Taken on a large-format, wooden, four-by-five camera, New York artist Mollie McKinley's photographs draw inspiration from paganism, hermetic philosophy, alchemy, and feminism. Her current show, Salt Priestess at Pioneer Works, connects these subjects, resurrecting the role of woman as the primary power broker engineering rites of liminal thresholds.
McKinley's priestesses are shot in remote, crude locations like deserts or abandoned parking lots. Clothed in dishrags and other found materials, they clutch everyday objects, like grocery store pineapples, that seem to possess some great spiritual significance. The vibrancy of the natural world shines brightly in these images via a turquoise sky, shadows projected by rock formations, and bright sunlight reflected on sand dunes.
As with most religious iconography, the Salt Priestesses come with their own monoliths, carved by McKinley from massive, 50 pound salt blocks. Using strange and discarded tools, like the cumbersome camera, the dregs of the Hudson River, and nutritional supplements for livestock, McKinley builds a bridge between humanity's pagan past and its dizzying present, where in the face of gender inequality and environmental distress, people are clamoring for connection to a bygone era of earth worshipping and matriarchy.
The salt block sculptures are even more finicky, with an approximate 25% success rate. As more material is chipped away during the carving process, the more fragile they become. The sculptures are also susceptible to environmental conditions. "Because they're salt, they kind of breathe with the environment, and they have this quality that's very interesting and very alive," McKinley says.
The material's ability to transcend the inanimate is one of the qualities McKinley feels sets the pieces apart from being merely sculptures, and moves them into the category of monolith. "They remind me of these beautiful ancient earthworks that are all over the world. And it made me think they have this quality that's larger than their size, and that's why I call them monoliths."
McKinley's interest in the motifs explored in Salt Priestess manifested while studying how Christianity overtook paganism. "I looked at the progression of Christianity into the alchemic period of the 1500 and 1600s, and the alchemists were starting to use elemental qualities I felt were still tied back to these pagan earth worshipping religions. Most of the historically famous alchemists were men," she explains. "Amidst the desecration of the matriarchal religions, you do have these beautiful gems that are part of a new tradition."
Indeed, the carrying on of certain practices from pagan religions is something that can be seen not only in the work of medieval alchemists, but right in front of us in the medicine cabinets and social media feeds of many people today. The use of esoteric practices by women in early religious communities was seen as a sign of great power. But as time went by, these associations became satirical, and society views women who participate in such things as silly or lacking in scientific education. Yet as the damage that an environmentally oblivious patriarchal society inflicts grows greater, those most affected by it are looking to reclaim older practices, using whatever resources are at hand, regardless of judgement.
In McKinley's photographs and sculptures, the artist explores new traditions emboldened with power not parody. She explains, "I think as long as we stay conscious of the history and complexity of these practices, which requires a lot of research and dedication to understand and really painful histories to read, then there is something really rich here. As long as we don't get caught up in aestheticizing it and forgetting all of the meaning and history."
￼Salt Priestess is on view until July 9 at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Mollie McKinley will do an artist talk in conjunction with the exhibition at the gallery on Thursday, June 22 with artist Martha Wilson and critic/curator Wendy Vogel. Click here for more.