by Christopher Laursen
Pam Grossman, New York-based associate editor for Abraxas and curator of the website Phantasmaphile journeys through five esoteric art pieces that defy assumptions made about occultism.
interview | imaginative works
Exteriorizing the Inner Realms: Occult revelations in the art of Abraxas
May 13, 2014
Abraxas, The International Journal of Esoteric Studies, is a high-quality, limited print run publication that recently released its fifth issue, edited by Christina Oakley Harrington and Robert Ansell.  The journal and its Facebook and Pinterest pages feature an array of striking art and essays that speak to inner realms of esotericism intersecting with outwardly visual expression, ranging from artists of long ago as well as those living today.  In the description of the journal, Abraxas is noted as providing “sensory sorcery,” which indeed it does.  I spoke with Abraxas’s New York-based associate editor Pam Grossman about her connection to esoteric art through the journal as well as her independent curation work, her website Phantasmaphile, and the arts and lecture space she co-founded in Brooklyn, Observatory. Christopher: Pam, thank you for taking some time with Extraordinarium  to discuss some artwork, Abraxas and your own ventures.  Before we dive into some of the visuals, I’m curious as to how you became interested in magic and esotericism, and how that led to the variety of projects you are working on. Pam: It’s my pleasure, Christopher.  And thank you, in turn, for your enthusiasm. Regarding my own “origin story” so to speak, the simplest answer is that I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in magic.  Like most children, I was attracted to fairy tales and mythology, and luckily grew up in a home where those things were very much embraced.  I was also a child of the 80s, a time when Saturday morning cartoon culture was fecund with with magical tropes (e.g. She-Ra, Star Fairies, My Little Pony, Rose Petal Place, Strawberry Shortcake), so I’m sure that played no small part in my predilections as well.  I was also a voracious reader, and as I got a bit older, found myself devouring everything by writers like Monica Furlong, Michael Ende, Roald Dahl, George MacDonald – authors who wrote about magic with a sense of reverence, but also with a twinkle in their eye. We also had a small patch of woods behind our house, and that became sacred ground to me: a place where I engaged in deep play, did rituals, and dug in the dirt.  This was all very intuitive, mind you, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized it was an essentially Pagan relationship between myself and nature that I was involved in. My parents are both artists – my mother a painter, and my father a musician – and so it was a very creative household, where making things and using one’s imagination was highly encouraged.  We often went to museums as a family, and these became my temples.  They were places that somehow felt holy to me, even more so than the synagogue we sometimes attended.  To me, art was a conduit for transcendent experiences.  I loved that the works themselves could literally make me feel differently, and I also loved that there were spaces that were built for the sole purpose of contemplation of these works.  I fell head over heels for the Surrealists – in particular Remedios Varo  and René Magritte – and through them the idea of art as a vehicle for exploring the imaginal, occult realm became revealed to me. Anyhow, I often say that while some people grow out of magic, I, for whatever reason, grew “into” it.  From starting to do spells as teen to getting into Jung and Campbell as a young adult, to studying the anthropology of magic and visual culture at NYU, my interests evolved and deepened. Once I graduated college, and I got my first job (at Getty Images, where I still work now, albeit in a much different capacity than when I started), I was hungry for more information about that space where imagery and consciousness rub up against each other.  Blogs were just starting to gain traction, and I found that there were some that specialized in art, and some that specialized in magic, but none that explored their overlap.  So I decided to start my own in 2005, and that’s how Phantasmaphile  was born.  I saw it simply as a place of celebration: my little corner of the web where I could showcase the type of work that made my pulse quicken. I was delighted to discover that the blog got a bit of a following, and that there were others who shared my own weird wonderings.  My first ever art show in 2009, “Fata Morgana: The New Female Fantasists” sprung out of relationships I made through the blog. That same year, I was also invited to the founding group of members who started Observatory, a small art and cultural center in Gowanus, Brooklyn.  We hosted art shows, lectures, and classes all on offbeat or undersung topics: death, science fiction, alternative history, and, in my case, the occult, mysticism, and art.  I curated several esoterica-themed art shows there, and brought in speakers and teachers I long admired.  These included Jesse Bransford, Mitch Horowitz, Erik Davis, Christina Oakley Harrington, Robert Ansell some of the greatest artists and esoteric thinkers of our time, many of whom have since become dear friends and frequent collaborators.  My involvement with Abraxas came out of this – through Christina and Robert, who seemed to feel a kinship with me and with the community of occultic enthusiasts and practitioners who gravitated to Observatory.  And my repeat partnerships and friendship with Jesse eventually led us to start the bi-annual Occult Humanities Conference at NYU, where he oversees the undergraduate fine art department.  Our inaugural conference was in October of last year, and we’re already excitedly planning the next one in 2015.  In the meantime, I’m doing lots of writing, teaching, and presenting at various places about esoteric art and ritual, and am always on the lookout for new spaces to curate exhibitions and presentations. Christopher: I was immediately struck by geometric form and color of this artpiece.  Both are common features in much esoteric art, and I’m wondering if you could provide Extraordinarium’s readers with a brief primer on why geometry and vibrant color are so common, using the Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint who created this piece in 1915 as a launching point. Pam: Well, first I think it’s important to understand how impactful the spiritual movement of Theosophy was upon art at the turn of the nineteenth century and throughout the first half of the twentieth.  HP Blavatsky was its founder, and she believed that if you peeled back “the veil” of the material world, including the superficial differences between all religions, one would find that there was an ultimate, unified spiritual truth behind it all.  This idea sparked the entire Abstract art movement.  Kandinsky in particular was hugely influenced by Blavatsky’s ideas, and says as much in his slender yet highly concentrated treatise, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.”  He, and artists like Malevich, Mondrian, Kupka (and later the AbEx gang including Pollack, Rothko, Newman) were attempting to not only depict this immaterial realm, but also believed that art could help the viewer more immediately interface with it.  That art could bring about a transcendent experience in other words. In addition to Blavatsky, the Theosophical movement brought about other spiritual thinkers including Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner – the latter of whom broke away from Theosophy to start his own spiritual school of thought, Anthroposophy.  We know that Hilma af Klint was influenced by many of the names mentioned above. But it’s important to note that she was a medium for most of her life, and that she came to her geometric art style very intuitively: building up her own visual language that she believed was communicated to her directly via spirit guides through the duration of her life.  She engaged in séances at a young age, and as a medium, channeled these visual messages into her work. I think the clearest lens through which to view Hilma af Klint’s work – as well as the other abstractionists working in parallel to her – is that it is the attempt of an artist to render the invisible visible.  Geometrics, color, line, pattern, and so on are the fundamental tools we as humans have to express our ancient, right-brained selves.  And in the case of spiritual artists, these elements are crucial for them to rely upon, because the work must be inherently non-figurative.  It’s a paradox, really: abstract art was attempting to show a world that can rarely, if ever, be seen with the human eye.  It tries to leave the viewer with sensation, with spiritual information, with an experience of having touched a subtler – or more immanent – plane.  It is beyond concrete forms, and it is certainly beyond words. This piece in particular is part of a series of Altar Paintings that Hilma af Klint produced, including one that is an inverse of this piece.  The one I selected here is quite masculine.  The triangle points upwards toward the sun itself, while also being its prismatic emanation.  It feels Apollonian.  Its counterpart painting points downward, and is black with curly-cued linework: much more chthonic, internal, underworldly. Christopher: Again here we see geometric form in a contemporary installation and painting piece, that was thereafter destroyed.  What does Bransford’s work evoke for you? Pam: To me, Jesse Bransford’s work is actually not very abstract at all.  While he certainly utilizes shape and color, in his case it’s a very deliberate, meticulously calculated system that he’s created and pulling from.  That’s not to say there isn’t a high level of intuition and emotion that goes into the making of the work as well.  But things like the time of day, planetary positions, the orientation of the pieces, and so on, are incorporated, and are crucial to each piece’s efficacy.  He is creating spells, essentially. His work is unapologetically action-oriented and results-oriented.  While I think what he shares with the Abstractionists is the overall urge to work with immaterial realm, to honor the divine, and to lead the the viewer toward a magical experience, to me Bransford takes it a step further by infusing his work with specificity and solid intention.  The work he did for each planet as part of his epic 7 Planets series took into account the colors, numbers, deities, and energies associated with each celestial body in question.  And if you are open to it (and sometimes even if you are not!) spending time with these can conjure into existence a corresponding feeling or outcome related to the planet in question. Bransford’s most recent work really synthesizes what he’s learned via his preceding planetary magnum opus.  He’s been creating these intricate mixed-media installations that are meant to manifest something – usually healing of some sort.  And when the spell is done, he ritualistically dismantles them and washes them away.  He puts an incredible amount of effort into constructing this impressive, totally sacralized space, knowing the whole time it won’t last.  There are obvious connections to Tibetan sand mandalas to be sure.  But I think there’s meaning happening in his work which is even richer for me, in that it’s not only about connecting to the infinite, but also about creating something to help someone here on the material plane.  It’s this precise, magnificent work that exists primarily for the benefit of others, and then it disappears forever once the spell is complete.  There’s a generosity to that which I find intensely moving. This piece in particular was a spell created in October of 2013 in the front room at Feature, Inc. Gallery to help Bransford’s artist friend, David Shaw, heal from some water-related trauma in his life.  Shaw’s own show of glassworks was in the gallery’s main room at the same time, and his pieces were also very aquatic, shaped like water droplets and translucent splashes.  Bransford’s installation consisted of magic circles, or what I’ve come to think of as magick gears, oriented in perfect alignment per his own esoteric symbol system.  There was also a bowl of salt water, which evaporated during the exhibition, leaving behind salt crystals for Shaw to keep (or dispose of) in a ritualized context.  Important to note also that it’s Shaw’s handprint that’s in the center of Bransford’s installation, activating it so to speak. The way in which “Aqua/Sal” included not only another artist’s life story, but his actual physical imprint, struck me as the ultimate in egolessness on Bransford’s part.  The two shows in dialog became one grander spiritual machine of a sort.  And the fact that Bransford’s piece only existed in that moment of time, that it was ephemeral, is a profound statement about gifting vs. selling that left a big impression on me. Christopher: Do you find that esoteric art disrupts public notions of what the occult is?  Is there something about the visuals that perhaps make it more accessible?  And related to this, I’m curious as to what some of the initial reactions are that you’ve received when introducing people to the occult and art. Pam: Undoubtedly.  I think the average person still associates the occult with diabolatry, which is a shame.  The word itself simply means “hidden,” and it relates to things that are interior, subtle, or immaterial.  But when people see actual occult or esoteric artwork, as opposed to art that simply apes tired old clichés, they are often struck by its grace and deep wisdom.  Esoteric art strives to illuminate, and more often than not to get at some ultimate, higher truth.  Its main purpose is to connect us to something greater than ourselves. More often than not, people are surprised to know that names that are in the canon of art history are actually esoteric artists.  And understanding those artists’ intent becomes a real key to unlock work that many folks are initially confounded by.  When people are told that they should “feel” or “be with” a Jackson Pollack instead of analyzing or deconstructing it, something shifts, and this wash of relief comes across their faces.  One of my favorite things to do is bring people to stand in front of Barnett Newman’s enormous red canvas “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” at MoMA.  To get them to stand up close to it, so that it fills their entire field of vision, as Newman intended.  And just allow themselves to become one with it, rather than viewing it as an separate object.  To freefall for a moment within a liminal zone, and sense the painting’s current.  I think people are often surprised – and thrilled – by the fact that occult artwork is more often than not to be felt, experienced, visited, communed with.  You don’t have to “understand” it.  You can engage with it the way you do any other sacred object or place.  You exit the space of logic, and enter the space of intuition, sensuality, and heightened sensitivity.  You link with it, rather than looking at it. Christopher: This painting here is deeply fascinating, very dreamlike.  The artist Remedios Varo is described as a “para-surrealist.” What does that term denote in terms of her brand of surrealist art, and what is going on in this particular painting? Pam: Well, I think it simply denotes that she wasn’t quite part of the French “in-crowd” of Breton-ized surrealists – largely due to the fact that she did most of her work as a Spanish ex-pat living in Mexico City.  And she continued to work in her surrealist style consistently, and well beyond the time period we tend to think of as Surrealism’s heyday.  You can see that this piece was done in 1960, which is relatively “late” for this movement.  I also think a lot of Surrealism is marked by acts of chance, free-association, and the unconscious.  While Varo definitely wades in those pools at times with both her technique (e.g. decalcomania) and her oneiric subject matter, I find her work to have a level of control and deliberation that could perhaps be just as deftly described as “magicial realism” or “visionary art” as anything else. It’s so difficult to choose a favorite work of art, but this has been mine since I was teenager, so I’m sticking to it.  And for the same reason, I would say that Varo is my all-time favorite painter - so much so that one of our cats is named after her.  This painting is just exquisite and unabashedly feminine.  It is rife with witchly female symbols: the moon, the chalice, the vaginal/floral folds of the wall, the six-sided table which is inherently apian and crystalline at once.  This is a painting about regeneration, resurrection, metamorphosis.  The woman emerges from a “rebirth” canal, pulled forth by lunar energy, about to replenish herself further by drinking moon water from a holy cup.  Even her breasts are crescents.  I find it to be an extremely powerful work and a near-perfect depiction of female magic. It’s an homage to transformation. Christopher: Elijah Burgher’s painting below says much about process, mysticism, and the modern.  I’m curious as to what you have to say about it, and the relationship between ritual and art. Pam: We were lucky enough to have Elijah Burgher come speak at the Occult Humanities Conference this past October, and his talk was one of the highlights of the weekend.  He is one of those creators, like Jesse Bransford, who blurs the line between “artist” and “practitioner,” and shows that creating art is in fact its own sort of spellcraft. And you’re right, this drawing operates on several levels.  First, I think it’s helpful to know that many of Burgher’s other pieces are made up of sigils – those charged, magical emblems you see in the center of this drawing.  His work is often non-figurative, in other words, and operates with a symbol system reminiscent of Austin Osman Spare’s.  In this drawing, however, Burgher inserts a figure (presumably himself) into the frame, so it becomes as much a narrative piece about the process of art-/magic-making as it is a spell in itself. And I love the dichotomy he sets up here.  To me, this is powerful depiction of the “as above, so below” principal that’s so crucial to occult thought.  On the one hand, it is about ritual, magic, creation: all of these divine, immaterial ideas.  On the other, it’s a very grounded picture.  It shows the actual physical labor, day-to-day minutia, and quiet sacrifice that are involved in the process of creativity.  The subject is naked, earthly, squatting, making something with his hands.  We see coffee cans and a wine bottle and boombox: items that are mundane and of the modern age.  I think it’s a truly tender moment, vulnerable and rare, wherein we see the magician/artist attempting to build something meaningful, and utilizing methods that are equal parts sacred and banal.   Christopher: I’m really pleased that you’ve chosen this piece here  because it speaks to intercultural relations, symbolism, and nature all in one – all vital aspects to the history of mysticism.  The colors and composition are divine!  Could you give us a brief tour of this painting, its figures and animals? Pam: Adela Leibowitz is a true virtuoso: her style and color palette have morphed and mutated over the years, but the outcome never fails to take my breath away. This piece is from a recent body of work she did which weaves together Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology with her own personally symbolic visual language.  She draws from these wells so thoughtfully, and swirls the imagery together so seamlessly, that she manages to create a pantheon that feels timeless and true, while altogether unique. Here, we see allusions to the sun in various forms including the lion, the Egyptian solar discs, and of course Ra himself: the yellow sun in the sky.  We see Thoth, the god of wisdom, in two guises: the ibis and the baboon.  Then there’s the Magritte-esque Sumerian Apkallu with his human head and fish body, present to bring about art and culture.  We also see one of Leibowitz’s cats, sitting on a mushroom, Carroll- caterpillar style. All of this takes place in Dilmun, a holy land that belies the artist’s Persian roots.  This piece is lush and fortifying compositionally as well, teeming with flora and fluorescence. It also feels like a potent solar counterpoint to the Varo piece above.  It radiates warm, yang energy, that’s revivifying, energizing, and thoroughly bright.  There’s an unbridled joy to it that I find irresistible. Christopher: Thank you so much for taking the time to share these pieces and talk about your work and esoteric studies, Pam.  Beyond reading Phantasmaphile and Abraxas, if there were three books, films, or galleries you would recommend for people to further delve into art and mysticism, what would you recommend? Pam: My pleasure, Christopher, very happy to do it.   To answer your question, I’m going to assume that this hypothetical student is just at the beginnings of their exploration into the topic. Re: books, there’s a staggering amount fantastic material out there, so for the sake of being succinct, I’ll pick just one: The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 which was the accompanying catalog to Maurice Tuchmann’s curated exhibition of the same name that was up at LACMA in the 80s.  It’s chock full of imagery and essays by myriad scholars on the topic, and is a real primer on the history of the depiction of the divine in modern art.  A good launching pad for deeper research down the road. For films, you can’t go wrong with anything by Kenneth Anger, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, Ira Cohen’s Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda, or anything by Maya Deren. I’ll add The Mindscape of Alan Moore here as well, because I think Moore has one of the finest occult-artist minds of all time.  Plus, he cracks me up. For galleries or museums, I’ll stick to my city of residence for now.  Though the Rubin Museum here in NYC is mainly known for Himalayan art, they’ve done a nice job of exploring mysticism more broadly, including a showing of Jung’s Red Book a few years back.  James Cohan Gallery, Feature, Inc., PPOW, Cavin-Morris, and Invisible- Exports seem to put their divine sympathies on display as well from time to time.  And of course, it doesn’t get better than the Met.  Talk about museum as temple!  But there isn’t currently one institution here that’s solely dedicated to esoteric artwork, which is why I’ve resorted to curating shows myself.  There is such a rich vein of history to be mined, and it’s one I think that we’re only just beginning to acknowledge and give proper attention to.  I’m honored I get to be one of the stewards of this movement, and shine my small spotlight on it as often as possible.  This work has enriched my life in countless ways.  I think it ultimately reminds us that this universe is a mysterious and marvelous place to call home.
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Hilma af Klint, Untitled #1,1915. [Moderna Museet]
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Abraxas associate editor Pam Grossman.
Jesse Bransford, Aqua/Sal for David Shaw, 2013 [Photo: Jesse Bransford]
Detail from Jesse Bransford’s Aqua/Sal for David Shaw, 2013 [Photo: Jesse Bransford]
Hilma af Klint “engaged in séances at a young age, and as a medium, channeled these visual messages into her work.” - Pam Grossman
“Esoteric art strives to illuminate, and more often than not to get at some ultimate, higher truth.  Its main purpose is to connect us to something greater than ourselves.” - Pam Grossman
Remedios Varo, Nacer de Nuevo (To Be Reborn), 1960
Elijah Burgher, “Six organs” ritual, 2013. [Western Exhitions/Elijah Burgher]
Adela Leibowitz, Fertility, strength, knowledge (Apis Bull, Thoth and Apkallu in Dilmun), 2013. [Adela Leibowitz]
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“This work has enriched my life in countless ways.  I think it ultimately reminds us that this universe is a mysterious and marvelous place to call home.” - Pam Grossman
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