By ROCCO THOMPSON
Opening this week at Ohio’s Buckland Museum of Witchcraft & Magick, TRANSMUTATIONS: WITCHES, HEALERS, AND ORACLES is the latest collaboration between the institution and Stephen Romano Gallery, which specializes in presenting the works of “masters of self taught, esoteric and visionary” art to the public. Curated by Romano, himself, the Montreal-born art collector has assembled a collection of stunning new photographic works by female artists and will be presenting them alongside rare prints from his unmatched William Mortensen collection and “vernacular” images from horror film history. Rue Morgue spoke with the Brooklyn-based curator, collector, and art dealer about his passion for the esoteric, how COVID-19 has impacted the world of gallery shows, and what he hopes attendees will take away from his stunning new exhibit.
What draws you to esoteric art?
It goes back to my very beginnings: I started drawing when I was very young, I had imaginary friends (I thought everyone did, and soon found out that wasn’t the case at all), I suppose you could say as a child I saw things others couldn’t necessarily see, or I was born insane, I don’t know! But either way, I had special skills and could carry on conversations with entities, I would draw them in simple line drawings and then tear up the drawings and dispose of them. A strange thing to do I suppose…I don’t really know why I did that. An aunt of mine who was a recognized artist in Montreal saw some of the drawings I had made, declared them “genius,” and began to [cultivate] me as an artist. I was around 5 or 6 and she showered me with art supplies and books on the likes of Goya, Durer, Bosch, Dali, Escher, all the mainstream artists whose subject were the esoteric, the grotesque – her intent was for me to have comfort in my visions.
I was very fortunate to have her take an interest in supporting me, it gave me a measure of safety in exploring my realm of fantasy while growing up in a highly segregated Quebec. I think many people have had such visions in their formative years, but were discouraged from [embracing] them, either out of fear from their parents or teachers, and were either made to ignore them or put on meds to suppress their visions. So it’s really been in my blood my whole life, everything I’ve done in the arts has been in pursuit of perpetuating the esoteric, magic, the occult, the paranormal…
How did your collection begin?
I began collecting seriously after I managed a gallery called Ricco/Maresca in New York: the world’s leading gallery in what is called “Outsider Art,” which is generally defined as “art by self-taught or naïve art makers. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds. Some quintessential examples would be Henry Darger, Charles A.A. Dellschau, Bill Traylor, Adolph Wolfli, and Martin Ramirez. After working in that gallery, I struck out on my own as a private art dealer (I had a gallery space in Brooklyn for a few years but shut that down in 2016) and the focus shifted from outsider to the esoteric. It had a lot to do with the artists I was exhibiting and the complimentary vernacular (or historical) material I was compelled to exhibit alongside for context. [Thus] I became known as a curator, mixing the contemporary with the historical, and I began to acquire art not only for exhibition but for my own personal enrichment and edification.
There is nothing quite like starting your day by getting out of bed, making a coffee then going to the sofa over which hangs a masterpiece for the ages like Wolfgang Grasse’s “The Kingdom of Death.” Or having several of Jacob Bohme’s volumes on the coffee table in front of you to sift through before you crack open the morning’s emails. It gives you an irreconcilable sense of the time and space you occupy in the grand scheme of things. Our time is so short in this life that we must make every moment, every hour, every day count to manifest something of the magnitude of greatness of these works. It’s an inspiration that transcends words really, and to share these works, to put them out into the world so that others can likewise find inspiration in them, that is the greatest gift a collector may aspire to, to contribute meaningfully to the spirit of mankind.
When did your relationship with the Buckland Museum begin? What makes it a good fit?
Steven Intermill, the museum’s director (and devotee of all things esoteric himself) contacted me regarding the purchase of some works by the Dutch spiritualist, theosophist, and scholar, Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn, and we just hit it off, like kindred spirits and two old souls. I knew I wanted to work with the museum. It’s not a conventional white walls museum, it looks a lot like my own studio – things placed in relation to one another in an ever changing organic ecosystem where the sensibilities and affinities of one work is amplified by what surrounds it. This is what I love about collecting and curating, in contrast to, say, how a museum like the Met locks things down on the wall for decades in their permanent collection, ours is more the sensibility of a curio shop, where the integrity of the objects are maintained by displaying them respectfully, but everything is in flux; it’s dynamic, biologic, life embracing, and the power of the objects and images are manifest to their fullest potential.
This creates an excitement in the viewers: a journey of discovery, they can feel it in their bones if they are receptive, and it becomes an affirmation to them, a physical, mental and spiritual affirmation, that there is a higher order beyond the mundane. It is there right in front of us to empower and lead us to magnificent heights of aspiration. What more noble purpose could there be, really? So, in that sense, Steven and I share an affinity for making the viewer’s interaction with the art completely immersive, and putting out hearts on our sleeves. This is who we are, and [we] invite the viewer to be swallowed and transformed by the art experience.
We previously covered your APPARITIONS exhibit. What makes TRANSMUTATIONS a different animal for anyone who might have attended the last one?
APPARITIONS is really a compendium of images from my collection that points to manifestations from the other side – something that I have mentioned has impacted me since early childhood. It’s more of a collection of works that I hope empower visitors to embrace their visions as being as quantifiable as anything else they can measure with their five senses in the so-called real world. Artists have, throughout history, been the ones who were able convey with raw materials the metaphysical; things that science is only lately acknowledging, artists have known for centuries.
TRANSMUTATIONS, which artist and poetess Destiny Turner titled, I explain as a carefully crafted selection of five women artists at various stages of development both as artists and practitioners, not that they are necessarily practitioners of witchcraft. They are what I call ‘authentic’, and this is rooted in my immersion in outsider art, the embracing of artists who come to their craft not through academically learned aesthetic discourse but rather through their own life experiences, their trauma, their ordeals, and they channel that experience into their art making, and in these specific instances they use the language and visuals of witchcraft, magic, ceremony, the esoteric to communicate. The viewers it is my hope will interpret the works through their own subjective experience and appreciate them. The subtitle “witches, healers, oracles” is just as meaningful as these artists produce their art for the greater good of social healing, creating spells and conjures to protect the viewers against malevolent forces, and divesting them of their negative energies through the experience of interacting with the art. It’s a beautiful kind of witchcraft, one with altruistic intentions.
TRANSMUTATIONS will feature “vernacular” photographs as well as works from new artists. What sorts of archival pieces can attendees expect to see?
The exhibition this time around is exclusively photography with some unconventional elements such as press photographs, and cinema lobby cards of some of my favorite films on the subject of witchcraft, including Simon King of the Witches (one of the most fucked up films ever made) and Mario Mercier’s La Papesse, an unacknowledged masterpiece of erotic occult cinema. Mario is a friend and now a shaman. He only made a couple of films in his time, but for me, they serve as quintessential examples of the power of occult cinema. Also included are lobby cards from Invitation to Lust and The Virgin Witch, among others. Cinema to me is the dominant art form of our time, it is the one place where the viewer can suspend their disbelief and fully enter into the art form and forget where they are and be transported somewhere else, thus it’s inclusion in this exhibition acknowledges its influence and importance.
How did you go about selecting these contemporary photographers and what do they bring to the table?
Some of the artists were already in my circle of acquaintances, and others like Destiny Turner I have met more recently. I was enormously impressed with how emotionally evocative her poetry is, and her painting and photography also struck me as very strong and original. I basically built the show with her inclusion as the genesis around which everything else evolved. Alexis Karl’s works I have presented on several other occasions and she always shows up with intensity, enthusiasm, and with art that is at once irreverent and poignant. Nahw Yg I discovered late last year and included her in the APPARITIONS exhibition. Her work always gets a significant response whenever I promote it, there is an authenticity and sensuality [to it] that is uncommon. I followed Courtney Brooke on Instagram and loved what she was doing, it seemed every time there was an image that really struck me it was made by her. Lorena Torres Martell is a Mexican artist I found on Instagram after I had made the initial announcement of the show. I thought her work was amazing, as it continued the legacy of William Mortensen’s manipulated photography and occult and grotesque imagery, and did not hesitate to add her into the mix.
I had met writer Krisen J. Solliee at Scope Art Fair where I presented William Mortensen and had wanted to work with since then. I think the inclusion of her writings gives voice to the works in a way that I, as a male, never could and her inclusion as an artist gives strength to the overall context of the show, it elevates the works to a level of integrity and dignity that I never could even as the most well intentioned curator. All of these artists, through their individual art making processes, courageously delve into their own psyche and return to us with works that in turn fills the attentive viewer with an expanded understanding of the female esoteric experience.
I’m sure that gallery exhibitions, like absolutely everything else in the COVID-era, have had to change. How are you and Buckland adapting?
While I act as a curator in residence with the museum, putting together some of the shows, I am really a guest there, and they are very accommodating and appreciative and I feel very blessed – ridiculously so – to be able to use their venue to manifest my own exhibitions. It’s really the hard work and persistence of Steven Intermill, Jillian Slane and Toni Rotonda that keeps the museum going, and while there is an very engaged audience that they have worked hard to build, COVID has presented some unfathomable challenges to our cultural institutions and The Buckland Museum of Witchcraft is no exception. All admissions are ticketed (you can’t just show up), masks must be worn, and only a small number of visitors may be admitted simultaneously.
This puts a tremendous strain on their fundraising initiatives. I would suggest, since they don’t rely on public funding for operating or programming expenses, that it is extremely important in these times to remember generously (for those that can) the value we should place on institutions such as The Buckland Museum. It’s really though the support of generous donations that culture survives these bewildering times, and through the strength of our communities.
You have the largest collection of William Mortensen prints in the world. Many horror fans share your affinity for his work, but how did you first discover him and how does one amass such a stupendous trove? Will there be selections from your Mortenson collection on display during TRANSMUTATIONS?
Mortensen – my spiritual grandfather! I first saw his works in a small exhibition in New York at the Ricco Maresca Gallery…I think it was in 1998. I could not believe someone could be making such visionary work with a new artistic medium in the 1920s, I thought it was revolutionary, and aesthetically, of the highest order. I started collecting his work seriously only around 2014, my first purchase was a portfolio of amazing silver prints from Joseph Bellows. I framed them all and brought them to an art fair in New York and sold them out. Until then, while many of the top photography dealers loved the work and exhibited it, it was challenging for them to place it in collections. I was exhibiting the works alongside such giants in the world of outsider art as Charles Dellschau, James Castle and contemporary artists such as Kris Kuksi, so, suddenly, I think in that context, the work made sense. Looking back, I should have kept those. They were rare true silver prints, and not as replaceable as I thought they would be.
I pursued collecting more and more of his works and was very fortunate to acquire a large portion of his own personal collection, including his camera, and then the estate of his first wife, Courtney Crawford. I believe we have well over 400+ original prints at this point, maybe more. I’ve been blessed, there is no doubt about that, and along with that comes a curatorial custodianship I take very seriously. I’ve mounted some important exhibitions of his works, the most well known was at the Buckland Museum called WILLIAM MORTENSEN’S WITCHES which included the best examples of his work on occult subjects, inspired when he saw the film Haxan in the early 1920’s. He produced an entire series called “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft and Demonology” which I acquired by complete chance through a listing on ebay, which I exhibited three times, once at the Metro Show art fair where it was mentioned in the New York Times, again in my Brooklyn gallery in the exhibition, then again at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in 2015. It is now in the collection of The Museum Of Everything in London.
And yes, while I haven’t exactly locked down which works I’l be exhibiting by Mortensen in TRANSMUTATIONS, it’s stilI percolating. I will be including his works. William Mortensen was all about making images of women empowering themselves by embracing their own sexuality, and perpetuating their own powers of seduction, in a time where these ideas were taboo. He paid the price for it by being shunned by the powerful cultural institution of his time, and it continues today. His work is often labeled “sexist” or as “kitsch,” but Mortensen negotiated a balanced collaboration between the camera and his muses. I think this is very much in tandem with the themes that run through this exhibition, [but] because the museum is trying to attract a wider general audience in these challenging times, I’m trying to keep the material in the exhibition appropriate for viewers of all ages. I’d like to have a more visceral version of this show here in New York later in the year.
What do you hope attendees will take away from TRANSMUTATIONS?
Where I am with this, assembling the works in my studio and building an ecosystem of aesthetics and affinities, I can see how these works interact with one another. However, until the show is hung in Cleveland, we won’t know how the whole thing comes together. We never do know how it turned out until the final light is adjusted, and the first viewers come in to interact with the exhibition.
What I want is for the viewers to be able to tap into the authentic energy these artists are offering them, and embrace both the individual works and the exhibition itself as an affirmation of the left hand path, the supernatural, feminine power, and give their due respect to these artists and practitioners for bringing them such blessings and gifts. The best possible outcome is that the viewers have a memorable experience,and think about the works in the hours, days, months and years of their lives to come.
TRANSMUTATIONS: WITCHES, HEALERS, AND ORACLES will open March 4th and continue through April 31st 2021. Ticketing information may be found on the Buckland Museum’s website. Visit Stephen Romero Gallery online here.