SECRET MUSEUM OF MANKIND by Tex Kerschen
"There is nothing new in art except talent."
In the center of the room a pulled-cotton cloud hangs over a pyramid made of white gallery pedestals. In the center of this pyramid sit two things: a smoke machine and a black light. After much buzzing and huffing the smoke machine eventually produces enough fog to diffuse the glow of the black light.
There is a lot to be said about the peculiar goings on in this Secret Museum of Mankind.
Within this exhibition, ideas and objects bang against one another in the unnamed limbo that looms between the eye and the mind, the hand and the spirit. Things that are complete meet those which will remain forever undone. Seen from the middle of the center gallery, the overall impression is that of a multi-sensory occult zoetrope of personal narrative, found objects, psychedelic light and sound, metaphysical symbols, and New Age aromatics. Behind it all lies free collaboration and anarchy, pleasurably jarring.
The opening night of the exhibition saw an improvised ritualistic performance during which the artists, their friends, and complete strangers alike attempted to attain a trancelike state through several hours of continual drumming. During this time, Lizzy Wetzel, aka Glossolalia, haunted the room like a witchy Stevie Nicks, obsessively stirring a clutch of animal bones in a bowl of white paint while dressed in a costume she created based on an Owleyes' collage titled "the White Goddess." Robert Graves wrote the book of the same name, a compendium of esoteric erudition in which he presents the White Goddess as the primal creatrix, a sublime force and the source of all poetry and art. Owleyes considers his digital collages, shown previously only on the internet, as beacons whose function is to summon like-minded persons to him. What’s more, they work, as is evidenced by his presence here and in other exhibitions nationwide.
Magic is the language of desire and magic is a substitute, however unreliable, for other kinds of thought. Is the world in a state of constant change or has everything been fixed within an intricately designed series of eternal orbits? A multitude of pyramids both step and triangular appear throughout the exhibition acting as symbols and signposts. There are pyramid shaped entrances, pyramid soft sculptures, a large painted pyramid, a painted Native American tipi as well as the soft light and sound pyramid described above. The very repetition of this visual form recalls the kind of circular mental experience that attends a ritual action, whether it be attending a church or brushing one's teeth or having a rote conversation with a co-worker or loved one.
Contradictions and non sequiturs abound. Donna Huanca is a born contrarian. She's already tangled with both the FBI and the Secret Service. It should come as no surprise that given the opportunity to put on a one-woman show in a venue directly in tune with her own convictions regarding the empowerment of women she instead enlists a cabal of artists including Lizzy Wetzel, Owleyes, and Jon Read, many of them men, to share the spotlight with her.
This contrarian spirit impels this show. On one hand, it is no great leap to note that the geometric portals that lead into the main space, the painted black circle that appears like a portal in time, the piles of unprocessed materials—spices, weeds, dirt, as well as the strings dividing space all allude to various high water marks of the progressive and subversive tradition in recent art history: Dada, Minimalist and Post-Minimalist art, Arte Povera, Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse, Fluxus, as well as artists such as Jesse Lott, Martin Zet, Thomas Hirschhorn, Forcefield, and Caroliner Rainbow. Any human activity is done with an echo chamber. In the Secret Museum, you catch the voices of artists who strove to break free from the conventions set upon by an art world that is in its worst aspects often imperialist, a craven apologist for capitalism, sexist, racist, classist, and self-contained by a peculiar type of myopia which would rather declare itself a universe even if it means shutting out the world. Even the history of art as taught in schools, with its emphasis on modernity (i.e. the Renaissance and afterward) and the biographies of individual artists compressed to resemble the Lives of the Saints is itself incomplete and unsatisfying, for the tradition of making art dates back to prehistoric custom. Before museums and galleries, before churches or even the glyphic records in Egypt and Sumeria, there were images in the caves, on the hides of animals, and in the dwellings and structures whose functions are lost to us.
The Secret Museum of Mankind is split in two main material and philosophical sections, more or less, a self-proclaimed "Graveyard of Old Art" and THE REST, what appears to be an ad hoc theater for anarchic action and improvised rituals. Materially speaking, almost everything here comes from that class of things that are cheaply and easily acquired-- debris from the streets, dollar store gems, and the miscellaneous objects that were ready to hand in the back storage rooms of the gallery itself. Namely, laser eggs (pen lights lodged inside eggshells,) tree branches, mittens, hanging ferns and other potted plants, candles, cinder blocks, black lights, cotton clouds, neon colored strings, small animal skulls and bones, and drums.
One may take comfort in the many soft surfaces. The floors are bestrewn with dirt, mounds of spice, and clutches of pigment powdered weeds. Felt paintings, rag puppets, shamanic costumes, cotton clouds, and hazy lighting lessen the sharp psychological effects of the gallery space's hard geometric lines and bright white lights. Light is an important part of the exhibition. The specter of Manichean thought takes solace here. Light, you should remember, stands in for the soul. Darkness for darkness. The universe of solids, a mixture of the two. Sculptural installations provide the majority of the illumination. What's more, there are different sources of light here, candles and black lights and fluorescent tubes and pen lights ablaze with wan eminence, each imbuing different hues and luminosities to the room and its contents.
Arguably, most of the work in this exhibition is trying to upend any sense of containment, whether specifically in the gallery as gallery or more generally the idea of art as a career requiring a good amount of consistency and quality control. Huanca's own statement regarding this show is literally: "No Mistakes Were Made."
The Graveyard of Old Art consists of installations of Donna Huanca's paintings and sculptural works depicting aspects of her life and identity. There are portraits of her mother and father in addition to a host of totems, personal fetishes, and symbols drawn from her Incan heritage and time spent in the underworld of punk rock and experimental music. They are presented catch-as-catch-can, jammed together on the outlying walls of the room.
Just beyond the first pyramid-shaped portal that leads inside the show, a shaky video projection of a plane's aerial path traveling north from Bolivia represents her mother's own emigration to the United States and the distance, physical and psychic, she had to travel to arrive in a place that at first hostile to immigrants. Two fabric murals facing one another recreate on a large scale, photographs taken of her father and the combat unit he served with in the jungle as a young soldier in the Bolivian army. These murals are labor-intensive, wall-sized, the hard masculinity of their subjects belied by tropical color and tactile softness. They present this group of working-class soldiers with the scale of Rembrandt’s Night Watch and the nobility and dignity we associate with the burghers and aristocrats in famous works of art.
Across the gallery stands a motley group of puppets, gathered Sgt Pepper's style, including iconic representations of many of Huanca's idols-- Leon Theremin, Dot Wiggins, and her deceased dog before an Incan pyramid painted on the wall behind them. This installation suggests the path to an afterlife for these fallen heroes in her personal pantheon. It is also an homage to the universe of color and activity suggested by the artwork of her friend and sometime collaborator Jon Read, whose paintings, drawings, and woodcut sculptural figures are preoccupied with depicting a post-Apocalyptic narrative on the scale of Henry Darger’s collected life work. Presented together these works represent a self-portrait, concluded for the time being, and an official farewell to the past.
The rest of the works in the show are more oblique, conjoined in spirit rather than direct narrative. Everywhere is the aftermath of insensate communal activity. A visiting class of teachers was conscripted to create the hieroglyphics that adorn the title wall. Donna Huanca, Lizzy Wetzel, and Owleyes crowned a small pedestal with an assemblage of dirt and moss and plants. It is pretty and, like many of the byproducts of their collective effort, inscrutable, as forms and colors and scents and sounds collide in anti-didactic combinations. Here and there one can almost match a name to the work. In addition to her voluminous and extravagantly detailed White Goddess shroud, Lizzy Wetzel wove neon string sculptures across the walls. Owleyes created the illuminated grove that occupies the far center wall of the room as well as leading the conclusion of the drumming ritual to a crescendo of two-by-four blows on sheet rock during the opening rites. Jon Read brought in a small armory of hand-made Mayan-colored wooden rifles to arm the puppets in the afterlife in much the same way that many of the Zapatista soldiers bore wooden simulacra of firearms during their 1994 uprising. He also painted hybrid monster graffiti on the walls and worked on some of the other objects here.
To be sure, there are loose ends, but as Hamlet puts it: "There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of your philosophy." In the end, all things may come to light. Men and women early in the dawn of civilization, sitting in the trees and setting up the dog cult. Men and women deep in the future, sitting in trees and reminiscing about the dog cult. There is a lot to be said that remains unsaid about the peculiar goings on in this Secret Museum of Mankind.