Recently Newsweek chortled about the popularity of the occult among “hipsters.” The old world media brand had to admit that among millennials religion is losing popularity while interest in alternative spirituality has grown so much that a professor interviewed for the story declared it a new “occult revival.” Many are calling it New Age, and some say the New Age movement of the 1990’s never slowed down. I prefer the term used by modern academics for the melting pot collection of spiritual traditions from around the world brewing into some kind of new religion on this continent: American Metaphysical Religion.
It’s not surprising that in a world-suffering mind numbing environmental catastrophes from Fukushima to the BP spill in the gulf, people would find comfort in spiritual paths that find nature holy, completely deserving of respect, instead of soulless matter to be consumed unto the end of the world. Consequently Newsweek missed the real story. While giggling about tarot readers making real money and trust fund kids toying with magic candles they ignored the art and music being made by people like Amanda Charchian and her partner in sublime, Guy Blakeslee of The Entrance Band.
Blurring boundaries Charchian creates multimedia experiences that blend Pre-Raphaelite appreciation for the magical beauty of nature, with elements of psychedelic aesthetics, informed by the meaningful intricacy of the long tradition of esoteric art and the canon of fine art history. Photography, painting, fashion, jewelry making, sculpture, video, collage all blend in dream like works that often suggest altered states and spiritual epiphanies.
Recreated ectoplasmic séance photographs became fine art; friends strung out on prescription drugs are posed as pharmaceutical zombies. Using herself as a subject she provides a visual diary, sometimes with a wry sense of social irony. Her sculpture “Speyedor” viewed on approach seems to be a spider trembling unsteadily in the grass, sparkling with sunshine, like a nature spirit vivid in the daylight, but viewed from above the body of the spider is revealed to be a human eye with huge lashes.
Nudity, her own, and that of her models, is removed from erotic objectification into identifications with nature, surreal hallucinations, and posed displays that carry the sense of deities glimpsed during sacred mysteries, and alchemical paintings come to life.
Bourgeois Hysteria, a sculpture of crystals, floats in the air refracting sunshine into rainbows more mesmerizing than television, while conveying the sense of an angelic apparition.
Some of the works become ritual: “This series was shot all analog in Idyllwild, CA, a one mile above sea level mountain community which was recently ravaged by a two-week fire. A group of six girls were sent in custom rainbow dresses made specifically for this shoot, to heal the blackened landscape. During a ritual with Holi powder, they made rain come from the skies on a very sunny day. The result of this true experience (!) are these images.”
While experience with psychedelics was a positive phase in this artist’s development she no longer takes drugs, legal or illegal, preferring breathing techniques and meditation, especially Holotropic Breathwork, a technique developed by Stanislav Grof she learned from the master himself at a workshop in Joshua Tree.
Charchian uses analog photography gear but she freely manipulates her photographs with everything from photo shop to oil paint.
A recent interview with the artist as follows:
Your early art grapples with the pharmaceutical culture pervading our society. What experiences inspired you and what did you learn from how your art about the subject was received?
My mother had been on SSRI’s my whole life. Exploring the spiritual disconnect I felt with her led me to discover the deep corruption within the pharmaceutical industry, creating a mistrust for “health practitioners.” I found more and more sensitive people around me dealing with their existential issues by checking out on pills. This world is incredibly heavy, we are given quite a load. People tend to be afraid to explore their shadows. During this investigation I was taking prescription Adderall, which ultimately made it harder and harder to differentiate what was real, meaning the energy of things, and what is constructed by the delusions of modern society. I spent many years trying to understand the different facets of alienation from a class-based Marxist view, to a socio-political alienation with Rousseau and Lacan, or a Freudian instinct based viewpoint. Ultimately while those were important to explore, they didn’t describe the whole of my experience. When I read Hegel and understood that it was a separation from God that I ultimately was experiencing, it started to make sense. Then came a more intentional spiritual practice, birthing my interests in magic and the occult.
Is there an era of art, or a particular artist, that really inspires you?
I have yet to tire of the Surrealists. I am particularly inspired by the female surrealists of the 1920-40s: Claude Cahun, Hannah Hoch, Leonora Carrington.
What do you seek when you practice Holotropic Breathwork?
I haven’t done in it in a while. It is a great way to access the information in your DNA and what connects you to every other living being on this planet. The depths of your psyche are at the tip of your inhale. No shamans in the Amazon or tabs of acid necessary. I also really find Sufi whirling exhilarating. I practiced it in India a while back and would love to find some groups here in LA.
Are you making music? If so please tell us about it.
My collaborative music projects have always been very short lived but very fun and performance based. I have never recorded anything. I played a few shows with Guy. One memorable show was in San Francisco where we played one of his songs. I was playing drums standing up and then it went into a cover of the Patty Water’s song ‘Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair’. He ended up screaming the word “black” repeatedly while rolling around on the floor for 10 minutes while I kept some variation of the beat going. They kept flickering the lights trying to let us know it was time to stop but he was in another world until I climbed on top of him and we wrestled and made out to end the song. My favorite thing about playing is how natural it is to enter a trance state. My other musical project is a feminist rap punk band called “Pussy Muscle” with my best friend Lola Rose Thompson. She is a visual artist and an amazing poet so we write these “spells” as songs with a punk attitude. Just the microphone, drums and spells disguised as comedic lyrics.
You and Guy have a unique view of what’s going on in the worlds of art and music where they cross over into spiritual practice, do you think America is enjoying an “occult revival?”
I am not sure it is accurate to call it a revival, maybe in fashion it is. It seems only natural that humans have been asking and exploring that which is not seen but intuited. From my knowledge, there has always been a sincere interest in the hidden since humans have existed. From the beginning it seems we were creating myths to try to piece together the complexity of our existence. The direct lineage of my education is illustrated by what I plan to do right when I finish this interview. Right after I press send I will be going to the Annie Besant Lodge, a prominent Theosophist, to go to an occult science lecture on serpents by Maja D’Aoust, an ex-librarian of the Philosophical Research Society started by the late Manly P. Hall. Los Angeles has a well-documented history of occultists as is commonly known, but perhaps the Newsweek article comes off as trite because it aims to appear objective though it is consequently mocking. I am glad it skimmed the importance of the “new” interest in sorcery as a result of a dissatisfaction with patriarchal society. A desire for non-denominational coexistence is definitely increasing as a result of a century long reliance on arbitrary divisions based on non-existent dualities. Overall, my personal interest in the occult has grown naturally with my own understand of my internal power and how to direct it is a constantly expanding interest of mine, so there is no sense of revival for me. This is just as it is and for all I know how it has always been. It is actually really energizing to read that pagan ceremonies are taking the place of bars and a focus on harnessing intuitive strength is replacing “getting wasted.” How boring and uninspiring that can be.
What inspired you to paint on marble?
I was really taken with the weight and natural beauty found in marble. I often went to the marble fabricators and took their scraps as canvas bored me. In retrospect, it was perhaps the living energy, something of the ground that attracted me.
Do you write? (Because you write really well.)
Thank you. I don’t think of myself as a writer. Funny enough most of the writing I end up doing is about my work, through interviews. Though I was born in the states, I spoke Farsi before I spoke English so I have always been a bit insecure about my own writing though I love language so much. Farsi is an incredible dramatic and poetic language as well and has had a big impact on the voice in my head.
How did growing up in a family that fled Iran in 1979 make your perspective different from your peers?
The very fact that I can make my artwork in the most liberated form possible is due primarily to their courage and discontent with the oppressive regime taking power. Had they not taken those risks, I might take my freedom for granted. There have been no artists in my family history. I occupy an important role, a small but significant revolution in my DNA’s memory.
Your work lives at the intersection of feminism and spirituality; female empowerment, or disempowerment, are recurring themes. Can you elaborate on this focus?
These themes are at the very forefront of my existence and cannot be ignored as they occupy my very nature. “They” always say to “make what you know.” I suppose that holds true here. I have never been interested in formalism, either conceptual or visual, or any seemingly objective art practice that aims to exist outside of the corporeal existence we inhabit. The best art is biographical, a reflection of the self. The hand. The head. The heart. The eyes. Art is about these things.
You used to draw fashion lines in middle school during class, you work as a photographer and filmmaker with partners in fashion, and you design clothes. You’ve said that photography satisfies your need to react to immediate circumstances, what does fashion invoke in your psyche?
It was in middle school that I was drawing fashion lines with a friend actually. Fashion for me is a very light and fun part of human experience. It rounds out a conceptually rigorous, spiritual and moral existence, though ethics are a huge part of my fashion choices. I suppose is satisfies my interest in color, shape and history too. Certain clothes invoke different characters, various aspects of the various archetypes I inhabit.
You’ve said that the state of the natural world, the abuse of animals and the environment, sometimes make you wonder if creating art is worthwhile. You seem to have addressed that in your recent collaboration that brought rain to a burned area. Do you plan to do more of these combination art and healing projects?
I tend to think all of my work has healing properties in that my intention is always to inspire growth and the creation of more beauty. One thing that always has given me the impetus to keep going is the positive feedback I get from young women saying they feel more liberated after seeing my work. I am not trying to come off as pompous or self-righteous but getting these almost daily messages of inspiration has created a different perspective for me of my own work. I see it less and less as a reason to feel guilty why all this trauma is going on with the Earth and realizing the potential of my work to creative a positive influence. I do hope that more opportunities to heal through ritual and photography present themselves. Just saying that here is a spell in of itself and surely it will happen.
Has your art influenced your sexuality, or did your sexuality influence your art?
Most definitely they influence each other on the fundamental basis that sexual energy is a creative energy. This is essentially the same energy that comes with inspiration to manifest excitement and beauty through artwork.
Written by Tamra Spivey
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.