At the Cauldron: Stirring the American Cultural Crucible
by Wesley Pulkka Ph D.
American cultural history brims with magic tempered by pragmatism. Our collective fascination with magical objects and occult exotics is exemplified by the unfinished pyramid on the dollar bill, the Washington Monument based on the Egyptian obelisk and the military Pentagon, the geometric center of the pentagram, with triangular arms removed as a symbol of defense, and ameliorated by puritan and Calvinist Protestant values like moderation of the senses and the work ethic.
Within the American cultural crucible Erika Wanenmacher manifests art that transcends barriers and categories between art forms. Wanenmacher redefines multi-culturalism while embracing the entire spectrum of art and cultural history, philosophy and religion. Within the vessel of sacred art she pursues the ancient practices of natural magic that apprehend energies inherent in living matter. She, like magical practitioners before her, lives in a world of correspondences.
Albert Einstein saw the relativity of the universe in the ripples on a pond into which he was idly tossing pebbles. His metaphoric thinking process that he described as a "visual and muscular" activity gave him special insight into the nature of our cosmos and its inherent correspondences. Einstein's wizardry is exemplified by his famous equation E=MC2 leading to the artificial destabilization of matter and its transformation into pure energy.
The contemporary sciences of nuclear weaponry and genetic engineering ignore ancient admonitions against calling upon or releasing the lower demonic forces. The proliferation of nuclear power plants and weapons with no clue as how to handle the resultant toxic waste and the genetic interference with evolution are examples of our abject arrogance, complete ignorance of and total disdain for ancient wisdom.
In her painting "Occult Kali Yantra" Wanenmacher metaphorically transmuted the energy unleashed by the atomic bomb at New Mexico's Trinity Site by producing an artwork addressing the wanton release of essential natural forces. Her work depicting a mushroom cloud overlaid with abstract visual Hindu meditation Yantras also honors the Hindu Kali Yuga or black age of iron in which we are living. Kali is a multi-armed goddess that represents the simultaneous creative and destructive forces of nature.
When nuclear weapons physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first detonation of the atomic bomb he quoted the God Shiva from the Hindu Rigveda. Oppenheimer said, "I am become like death, I am become the shatterer of worlds". Wanenmacher makes art intended to mend, not shatter worlds. In her "Grimoire" magical spell three gallery installation she is transfiguring and alloying the American Hot Rod sub-culture, Aztec and Navajo religious mythology, environmentalism, the four basic elements and her own spiritual being.
Grimoires were encyclopedias of European magical practice first published during the 16th to 18th centuries. They were accompanied by a visual mandala shaped diagrammatic component called the Key of Solomon. Key graphics depicted astrological and cabalistic symbols indicating the necessary preparations for summoning and controlling spirits. The Key also recommended propitious times and places for ceremonies, what robes to wear, and which weapons and pentacles were necessary. These pictograms are equivalent to Hindu Yantras and Buddhist Mandalas with which practitioners summon the countenances of particular deities.In European magic deities like the archangel Gabrielle could be summoned with a Solomon's Key.
In the first Gallery the major elements of Wanenmacher's peddle-to-the-metal "In-Gathering Spell" include an automobile parked on top of a sand painted pentagram, five cast aluminum heads of the Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl (with Wanenmacher's self portrait superimposed on the goddess' visage), a spider web, and videos of earth, air fire and water. The room is filled with a four speaker audio of ambient sounds recorded in and around Wannenmacher's studio. Sounds include bird songs, her carving noises, studio music played to sooth the artist at work, thunderstorms and a bee flying past the microphone.
Wanenmacher's five aluminum Tlazolteotl heads also have hinged jaws allowing them to clamp down on the cable end of each pentagram arm. The pentagram spider web, the car and sand painting become an oracle both spoken and anchored by the goddesses. Her transformation of a mild mannered Volvo station wagon designed by Swedish engineers to be a safe and sane family car into a fire breathing louvered and hood scooped Chevy V-eight powered street rod is, at once, a joke played on traditional American "boy technology" (Wanenmacher's term) as well as metaphorical and literal transportation. She fuels her 350 cubic inch "crate motor" with environmentally friendly propane. Modifications include; hand fabricated exhaust headers, a propane bottle mounted in place of the gasoline tank, a Mustang II rack and pinion steering gear, forge riveted hood scoop and an astro turf interior.
The artist's selection of a new engine in place of the well worn unit that was used to mock-up the car is analogous to the magical practice of hiding powerful spiritual relics. In the ceiling of the Kagu lineage Ashoka Stupa in Santa Fe a small sealed chamber contains a "Pearl of Buddha". According to Buddhist tenet, hundreds of pearls were found in Buddha's ashes following his cremation 2,500 years ago. They are used to supercharge Stupas which are buildings designed as transmitters and receivers of spiritual potency. The bones of Lamas are often hidden in reliquaries and Hindus bury the art laden basements of temples. The preservation of the skeletal remains of priests and monks in the underground chambers of churches and cathedrals is a parallel Christian practice. These hidden art objects and relics empower the shrine, temple or other religious structure with metaphysical puissance that need not be seen to be experienced.
Wanenmacher's installation of a fresh "Detroit Iron" long-block which the public will not see impregnates her flame adorned vehicle with raw potential while amplifying the artist's intention. The car is also a manifestation of Kali's age of iron. The Volvo's passengers are nature inspired art works allegorically being healed by the sand painted pentagram - emblematic of life and the five senses - under the car. Her artistic baggage is contained within instrument cases and other boxes with handles. The car and its contents are sandwiched between the spider web insect trap and the allegorical Navajo-style spirit magnet with a European witchcraft inspired pentacle schema. The spider web pentagram stretched over the car marries pentacle magic to Navajo weaving myth. Mythical Spider Woman taught the early Navajos how to weave. The web's central spiral can be found in Hopi basket designs, Anasazi solstice markers, and sacred sites around the world. The fishnet pattern woven into the pentagram arms introduce the water element to the spider's air domain.
The sand painting also has roots as a healing device in Tibetan Buddhist religious practice. Mandalas designed for community healing and manifestation of specific deities are rendered on auspicious occasions by artist monks. The mandala exists for a short period, usually less than a week, until it is gathered up and poured into a nearby river. The river water is believed to impart the mandala's healing message to the world. In Navajo ceremonies the patient is laid directly upon the sand painted pattern to treat a malady. Colors and shapes vibrate at specific frequencies creating a numinous map with which the requested healing spirits may enter the body and consciousness of the patient and healer.
Wanenmacher's efforts are also connected with 20th century Dada and modernist artists. When Duchamp invented his alter ego, Rose Selavey he was playing with gender roles and the gender ambiguity of eroticism. Wanenmacher joins with the creation and pro-creation powers of Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl by incorporating her self-portrait with Tlazolteotl's image. Through this post-modernist and magical appropriation ritual Wanenmacher discloses the ubiquitous pertinence of the feminine expressed through mythic archetypes. Her absorption of goddess energy is more profoundly interesting than Duchamp's erotic pun Eros se la vi.
Wanenmacher utilizes five heads of Tlazolteotl to anchor the pentagram shaped spider web over the car. According to some Native American myths the world recently entered the fifth sun. Her choice of cast aluminum to represent the feminine principal was presaged by Isamu Noguchi's cast aluminum Constantin Brancusi inspired "Miss Expanding Universe" of 1934.
The overall philosophical result of Wanenmacher's "In-Gathering Spell" contributes to the reintegration of the shattered vessel of previous global mono-cultures. The shamanic tradition is a global phenomena. There are similar sacred practices and beliefs in all shamanic cultures. The spell also reunites Jose Arguelles's psyche and techne as well as masculine (Hot Rod) and feminine (goddess) principles.
In the center gallery the whole "In-Gathering Spell" is transported into the nether realm between matter and spirit. X-rays are used to illustrate the ghostly realms in the "Crossroads" a foggy domain acting as the transition between the spell and her "Magical Tools" grand finale. The center gallery is filled with copper clad light boxes with wire-mesh reinforced glass fronts. Copper is a non-magnetic metal revered for its magical qualities. Not only is it omnipresent in today's high technology because of its ability to efficiently conduct electricity but it has been used in magical devices through the centuries because of its ability to conduct less tangible energies as well.
The light boxes display x-rays of the boxed-art "passengers" in the station wagon including a full body x-ray of Wanenmacher wearing the coveralls she wore while assembling the hot rod. High technology x-ray machines examine and record images of the body's vital organs instantaneously. The resultant images correspond to ancient so-called x-ray petroglyphs, pictographs and cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and Chauvet. Contemporary Huichal yarn paintings also depict shamanic figures and animal skeletons in x-ray form. Ancient people learned about the hidden structure of life through direct observation after death. The Huichals believe that the shaman's spirit resides in the skeleton after death and continues to reside in the skeleton through several reincarnations. When the shaman achieves his or her final incarnation indicative of spiritual perfection and high achievement their spirit resides in quartz crystal. These beliefs parallel old European beliefs in the wisdom found in quartz crystal balls used as auguries. The water-clear Mayan quartz Crystal Scull discovered in Guatemala more than 20 years ago was fashioned with a movable jaw so that it could presumably be made to utter oracles.
Through x-ray imagery Wanenmacher allows viewers a glimpse inside her art and her physical being. In the best sense art making reveals the vitality and incorporeal consciousness of the artist. Though these x-rays tell us something about the structure of the art packed into the station wagon they do not display the surface content of those pieces. Surrounded by the creating and procreating goddess the car becomes a womb containing Wanenmacher's artistic offspring. Her x-rays are like sonograms that reveal the beating heart and gender of the fetus but not how it may or may not favor its parents.
In this hoary space she also exhibits her own Grimoire in physical form. Her book and its equivalent to the Key of Solomon are encased in a plastic cube. The book is displayed with the hand print embossed cover closed. Her secret incantations, conjuring spells and alchemical formulas remain occult. Wanenmacher's hand print on the Grimoire further connects her art with cave and cliff art around the world. Hand prints mark the 15,000 year old Los Toldos Cave in Argentina and appear at countless other hallowed antediluvian loci. The indentation it makes in the cover likens it to images of hand and foot prints of the Buddha carved by believers on or near holy places. Though most public renderings of Buddha prints are the result of tool use by artisans it is also believed that Buddha and other adepts could raise their frequencies to the point that their hands or feet could pass through solid stone. As any student of science knows an ordinary table fork can penetrate a water glass without breaking it if the fork is vibrating at the proper frequency.
The hand with opposing thumb also makes us the ultimate tool using species. Though birds, chimpanzees, gorillas, raccoons and other animals create and use simple tools our dexterity makes us the master tool makers and users on the planet. The "Magical Tools" space in the third gallery showcases Wanenmacher as the consummate prestidigitator. Her masterful incorporation of machinery, handicrafts, spell casting, California "low brow art", gouache painting, basic construction and up to the minute art theory is staggering. Several works celebrate the role of the fool in art and magic.
Wanenmacher presents her fool's costume in the form of the coveralls she wore while assembling her car in a freezing basement workshop. She wore a Superman cap, heavy gloves and disintegrating coveralls as a cross gender uniform during her execution of highly detailed boy technology. In a sense her masculine fool's costume is her Rose Selavey. The outfit was gender balanced by a Mexican shopping bag adorned with a portrait of Frida Kahlo in which she carried essential tools. In the Tarot the Fool is the trump card representing holy madness and the great Nothing which contains the potential for the existence of everything. Astrophysicists are now postulating the presence of dark matter and dark energy to explain the unaccounted for mass and energy in the universe. Her sacred altar is the roll away machinist tool box that stored her wrenches, hammers, sockets, screw drivers, grinder, drill bits, and other "good wrench" paraphernalia.
Along with her well worn chrome plated tools she continues her fascination with the birth of the atomic age in New Mexico. What wasn't shared with the public during the atomic age was the raw and terrible beauty of thermonuclear detonation. Wanenmacher uncovered a set of color slides taken during the atmospheric tests of the hydrogen bomb. Her painting of one slide discloses the breathtaking beauty of those tests. The seductive quality of a perfect fireworks display magnified ten million fold explains why those privileged to witness those tests were reluctant to end them.
T.S. Elliott once wrote that William Blake lived and breathed "the continuos phantasmagoria" of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno". Wanenmacher like Blake breathes Kali's wrathful wind absorbs Dante's hellfire power and transmutes them through the alchemy of digestion. The former secret city of Los Alamos that can longer keep a secret is an ivory tower of intellect. In "Canto IV," Dante describes his pilgrimage through hell with a shade. "We had not gone far from where I woke when I made out a fire up ahead, a hemisphere of light that lit the dark. Though we were still some distance from that place, we were close enough for me to vaguely see that special people occupied that spot. O glory of the sciences and arts, who are these souls enjoying special honor, dwelling apart from all the others here?" Dante wrote. A petroglyph on a cliff near Los Alamos depicting Avanyu a plumed serpent who may be another form of the Aztec and Mayan Quetzacoatl is the inspiration behind a branding iron fashioned by Wanenmacher to mark two boxes filled with knives made from detritus of the Cerro Grande fire. She chose Avanyu because the deity is believed to require the residents of the area to care for and nurture the land. According to legend if the land is not cared for Avanyu will turn water to fire and devour it. A painting of a photograph taken during the Cerro Grande fire fetes Avanyu's and Kali's wrath.
Wanenmacher's magical tools include two Kali arms in a trickster box. One is covered in black raven wing feathers while the coyote arm is encrusted with taxidermist's coyote eyes and blood red glass droplets. The raven is a universal trickster figure among many Native American cultures.
In a recent American archetypal moment the Baltimore Ravens beat the New York/New Jersey Giants in the Superbowl. Advertising art is the new canon of art that alters consciousness while preying on our base instincts of unconscious sexuality, greed, avarice and covetous lust for things we don't already possess. The fear of scarcity and high anxiety created by selective newscasts of negative events and regular programs designed to manifest negative feelings in viewers is an insidious form of contemporary spell casting. Abracadabra! you're a consumer that can't live another minute without our hair care product, medication, new style jeans, bad attitude pickup truck, diet pill, exercise video, laundry soap, junk food or makeup. If you buy all of our stuff the bad news that we just delivered to you will go away. You will be popular, safe, successful, sexually potent and live the American Dream forever or until we decide to sell you a funeral plan.
As we fall victim to the black age of iron, we succumb to the numbing effects of reason bereft of emotion at the expense of intuition. When Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell what it would be like to live in a society that had no belief in mythology. Campbell answered, "read the newspaper!" Hopefully Wanenmacher's ambitious installation will help make the world more openly intuitive, viably mysterious and more whole.
I also hope to see her rod in the Reader's Rides section of Hot Rod magazine sometime soon. Keep the shiny side up and the dirty side down and don't forget to ease up on the throttle a mite when you spot Smoky in a plain brown wrapper taking pictures. Power slide!