The Death of Magic

Ian Howard_The Death of Magic copyIan Howard: The Death of Magic 2015 mixed media on canvas 240 x 300cm

(photo Chris Park)

Wunderkammer as magic Wunderkammer as the death of magic

In 1565, Samuel Quiccheberg published the earliest known treatise on museums, the Inscriptiones vel tituli Theatri Amplissimi. Quiccheberg proposes a model for the ideal Wunderkammer as an ordered and comprehensive collection of naturalia and artificialia. A Wunderkammer was an encyclopedic collection in Renaissance Europe of types of objects whose categorical boundaries were yet to be defined. Modern terminology would categorise the objects included as belonging to natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art and antiquities. Renaissance Wunderkammer were private spaces, created and formed around a deeply held belief that all things were linked to one another through either visible or invisible similarities, and the belief that by detecting those visible and invisible signs and by recognising the similarities between objects, there would come an understanding of how the world functioned, and what was humanity’s place in it. But although everything can be connected – mystically – that is not to say everything is connected. The Wunderkammer became a machine for both the birth of reason and the death of magic. The dilemma of the Wunderkammer could ( and should ) be celebrated like the failure of Babel – for its polyphony of wondrous and beautiful mistranslations, misreadings and misunderstandings, and its grasp of the power of objects and beauty of ruins.

index: the geometry of Beuys, the mandragora, names for the Devil, the lost languages in which no books were written, Giordano Bruno On the Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas, the alchemical tree, the transcripts of Babel, Basilius Valentinus Ein kurtz summarischer Tractat, von dem grossen Stein der Uralten, Polpo, the Constructivist dart, the nautical charts from the Ship of Fools, Quaratesi saviour St. Nicolas, the devil’s footage of the temptation of St. Anthony, the Russian experiment, the damaged dragon of Bellini, the hieroglyphs which meant nothing, the glass domes ( through their transparency and shine, have the rare virtue of simultaneously animating and distancing the objects they cover), Mike Kelley’s Kandors, the inhabitants of Quixote’s windmills, MDF, Jorge Luis Borges Ramón Llull’s Thinking Machine, the experiments of Luigi Galvani, De Lama Lamina of Matthew Barney, wunderkammer as magic, wunderkammer as the death of magic.

detail 2a

detail 1a

A Yellow Rose J. L. Borges

Neither that afternoon nor the next did the illustrious Giambattista Marino die, he whom the unanimous mouths of Fame — to use an image dear to him — proclaimed as the new Homer and the new Dante. But still, the noiseless fact that took place then was in reality the last event of his life. Laden with years and with glory, he lay dying in a huge Spanish bed with carved bedposts. It is not hard to imagine a serene balcony a few steps away, facing the west, and, below, marble and laurels and a garden whose various levels are duplicated in a rectangle of water. A woman has placed in a goblet a yellow rose. The man murmurs the inevitable lines that now, to tell the truth, bore even him a little:
Purple of the garden, pomp of the meadow,
Gem of the spring, April’s eye . . .
Then the revelation occured: Marino saw the rose as Adam might have seen it in Paradise, and he thought that the rose was to be found in its own eternity and not in his words; and that we may mention or allude to a thing, but not express it; and that the tall, proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not — as his vanity had dreamed — a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.
Marino achieved this illumination on the eve of his death, and Homer and Dante may have achieved it as well.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Quays and Calvino

Untitled 3a

The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1986).

The Brothers Quay are known for their animated films but in the 1980s they were also working as book illustrators and stage designers. Here are some of their paperback designs for Italo Calvino, part of a series they produced for Picador when the books were reprinted after his death.

Information about this aspect of the Quays’ work is virtually non-existent.  A pity that the publisher managed to credit the designs to the “Brothers Quai”.

Untitled 4a

Our Ancestors (1986)


Difficult Loves (1985).

The Calvino covers by the Quays at MOMA 2012.


Turris Babel


Turris Babel: Athanasius Kircher

The last of his books to be published during his lifetime, Turris Babel was Kircher’s attempt to reconstruct the specifics surrounding the famous biblical story, recounted in Genesis 10-11, of Nimrod’s attempt to build a tower that reached the heavens. Apart from his interest in ancient civilizations and biblical historicism, the story was of particular interest to Kircher as an account of the origin of languages, and, by Kircher’s extension, of polytheism. The second half of Turris is devoted to Kircher’s theories on linguistics. The first section, similar to his Arca Noë of four years earlier, contains an imaginative speculative expansion of the Tower of Babel story in light of Kircher’s knowledge of history, geography, and physics.



Towers: Ian Howard 1983, 183×183 cm. Drawing,

University of Warwick Art Collection,UK


Landscape with Towers: Ian Howard 1981 , 80x100cm.  Drawing.

Mathew Barney at the Morgan Library

Subliming Vessel: Matthew Barney at the Morgan Library : Deborah Barlow


Matthew Barney (Photo: Private collection, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)

The Cremaster by Matthew Barney, a five part film cycle, was shown repeatedly during a retrospective of Barney’s work at the Guggenheim Museum in 2003. I drove down from Boston three times to see it and dragged my friends, family and children with me. It was all encompassing, brilliantly provocative, enigmatic and so engaging.

In the words of curator Nancy Spector, Cremaster is a “self-enclosed aesthetic system.” It is chock full of thematic proclivities and Barneyesque tropes that get recycled in so many unexpected ways. Barney is a 21st century William Blake in his ability to construct a highly evolved cosmology that is conceptually big and fearlessly presented. That Guggenheim show was one of the most polarizing art events I remember in recent history, and everybody chose sides. Was he the most brilliant artist of his generation (my view) or is he, as my son contends, a talent who became grandiose and corrupted by money and fame?

No matter where you come out on Barney, it is hard to find another artist who moves so easily from the epic-scaled Cremaster to a small, intricately intimate body of drawings and artifacts. For me he stands strong at both ends of that spectrum. I find his work beguiling, no matter the size.

As art critic Holland Cotter pointed out in his review of the show, “The Morgan Library, with its Gospels, missals and reliquaries, is just the right place for ‘Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney,’ the first survey of graphic work by the most medievalizing of American contemporary artists.”

Medievalizing is a perfect word to capture Barney’s attraction to the arcane and the esoteric, to enigmatic symbols and symbologies, to the mystic belief systems of ancient Egypt and early Mormonism. In Cotter’s dismissive review (he is clearly not in my fan camp) he does capture this eccentric proclivity in the way Barney goes about his art making: “What he had going for him was an expansively hermetic sensibility. His actions and stories were deeply abstruse, but epic, apocalyptic. And this sense of the idiosyncratic promoted to the realm of myth is the strength of this drawings show.”

Subliming Vessel (what an evocative title with its suggestion of solidity moving into vapor) is appropriately positioned right next door to an exhibit about the Eucharist as portrayed in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. SV consists of over 100 drawings as well as “storyboards”—staged assemblages of items that revisit the narratives Barney has explored (or is still developing, such as his current project, The River of Fundament.) Each of these vitrines is a staged set of the myriad influences that brought Barney’s alternative realities into form. These curio cabinets are laid out meticulously and include open books that Barney picked for inclusion from the Morgan Library’s extensive collection of ancient texts.

I was so enthralled by the work that I spent most of my afternoon in the exhibit. For those artists and writers who cultivate the inexplicable, irritation can set in when their constructs feel forced or exploitative. While Barney’s work is definitely hermetic and highly personal in its iconography, the threads of meaning are there to unravel and explore.

Others feel differently about Barney’s accessibility, like Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic:

The drawings revolve around their own narrative logic, exhibiting a hermeticism that precludes the potential for communal experience or shared emotion…Barney assembles networks of personally significant arcana (a practice manifested in the scrapbook-style collections of clippings, sketches, art objects and other items housed in the massive vitrines) that remain inanimate and unintelligible beneath his shimmering surfaces. The artworks are beautifully realized, but the viewer remains on the outside looking in.

Not my way of seeing it, but I understand that point of view.

(Photo: Courtesy of Morgan Library)



(DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS “The Rose Gives The Bees Honey” after the original motto found in the engraving (possibly) by Johann Thedore deBry (d. 1598).

This image of the Rosa Mundi, or Rota Mundi, is the solar wheel of Apollo, the Lord of movement, of the ever passing/present moment. It is the Solar Citadel, the abode of the Heart, the symbolic center of the Supreme Center which is everywhere centered at once. It is a door through which this invisible place may be accessed by one with a pure heart and an unblemished soul. If one gains access to the center of the rose, it speaks the “lost word” of Masonic lore, the Master Word which throws open the lodge doors of every sacred society.
In DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS the Solar Rose represents the labyrinth, the path and pilgrimage of a particular lifetime. The journey into the center can be thorny, but the destination is sweet, like honey to the bee. The pitfalls of the journey are symbolized by the transformative spider and her webs. In the engraving upon which this painting was based, the spider is absent: Love has conquered Death. The term arachnid comes from Arachne, the Greek maiden who was transformed into a spider after losing a weaving contest to the goddess Athena. The spider’s spiral webs show us the dangers on the road to Love, trick snares set to bind and trap, and ultimately victimize the inattentive wayfarer. On the surface, one may reasonably confuse the labyrinth of the rose for that of the web. This requires an inward looking, intuitive approach like that of the bee seeking to pollinate the receptive flower. If the bee successfully reaps the rewards of this lovemaking, the honey will enrich and nourish the entire community of the hive. However, as the symbolism found in DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS shows, while this path may work for bees…

A devout man in deep contemplation, with his head reclined on the bosom of meditation, was immersed in the ocean of vision. When he recovered from that state, one of his companions, by way of pleasantry, said, “What miraculous present have you brought us from this garden which you have been visiting?” He answered, “It was my intention, that, when I reached the rose-bush, I would fill my lap with flowers, for presents for my friends, but when I came to the spot, the odor so overpowered my senses, that my skirt dropped out of my hands.” -Saadi (The Gulistan or Rose Garden trans. by Francis Gladwin for Willard Small, Boston, 1884.)

The following description of the original engraving upon which the DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS painting is based is given in Joscelyn Godwin’s definitive work on Robert Fludd.

The Rose and the Cross: “The Rose gives the bees honey” (DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS). tThis explicitly Rosicrucian symbol was first used at the head of Joachim Frizius’s Summum Bonum, then adopted for (Robert) Fludd’s Clavis. A rose with seven petals each alludes, in all probability, to secret doctrines of septenary emanation such as were later to be publicized in the theosophical works of H.P. Blavatsky. The Rose surmounts the thorny cross, the whole resembling the sign of Venus in which the solar circle triumphs over the cross of matter. We may interpret the motto as saying that “spiritual knowledge gives solace to souls,” of whom bees are a venerable symbol. The spider’s webs (also with sevenfold divisions) strung on a grape arbor in the background, and the wingless insect on the rose (a spider?) may represent negative, lunar forces, as oppossed to the positive, solar one of the bees, both of which are reconciled by the philosophic rose.
-Joscelyn Godwin, in Robert Fludd – Hermetic Philosopher of Two Worlds. Shambala, Boulder, 1979: 10 [w/illustration.]
It is curious that Dr. Godwin fails to see the wings on the bee that has arrived at his destination, the rose! This winged bee is clearly represented in every reproduction of the rose engraving that your author/painter has seen…All of the other speculative symbolic observations hold, especially the observation that the image is one of the alchemical symbols of Venus, the goddess of Love.
The seven circles of seven petals each symbolize the number of squares (7 squared = 49) of the magic circle of Venus, of the “intelligence” (as opposed to the Spirits) of the goddess. Seven in the Hebrew alphabet/number system represents Dagh, the Fish, symbol of Christ. Seven is also the number of the Babylonian God of good Fortune. Seven is of course the number of the Liberal Arts and also of the Deadly Sins.
Without doubt, this rose engraving has over time become the consummate emblem of the order of the Rosy Cross, or the Rosicrucians, an essentially “invisible”order. Many individuals and groups have made claims to be the “true” rosicrucians, however, since the original manifestos appeared in the early 16th century the jury has been out concerning who they might actually be. These documents were designed to give the appearance of a Christian utopian group based on the model of the organization of Freemasonry working clandestinely within society to effect world-wide change. These changes were meant for the overall good of humankind, while at the same time being anarchistic in their view of a one world economy and government.
Probably the work of one man, most likely Lutheran minister Johannes Valentine Andrae, the documents have had the effect of change upon the imagination, and metanoia upon the hearts of those receptive readers in every succeeding age. Whether this has also caused an effect upon world governments is open to speculation, however, the Rosicrucian utopian vision has not (yet ?) taken concrete hold upon mankind.
“The Rosicrucian Order is a state of mind. One becomes a Rosicrucian: one does not join the Rosicrucians…” -Paul Foster Case
Through the symbology of the DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS, the intersection of the spiritual and the physical worlds, access to the utopian state of mind afforded by the Rosy Cross manifestoes is gained.

On the other hand, since the Rose-Cross has been mentioned in connection with the seal of Luther (See Regnabit, Dec. 1925), we say that this hermetic emblem was at first specifically Christian, whatever false and more or less “naturalistic” interpretations have been given it, from the eighteenth century onwards; and is it not remarkable that in this figure, the rose occupies the centre of the cross, the very place of the Sacred Heart? Apart from those representations where the five wounds of the Crucified are represented as so many roses, the central rose, when it stands alone, can very well be identified with the Heart itself, the vase which contains the blood, which is the centre of life and also the centre of the entire being. -Rene Guenon (Fundamental Symbols, p 22.)

The red rose is the consummate Christian symbol of martyrdom. St. Ambrose, one of the four great Doctors of the Catholic church, tells us that before it became a flower of the earth, the rose grew in heaven without thorns. Following the Fall of Adam, which brought everything spiritual into the material realm, the rose took on thorns to remind humankind of its sins, while its beauty and fragrance remained to remind one of the Paradise lost. Thus, the Virgin Mary is known as the “rose without thorns” as she was exempt from original sin. Roses in connection with Christian saints generally represent their (re)ascent into heaven.
The bee represents hard work, diligence, harmony, and order. The honey, the essence of the activity of the hive, is a symbol of Christ and the virginity of Mary. The honey has also become in Christian symbolism a sign of religious eloquence, assigned to saints like St. Ambrose and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. St. Ambrose compared the beehive to the church as a symbol of the pious and unified community, and the Christian to the ardently working bee, who never sleeps, always vigilant and constantly acquiring virtue, adding “honey” to the whole community. On this point, the mystical philosopher Maurice Maeterlinck referred to the “spirit of the hive,” echoed by Rudolf Steiner, anthroposophical “Rosicrucian” who said that “ is the entire beehive that is wise.” Indeed, Steiner felt that the bee and its community in which sexual love has been transmuted into love in the heart have evolved beyond that of the human one,

Since this love life is held back in all the bees except a single queen, the sexual life of the beehive is transformed into all of this activity that the bees develop among themselves…This is a very wise form of life. -Rudolf Steiner, Bees, (Hudson: Anthroposophic Press, 1998).

The Spider represents the miserly Devil, who sets traps and bleeds the victim of human frailty, symbolized by the cobweb.
The cross, and especially the center, at the crossing point, the bindu; is the intersection where the spiritual meets the material plain, as in the Rose of Sharon. Sharon and of Sharon or Lassharon in Hebrew defined as “plain,” “honest,” “tranquil,” and “harmonious.” Where spirit enters the center the rose appears.
The rose in DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS is not, as has been described above, restricted to Christian symbolism. Christianity after all is a religion that developed by virtue of its syncretistic assimilation of several older traditions. This symbolism transcends the particular to become universal in its application and essence. It is true, however, in keeping with the Christian description, that if the viewer of this image accesses the spirit if the rose, the thorns will no doubt disappear.

Painting Research Bibliography

Allen, Paul M. A Christian Rosenkreutz Anthology. Rudolf Steiner Publications, Blauvet, 1968. (Note: this edition contains the original English translation of The Chymical Wedding by Ezechiel Foxcroft (1690); Robert Fludd’s The Rosicrucian Brotherhood (1629); The Fama and the Confessio translated by Thomas Vaughn (1652) and many other original Rosicrucian documents and commentaries.)
Case, Paul Foster. The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order. Wieser, York Beach, 1985.
Codex Rosae Crucis D.O.M.A. A Rare and Curious Manuscript of Rosicrucian Interest. The Philosophical Research Society, Inc., Los Angeles, 1938.
Eberly, John. The “Arabic” Parts of the Original Rosicrucian Documents. Caduceus – The Hermetic Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2, Seattle, Summer, 1996, pp. 16-32.
Eberly, John. Rosicrucian Essays. Anamnesis Press, 1996.
Jennings, Hargrave. The Rosicrucians: Their Rites and Mysteries. Chatto, London, 1879.
Langstroth, L.L. and Dadant, Charles. Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee. Chas. Dadant & Son, Hamilton, 1904.
Maeterlinck, Maurice. The Life of the Bee. Dodd, Mead, and Company, Cornwall, 1901.
McIntosh, Christopher. The Rosicrucians-The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order. Weiser, York Beach, 1997.
Randolph, Paschal Beverley. Ravalette – The Rosicrucian’s Story. Philosophical Publishing Company, Quakertown, 1939.
Waite, A. E. The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. Rider, London, 1924.
White, Ralph (ed.) The Rosicrucian Enlightenment Revisited. Lindisfarne, Hudson, 1999.
Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1972.

Mike Kelley’s Kandors

The exhibition of works at the Jablonka Galerie features sculptures, lenticular lightboxes, and videos related to the fictional city of Kandor, the capitol of Superman’s home planet Krypton. According to the Superman mythos, Kandor is the only remaining vestige of the exploded Krypton, and the city is preserved, in a reduced state, in a bottle in Superman’s possession. Interestingly, the image of Kandor was never codified and the numerous representations of it in the comic book throughout the years vary widely in appearance. In this exhibition Kelley reconstructs ten unique versions of Kandor, with its enclosing bottle, which, despite obvious differences, purport to depict the same city. Thus, Kandor – as an eternally maintained, but constantly reconfigured, relic of Superman’s childhood – is an apt symbol of Kelley’s interests in the vagaries of memory, and relates to his own works that refer to Repressed Memory Syndrome, such as Educational Complex (1995), an architectural model made up of replicas of every educational institution that the artist ever attended, with the sections he cannot remember left blank. Such issues were foregrounded in an earlier work by Kelley that also focused on the theme of Kandor: Kandor-Con 2000, which was presented at the exhibition Zeitwenden at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2000.

In the exhibition, Kandors, Kelley shifts attention away from such themes to focus on the formal diversity of the various versions of Kandor. Ten images of the bottled city were selected from the hundreds of examples found in Superman comic books, and these have been recreated as sculptures scaled up to human dimensions. The original found images of Kandor were graphically altered to accentuate color and form then rendered as lenticular lightboxes, which gives the images the illusion of dimension and movement. The actual recreations of the Kandors’ enclosing glass bottles, some over forty inches in height (making them, probably, the largest glass vessels ever produced in this manner) were hand blown at the Kavalier Glass factory in Sazava in the Czech Republic.


The Kandors project is an exercise in the translation of graphic two-dimensional images into three dimensional sculptures. The flat areas of background color in the comic book panels have been rendered as illuminated Plexiglas walls. The various versions of Kandor are represented by under-lit resin sculptures in a variety of colors. The various bases and plinths that the Kandors sit upon have been constructed as actual furniture. But, in many cases, the bottles, bases, and cities have been separated and spaced apart, complicating their formal relationships. Kelley has described this process as an attempt to make an artwork as flat, colorful, and visually simple as a painting by Matisse which operates in three dimensions, yet still maintains an overall sense of graphic flatness. All of the works feature light or motion, and the exhibition is self-illuminated.


In addition to the lenticular lightboxes and sculptures there are three types of videos included in the exhibition. Large-scale videos, projected directly on the gallery walls, focus on the glass bottles, the interiors of which have been activated with swirling patterns of light or atmospheric effects. The second group features time-lapse videos of crystals growing in common household glassware such as simple jars and bowls, accompanied by soundtracks of “new age” music composed by the artist, and presented on small monitors so that they are close to actual scale and imbued with a sense of intimacy. The third group of videos consists of a selection of graphic depictions of Kandor that have been animated in the manner of popular cartoons. Each bottle emotes, performing a single emotional sound or bodily movement: screaming, breathing, cooing, giggling. These are presented on flat screen monitors that hang directly on the wall like paintings.




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