If you've got even a passing interest in postmodern magical traditions, esoteric knowledge, Aleister Crowley, or The Craft, chances are that the work of Brooklyn artist Micki Pellerano will resonate with you in a very particular way. If you've got a bit more knowledge about those subjects, you're probably already aware of his incredible, otherworldly work. A multidisciplinarian by trade, he's worked in paintings, drawings, performance art, and music videos, all informed by his longtime interest in and experience with the occult. Just don't be nervous that his stuff will feel like Fisher Price: My First Demonic Invocation— he's the real deal, and his work reflects that seriousness.
Micki is constantly being bandied about by the vapid art press as an "occult scholar." This can get a little demeaning at times. "I'm a mystical person," he told me recently, "and my artwork is merely a symptom of that." He's not an academic when it comes to the occult. He's a lifer, a member of shadowy magical orders and a regular fixture among a certain subset of New York artists and intellectuals whose interests and wardrobes slant toward the obsidian. I know him from this world, and from his old band, Cult of Youth, and I've always admired his drawings.
Tonight, Micki's got a new show opening at American Medium in Brooklyn, to coincide with the gallery's one-year anniversary. He's named his show Celestial Love, and it focuses on the human body as it undergoes various states of decay and regeneration. The work is firmly planted in the zeitgeist while remaining patently indigestible, owing to a deep originality in form, technique, and subject. He suggests the Italian masters' inventive religious mythicism, but layers it onto a shadow world of crypto-religious rites and shadowy dreamscapes, all elegantly scrawled on coventry smooth paper. He's what you might call an artist's artist, but it's more accurate to say he's an artist's artist's artist.
Last week, Micki was kind enough to show me the work at his studio, a cozy second-floor walkup cluttered with odd decanters of strange herbs and ritualistic knives and goblets. I say it was kind, because he was losing his mind completing an inhuman amount of work—in addition to finishing up Celestial Love, Micki was shooting a video for my friends in the Brooklyn industrial two-piece Uniform, and packing for a trip back home to Miami. He sat me down in a heavy leather armchair—"the king's chair," he told me—to discuss his new show, how he makes work, and his recent interest in American transcendentalism.
VICE: Tell me a bit about your new show, Celestial Love.
Micki Pellerano : It's four large-scale graphite drawings dealing with a kind of poetry, two smaller images I call "Blonde Nails," and two other drawings I did from a series called Separation, which are all nudes suspended in voids enduring states of alchemical release. I started recently, when a friend of mine read me an Emerson poem called "Threnody." I was completely blown away—it had a major impact on my process for this show. After I heard it for the first time, something shattered in my brain, and I just sat on my bed and wept. It's the most beautiful thing, all about cosmic potential.
Do you feel like you're moving closer to that potential?
I've been getting closer to it my whole life. I've studied the occult for a long time, not just because I like the books, but because it lends itself to personal experience and psychic evolution. It changes you. You think differently and see things differently and communicate with other realms of existence. There's no difference between art and magic. And that's why I'm interested in the concept of celestial love. For me, it's a shattering state where ecstasy and suffering are indistinguishable from each other.
What are you trying to do with this show?
It's about suffering and finding ways to prolong suffering. Suffering can be a great thing, and you can channel the energy. There's an amazing quote from Dostoevsky where he says, "Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart." Trying to escape suffering is crazy—it's a part of being alive. If you make a choice and attempt to master pain in such a way that it no longer has the power to paralyze you, then you can accept it and embrace it and channel it. That's what alchemy really is. I'm exploring alchemy in my drawings and in my spiritual studies, and I'd be a shitty alchemist if I didn't know how to transform pain and make it work for me.
Micki Pellerano. 'The Veil,' 2015
How do you actually make work?
When I sit down to work, it's all about giving form to the grandiose ideas in my head. One of my favorite quotes is from Arthur Machen, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He says, "I dream in fire, but I work in clay." I have these massive inspirations, and then I'm forced to take my clumsy hands and give some sort of form to a formless idea.
Do you work without any other stimuli around? I read this thing once about how Basquiat worked with open magazines and the television on and whatnot.
I'm always looking at a bunch of things all at once. It's a total mess. Books open everywhere. I've got music blaring. I like audiobooks. Just stuff everywhere.
Do you have any routines or rituals that you come back to?
I'm a meditator. I meditate in the morning before I start working. I do three types of meditation: Pranayama, which is a breath-control meditation, then a mantra meditation, and then at night I do something called scrying, which is staring at an object.
Do you have any tricks to clear your head?
Baths. I love baths. And I listen to music in the bath. Lately it's been Alice Coltrane and Philip Glass. I use lots of epsom salts, and Japanese mint oil.
How do you interpret the art world's relationship with the occult?
I think our culture in general has this relationship to occultism where they find it fashionable and interesting, and yet they shy away from phenomena that are truly of an occult nature. They enjoy its mystery and imagery but are hesitant about genuine experience. In my work I try to make that relatable. To me, there are two main strands in the art world right now: The first is social or political commentary. This is ineffective if the artist's political notions are predictable and already shared by his colleagues and his audience. The other theme is popular culture. Artists are mocking pop culture while simultaneously drawing their inspiration from it, which I think this is an inverted dynamic. Historically, the art world has influenced pop culture by trickling down into it. Now it's the opposite, and I find that dangerous, and toxic to our culture.
Do you ever feel like you're boiled down into an occult artist, as if the term were a marketing tool?
My occultism has become more like my sexuality: It's simply an aspect of my being that touches everything I do, but doesn't predominate. It's like, I'm gay, sure. But really, who gives a shit?
Celestial Love opens tonight at American Medium, at 7 PM, and runs through June 6. American Medium is located in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, at 424 Gates Avenue. You can find more information on their website.
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