the image itself harkens to—one might almost say, embodies—the very sources of that stream. One meets the horned man frequently enough in the painted caves of the European Paleolithic to make it clear that the figure, if not a god per se, is at least an important mythological personality. The colors of the photograph are the earth-pigments of Lascaux—caolin white, red and amber ocher, charcoal black—and we see it all by firelight, as—it is easy to forget—all cave art was originally seen and created. (I have frequently thought that ancient art cannot truly be understood until it has been viewed by firelight.) Rucker's art tends to be characterized by sharp, almost sculptural, outline and precise—sometimes overwhelming—detail. At its worst, detail dominates overall design. But in Nude, the interplay of firelight with shadow, the playful handling of seen and unseen, the slightly grainy blurring of detail, gives the image a dream-like quality along with a kind of “Bigfoot Captured Live on Film” realism that represents a new direction for the artist. For all its Stone Age subject matter and palette, this is, after all, a photograph: the ancient powers still walk in our day, Rucker seems to be saying, and the work of the artist continues to be the responsibility to show them forth.


We encounter the same layered reflection on the interaction of present with past, tradition with innovation, tangible with intangible, in Ali Beyer's mixed-media commemoration, Sparky: His Song Will Be Remembered. In this piece, as in much of her work, Beyer addresses complex issues of memory, the conscious creation of legend, and the role of art in the process of identity-formation, both individual and collective.

The piece commemorates singer-songwriter Sparky T. Rabbit (1954-2014) whose seminal music gave voice, and so identity, to the US pagan community. Its larger-than-life (110' x 52') size comments wryly on the subject's personality, the importance of his body of work, and the nature of memory. Based on the iconic photo by Melanie Moore—which in fact Sparky sent out to friends as a card at Samhain 2007—the sepia-toned piece in charcoal and watercolor pencil simplifies the already stark image of Sparky in black robe and classic steeple hat gazing out at the viewer over broad beard and staff as he casts a long shadow over the prairie behind him. Beyer seems to be reflecting here on the necessary role of forgetting in the process of memory-creation, in the transformation from a three-dimensional reality to two-dimensional photograph to backgroundless two-tone painting. Here again in the immediate present we confront the past and its role in the creation of our own identity. The complex nature of the image's internal self-commentary--in which play, self-satire, incongruity, and self-conscious engagement with tradition together create a disquieting harmony in a minor key--presents the viewer with an encounter that simultaneously evokes and disturbs.

Doorways to the Underworld also features works by MCPA member Anglo-American painter Roger Williamson, along with guest artists ceramicist Ellie Bryan, award-winning photographer Katie Clapham, and mixed media artist Rmay.

The exhibit opens this weekend at the Stevens Square Center for the Arts, 1905 Third Avenue South, in Minneapolis (, with viewing Saturdays and Sundays 1 to 5 pm between October 25th and November 15th. The opening reception Saturday, October 25, 7:30-11:00 pm, features live music by Comets ov Cupid and dance by Alana Mari.








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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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