“Tapping The Third Realm at The Ben Maltz Gallery,”The Senses And Society Journal, Bloomsbury Publishing, Volume 9, Number 1, June 2014.

Curated by Meg Linton and Carolyn Peter, The Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design and the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, September 22 – December 8, 2013

The first thing that strikes one when considering the exhibition, “Tapping the Third Realm,” is that the very structure of the show itself sets the stage for an experiential investigation into liminal spaces both physical and conceptual, ideological and spiritual. This liminal space is exemplified by the fact that the exhibition occurs in two separate locations: The Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art & Design and the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), two spaces situated in institutions that, while within walking distance from one another, span a chasm of philosophical and pedagogical belief; LMU is a Jesuit university and Otis is a very secular arts college. With the border between sacred and profane breached, this exhibition, curated by Meg Linton and Carolyn Peter, proposes to examine the in-betweens that demarcate the knowable and the unknowable, the space between life and death, art and talismanic artifact, embodiment and transcendence, and belief and skepticism. This space for artistic investigation is categorized as the “third realm,” an inspiring yet transitory place that itself resists definition. A show about spiritual experimentation might conjure expected subjects and imagery. While the show is indeed filled with spectral bodies, trippy paintings and drawings, and magic spells, the aggregate effect is more surprising and resistant to critically skeptical dismissal than one might initially suppose. In fact “Tapping The Third Realm” is a difficult and curatorially innovative exhibition, posing frustrating questions about spatial and psychic limitations. The exhibition in both spaces challenges beliefs, not just about the sacred unknown, but about the meaning and activation of art steeped in the context of such a nebulous and indefinable space.

Installation view of "Tapping the Third Realm" at Otis College of Art and Design Ben Maltz Gallery with figurative work at center: Cliff Garten, mÜber, (mistrauen des Überbewussteins), 2013, crystals, 75 x 24 x 16 inches, lent by the artist | Image courtesy of Otis College of Art and Design Ben Maltz Gallery.

As is expected in a show engaging metaphysical questions concerning the limits of consciousness and embodied existence, many works in the two galleries involve meditative practices, repetitive mark-making, explosive iridescent color choices, and the accumulation of small actions and material to form a larger whole. For example, Zach Harris’ hypnotic paintings employ undulating heavily worked abstracted landscapes that push and pull at dimensional space. Each work is held in intricate hand-made frames cutting angular lines against the gallery wall, purposefully drawing the viewer closer while also challenging the limits of the picture plane and signaling towards the potential of infinite space.

While Harris’s works are no doubt commendable for their technical dedication and conceptual explorations, one wonders about their engagement with the “third realm” articulated by this exhibition. How close do they actually get to this strange ethereal space? This frustrating question ends up extending to the exhibition as a whole. With so many works gathered together with the intended purpose of representing and/or conjuring spiritual planes of existence, is this show even able to absorb a critical reception rooted in denying artistic wishful thinking in favor of an existing discourse privileging objective visual analysis, art historical contextualization, and an acknowledgment of the limits of physical space? At first it seems that evaluating the work in this exhibition is a pointless task, akin to arguing with a believer shaking with the Holy spirit, or questioning the validity of a friend’s dream, or challenging someone who honestly believes they have just seen a ghost. Logical interpretation itself is irrational in the face of undeniably honest irrationality; the starting point for any conversation must be acceptance of the other’s immediate belief that what they experienced was in fact “real.” So where does this leave the role of the critic in this exhibition?

In the way a blacklight poster on a dorm room wall only signals to a psychedelic experience until activated by a viewer in a psychedelic state, work about the “third realm” that speaks primarily through analogy or pictorial representation can only meet the viewer half way, by referencing a transcendent state without the embodied experience that accompanies it. For example, Christopher Bucklow’s paintings in this exhibition contain a referential interest in symbolism tied to art history, painters, and art world celebrities, but one has to take his word for how, according to the wall text accompanying his work, he creates his imagery from “studio dreams […] data from the unconscious, data from the realm of the Guest, a sort of information report from that other place.” There’s nothing wrong with this way of working; countless artists have visually tried to relay the images in their subconscious minds. But in the presence of these works one remains an outsider with little usable access to Bucklow’s third realm.

If one takes the physicality of the artworks on display and their intention to create a verifiable connection to something genuinely “unknown,” as a starting point, then at least one can ascertain that successes and failures hinge not on the accuracy of pictorial denotations (however marvelous they may be), or on how authentically the work stands as a souvenir of the artist’s experience (however earnest it may be), but on the resonance of the art object as an active producer of a metaphysical journey in the here and now, in the gallery, in the presence of the viewer, who is then made self-conscious and culpable for their logical interpretation of the truly illogical. This happens to great effect in the works of Dane Mitchell, whose simple gestures have profound resonance.

Mitchell’s contribution to the Laband gallery portion of the exhibition consists of seven oblong glass bulbs, each containing a different spell written by a pagan practitioner, spoken into the molten glass while it was blown in to expansion and then sealed forever as a fragile speech bubble. In this work one of the most popularly understood features of the third realm, a spell, is made plainly evident, framed in a beautiful but deadpan manner before the viewer. The work does not claim to be representative of the results of these pagan acts, but instead presents them as clearly as possible. The work’s greatest power is that whether one believes the spells to have their intended effect or not, one cannot doubt their presence as material in the work. In this way the artist bridges the abstract remove that so often separates viewer from mystical artifact, and instead brings the work’s audience face to face with the undeniable presence of a mystical act. Finally, Mitchell’s work demands that viewers confront their own biases and beliefs about whether or not his pieces’ engagements with third realm are indeed present and real.

Annie Buckley, The People’s Tarot (Deck and Guidebook) (2013), detail of selected cards. Photo: Courtesy of the Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles.

Annie Buckley’s The People’s Tarot (2013) also places the viewer in a place where they are given power to examine their own acceptance of the third realm. For her project Buckley created a tarot deck from analog and digital collage elements taken from popular media, including figures made from news article texts and contemporary pictures like the Twin Towers destruction and a laundrymat cart. She also updated the structure of the ancient fortune telling game, making it more gender neutral and less physically aggressive, doing things like replacing the suit of swords with pens. The resulting deck and accompanying instruction manual allow users to experiment in their own intuitive reading of the past, present and future. In this way Buckley gives room for viewers to go from passive observers to active participants in interpreting their own experience of their own third realms.

“Tapping The Third Realm” is a commendable and ultimately inspiring exhibition because it highlights ways of working and belief systems that are by their very nature difficult to convey and even harder to contextualize. The exhibit wrestles with its own limitations and in the end comes out having cast a spell of its own, perhaps intoxicating and entrancing one to re-examine the possibility for the presence of the unknown in daily corporeally-determined existence.
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