Last week, L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight reviewed MOCA's "Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman," a show about the artist Marjorie Cameron, who went by just her last name and has been better known for her occult and cult-film involvement than for her art making. Her notoriety, Knight acknowledged, hinged on her appearance as a dark goddess figure in occult-involved filmmaker Kenneth Anger's work, as well as the time a drawing of hers prompted the LAPD's vice squad to raid a show at L.A.'s iconic Ferus Gallery. It also had to do with her association with her rocket-scientist husband, Jack Parsons, who introduced Cameron to occultist Aleister Crowley and whose tragic 1952 death took her years to recover from.
"As has often happened with compelling women who demonstrate artistic verve, Cameron was pretty much socially limited to the role of men's muse," Knight writes. "Her work is thus rather thin," he continues, though it's more the condescension of the "demonstrate artistic verve" part that rankles. Are such "compelling women" not real artists?
Yael Lipschutz, who curated the Cameron show with the help of longtime MOCA curator Alma Ruiz, wonders how much Cameron's continued marginalization as an artist in her own right has to do with her subject matter. "She was interested in female sexual power in relation to mysticism," Lipschutz says.
"People turn their heads away because it's not a hip field of inquiry in contemporary art theory," she adds of mysticism in particular.
A growing number of younger artists today are interested in Cameron and trying to push back against that stigma. They hope the show will start a conversation, not only about the way Cameron is talked about but also about the marginalization of women who explore femininity in ways conventionally considered "irrational" — such as through spirituality or magic.
Since encountering Cameron's work in 2009, artist Margaret Haines has written about her fascination with Cameron's story and how it relates to being female now.
This past summer, artist Eliza Swann, who also has known of Cameron's work for a few years, launched a school called the Golden Dome, where artists assembled first in the redwood forest and then in Woodstock to explore connections among art, science and spirituality. Swann has been hosting Moon Circles in L.A., too. Women and men gather on the full and new moons of each month, discussing their lives in relation to feminism and other bigger issues, before participating in rituals that Swann has planned in advance.
Writer Grace Kredell, who recently co-founded feminist craft collective Necessary Habits, participates in these Moon Circles and had begun to wonder if mysticism might offer a way to think about feminism differently even before MOCA announced its Cameron exhibition. She felt a weird sense of urgency when she heard about the show. "I approach [the New Age] most comfortably from the standpoint of art and feminism, for its ability to shake things up," Kredell explains.
This Cameron show had potential to shake things up, and Kredell wanted to help make sure that interest in the exhibition wasn't just a trend, that something in-depth and ongoing came of it. When Kredell and Necessary Habits co-founder Rachel Jones decided they wanted to organize some kind of event in response to the Cameron exhibition, they contacted Swann, who agreed to help. They're tentatively planning an event for early January.
The MOCA show itself left Swann with ambivalent feelings. "Her work is great," Swann says. "It encapsulates mystery and a real commitment to unraveling" — unraveling the way the mind works, or the feelings different experiences bring on. "Her sexuality, it seemed like she owned it, which is wonderful," Swann adds, "and at the same time, it seemed like other people owned it, which is sad."
There are drawings, such as Peyote Vision or East Angel, West Angel, in which the women are sensual and ferocious and the draftsmanship is bold. But the prominent men with whom Cameron was associated appear often as references in wall labels and vitrines, and even as inspiration for work, such as the eerie Songs of the Witch Woman drawings directly inspired by her late husband's writing. "Who is Cameron on her own?" Swann asks.
Still, Haines, who explores her preoccupation with Cameron in her book Coco x Love With Stranger, remembers hearing a recording of Cameron's voice for the first time. She was struck by its confidence. "There seemed to be a strong, smart woman," Haines says. "Her knowledge of her own process and historical placement was very cognizant, well thought out and intelligent. It didn't match at all this other vacated muse image of her. ... There was a politics to her work that had been completely missed." Did this other image thrive because it's the way people know how to talk about someone like her?
"Language is the whole problem," says Swann, who finds Cameron difficult to talk about. But learning to talk about her effectively could have exciting implications. Swann cites French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, who has argued since the 1970s that Western language is fundamentally male, "confounded" with the "phallocentric tradition" of reason.
According to Cixous, even as women's prominence in literary, scholarly and political fields has grown, most women still are trying to make a male model work for them. It's an argument that feels newly relevant in light of such recently published books as Lean In and The Confidence Gap, in which female writers posit that women can become more successful professionally by adopting behaviors more often associated with men (applying for promotions they don't necessarily qualify for, verbally asserting ideas for the sake of doing so).
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But maybe it's not that language needs to be more feminine. "I would say we need to mysticize language," Swann says. Embracing mystery and uncertainty in the way we speak about how an artist like Cameron lived and worked might allow for freer thinking about how art and life can intersect — in the case of Cameron, who made extreme decisions about how to live (isolating herself in the desert at one point, or participating in and orchestrating sexual rituals), the art is not just works we can see but also other aspects of her being.
In writing her book, Haines worked hard to allow Cameron to remain mysterious and undefined. "I wanted to be careful about writing an authoritative text about her," she says. "I did not know her, and so I made it about my own impressions of her work." The book moves back and forth between personal observations and historical research. At one point, Haines describes thinking about the occult while driving through the Valley on Halloween; a paragraph later, she quotes Cameron on psychology and repression. She grapples with girl culture, New Age ideas and the goddess movement, a 1970s push to replace patriarchy with matriarchy.
Thinking about all this, Haines says, led her "to consider Cameron as a feminist with a kaleidoscope of contradictory lenses and without direct or simple packaging." The book feels like an experiment in living under the influence of an artist who refused to be just one thing. "This life path surges beyond customary lines drawn," Haines writes of Cameron's path. "[T]here is no expected a) OK b) NOT OK."
CAMERON: SONGS FOR THE WITCH WOMAN | MOCA PDC, 8687 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | Through Jan. 11 | (213) 621-1741 | moca.org