By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Brooklyn’s Stephen Romano Gallery and the WᛉRD WAR Gallery, the Portland, Oregon-based art gallery, record label and film programming team owned by artist Dennis Dread and his partner Tiffany Kenaley, have joined forces to celebrate the art and legacy of William Mortensen with “WITCH’S EYE: THE CAMERA LENS AS OCCULT DEVICE,” a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition that joins the master’s art with the work of some of today’s most talented and subversive photographic artists.
For the uninitiated, William Mortensen was born in Utah in 1897. He began working in Hollywood during the golden age of silent film, initially as a mask maker and costumer. His big break came when famed director Cecil B. DeMille hired him as the still photographer for his 1927 biblical epic The King of Kings. He would go on to work with many of cinema’s greats, including Dracula director Tod Browning.
Following his work on The King of Kings, he was given a floor at the Western Costume Company where he developed a stunning body of work, using the wealth of props, models and backgrounds at his disposal. Creating an oeuvre steeped in the grotesque, the occult and the surreal, Mortensen quickly became one of the United States’ most famous and widely admired artists.
However, Mortensen’s success came crashing down in 1929 due to a trumped-up scandal instigated by the mother of actress Fay Wray, who accused the artist of impropriety with her daughter. Decades later, Wray herself would deny that Mortensen had been inappropriate with her, refuting her mother’s claims in her 1989 autobiography, On the Other Hand.
Mortensen left the film colony for Laguna Beach, California, where he set up a studio and a successful art school. Largely forgotten by the mainstream, he died of leukemia in 1965 at the age of 68.
Although Mortensen’s art has been dismissed as “kitsch” by an unappreciative critical community, he nonetheless remains an influential figure. The echoes of his style can be seen and felt in much of pop culture’s depictions of the occult and the supernatural, perhaps most resonantly in the films of the 1970s witchcraft boom.
With “WITCH’S EYE: THE CAMERA LENS AS OCCULT DEVICE,” Stephen Romano and the WᛉRD WAR Gallery have brought together a veritable coven of modern photographic artists whose work bears the distinct imprint of Mortensen’s unmistakable style, including Lorena Torres Martell, Brittany Rose Luciani, Edward Colver and Matthew Dutton. In addition to many of William Mortensen’s rarely seen works and the exciting Mortenesque art of the aforementioned artists, the exhibition will feature a selection of stills and lobby cards from such 1960s and early ’70s horror films such as La Papesse (aka. A Woman Possessed) by Mario Mercier, The Virgin Witch, Simon King of the Witches, Invitation to Lust, Las hijas de Drácula (aka. Vampyres) among others. Rounding out the exhibition is a selection of vernacular photographs and ephemera (including rarely seen “spirit” photographs from the 1930s) that complement Mortensen’s esoteric and occult aesthetic.
“As a collector, I have custodianship of one of the largest and most in-depth collections of William Mortensen’s art. This exhibition stands in part and in contrast to a current museum exhibition of William Mortensen’s works, whose curatorial efforts have attempted to mediocritize [sic] Mortensen’s legacy, and downplay the importance of his occult imagery,” says curator Stephen Romano. “To the contrary, it is my firm and unwavering belief that Mortensen was among the great visionaries of the past century, and his influence continues to reverberate among yet another generation of artists.”
Dennis Dread, owner of Wyrd War Gallery adds, “It is no surprise then that from the golden dawn of Hollywood, that wicked cauldron of contemporary Western imagination, emerged the preeminent master conjurer William Mortensen, wielding only a camera as his magician’s wand. The bewildering shadow cast by America’s controversial and eventually exiled ‘antichrist’ of the aperture has proven to be a profound and enchanting force that has influenced generations of image makers since his death nearly 60 years ago. ‘WITCH’S EYE: THE CAMERA LENS AS OCCULT DEVICE’ is a bold celebration of William Mortensen’s art and legacy. All of the artists featured in this exhibition, which has been beautifully curated by Stephen Romano, honor Mortensen’s memory, archetypes, obsessions, techniques and craftsmanship. This season of the witch, WᛉRD WAR Gallery proudly welcomes all to come … come… come to the Sabbat!”
“WITCH’S EYE: THE CAMERA LENS AS OCCULT DEVICE” is now running at WᛉRD WAR Gallery, 3505 NE Broadway St. Portland, Oregon 97232. Private viewings are available by appointment every day of the year. To schedule a visit please email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Instagram for daily updates and public hours. For further information contact Stephen Romano at email@example.com.