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Art for Art Bell’s sake: Crackpot visionaries in Orange

Wednesday, Mar 20 2002

THE COMMENT BOOK FOR THE CURRENT EXHIBIT AT the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University in Orange contains a brief and typical hubbub familiar to anyone who follows this most democratic of art-critical forums. "This isn't Art!" observes the first commentator. "Is too!" counters another. "Is not!" opines a third. The curious thing about this particular exchange is that it refers to a show that is composed almost entirely of works executed in time-honored high-art media -- paintings, drawings and photographs (with a bit of audio and video supplying the cutting edge). What is disturbing to these gallery-goers isn't the final form of the objects that make up the show, but the methodology by which they are realized.

Curated by Brian Tucker, "A Little Application of Our Much-Touted Know-How" compiles the explorations of two individuals and two collectives using aesthetic tools in the pursuit of what can be loosely classified as "paranormal" goals: the psychic photography of the Veilleux family of Waterville, Maine; the analogically enhanced photos and interpretive paintings of "rock book" cross sections by the late Richard Shaver; telepathic sketches by members of the Hawaii Remote Viewers' Guild and others; and examples of Reverse Speech phenomena demonstrated and explicated by David John Oates.

Tucker, managing editor of the ambitious L.A. art-critical tabloid X-tra, presents "Much-Touted Know-How" virtually without comment, except to "playfully invite thought about the relationships between critical thinking, science, faith and art"; he neatly sidesteps the implicit condescension with which academic skeptics treat such fringe material, while also avoiding the wide-eyed urgency (and consequent sloppy exhibition design) of the true seeker. Instead he offers representative artifacts respectfully installed to white-cubic standards, framed by brief introductory texts, and supplemented with a comfortable video station and plentiful optional reading for the intrigued scholar. But even a superficial examination of the material yields a bounty of novel and engrossing approaches to the nature of our world and art's place in it.

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Joseph Veilleux, for example, was a concrete finisher and cemetery groundskeeper when he took up the Ouija board during a slack period in 1965. One thing led to another, and Veilleux and his sons Fred and Richard soon found themselves receiving spelled-out instructions to take seemingly arbitrary Polaroids. On developing, these displayed a variety of mysterious visual anomalies -- bursts of light, bleached-out or clouded-over areas, and superimpositions of other landscapes or images that resemble book illustrations and paintings. Many contained superimposed images of persons not physically present at the photo shoot -- often just a face surrounded by a halo. Some were identifiable, usually of dead people like train robber Bob Brown or Western performer Annie Oakley; sometimes they identified themselves through the Ouija board. These artifacts bear a strong resemblance to the spirit photography of a century ago, down to the sometimes awkwardly collagelike appearance of the juxtaposed images. The Veilleuxes ingeniously claimed this as testament to their authenticity -- pointing out that anyone wanting to fake spirit photographs could do a much more convincing job. Though sure they were communicating with the dead, they offered no excuses for this awkwardness in the special-effect department -- it was none of their doing.

Prudence Calabrese, A Future Terror Attack (1997) For those who are not regular listeners to The Art Bell Show (KFI-AM 640, Monday through Friday, 10 p.m.), "remote viewing" is a term coined by CIA-funded researchers to describe the ability to observe distant geographical features and future (or past) events through psychic powers. While U.S. government involvement in the investigation of psi phenomena had long been dismissed as conspiracy-buff paranoia, documents declassified in 1995 revealed that the CIA had indeed initiated and sponsored more than two decades of experiments at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, focusing on the possibility of telepathic surveillance, or "remote viewing." Fans of this area of research may be disappointed by the scant selection of sketches (four, to be exact) included in "Much-Touted Know-How," though the lack of variety is mediated somewhat by the sensationalism of Prudence Calabrese's alleged precognitive depiction of a jet crashing into the World Trade Center, as well as by an absorbing video outlining the apparently successful remote discovery of the crashed WWII aircraft of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince.

On the other hand, former Art Bell regular (before a nasty lawsuit) David John Oates is represented by a wealth of material, including a full-length video and three separate listening stations documenting the hidden messages he has found by listening to recordings of human speech backwards. This isn't intentional "backwards masking," as when heavy metal bands instruct teenagers to nataS rof sevlesmeht llik, but a deeper, more primary language of the unconscious mind that is identical with the voice of Divinity, revealing the truth behind the lies of conscious speech, and even predicting the future. Much of this content is couched in symbolic language, which Oates relates to Jungian concepts of archetypal imagery, though Oates' system of interpretation is quite original. For example, Henry Kissinger's reverse-speech commentary on Middle Eastern peace talks "There's milk in heaven, Moses, lost with thy noise" translates into something along the lines of "The disputing parties have to pay attention to the intuitive voice of Divinity within, because the situation can't be resolved by rational conscious speech." Oates sees wide-ranging practical applications for this technology, including its obvious therapeutic potential, but most particularly as an infallible lie detector. Applied to an innocuous snippet of an O.J. Simpson interview, reverse-speech analysis uncovers the damning admission "He cowed when you missed your aim, he cowed my bayonet." Richard Shaver, Untitled (1973)

THE MOST IMPRESSIVE PORTION OF THE EXHIBIT, both formally and conceptually, belongs to Richard Shaver, an independent researcher who achieved a modicum of fame in the '50s with his nonfiction accounts of subterranean colonies of devolved malevolent aliens plaguing mankind with technology left behind by a prehistoric master race, published in Amazing Stories and other pulp magazines. Although Shaver's public star dimmed, he continued his research until his death in 1975, shifting his focus to the imagery he found in "rock books." Certain rocks, Shaver discovered, were actually a visual record -- made with a lost "3-di" technology -- of hitherto unsuspected antediluvian races of Mer-people and Amazons. By slicing the rocks into cross sections and staring intently, Shaver was able to tease out the elaborate, multiple-register imagery. The exhibition title comes from one of Shaver's remarkable explanatory captions, which states that "PERFECT PORTRAITS, PERFECT FIGURES OF PRE-DELUGE PEOPLES EXIST IN ENDLESS ABUNDANCE IN OUR ROCKS. THEY NEED ONLY A LITTLE APPLICATION OF OUR MUCH-TOUTED KNOW-HOW TO THE PROCESS OF MAGNIFICATION, OUTLINING WITH LIGHT THE VERY ANCIENT 3-di photography used by the forgotten peoples of the past." Predictably, such application was not forthcoming from the scientific community, and Shaver became increasingly frustrated as even his closest allies failed to be able to read the rock books correctly. To facilitate the knack, he began projecting his rock slices onto canvases and painting thickly textured interpretations of the complex scenes he had excavated.

Curator Tucker has put together several exhibitions of Shaver's work in previous years, and it's apparent in the succinct and satisfying selection of paintings, documentation and working photographs included here. Also on display is a copy of the hard-to-find fringe-book collector's prize catch The Secret World -- a hardback collection of Shaver's rock-book documentation and commentary, which raises the question of why this fascinating work -- which on visual terms alone ranks with the Surrealist paintings of Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet -- hasn't been afforded a more complete retrospective.

It was another Surrealist, Paul Klee, who once said that the function of art was "to make the invisible visible." The cultural workers assembled in "Much-Touted Know-How" are doing just this, and doing so in a radically literal way that undermines "art for art's sake" more effectively than any cramped academic art-world deconstruction could hope to. Without the contextual rationalization of art-world privilege, or reference to the conveniently unverifiable realms of spiritual or psychological experience, these painters, photographers, draftsmen and audio artists insist on locating their visionary experience in the physical, historical consensus version of reality. If this isn't art, it's only because art so seldom conveys such urgency and engagement toward anything outside the boundaries of its own safe and comfortable belief system.

A LITTLE APPLICATION OF OUR MUCH-TOUTED KNOW-HOW At the GUGGENHEIM GALLERY, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange Through March 30

  • Art for Art Bell’s sake: Crackpot visionaries in Orange

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