The art rebels of modernism were collectively labeled the avant-garde, or advance guard. The military metaphor was apt, considering their role in “keeping culture moving” (to use critic Clement Greenberg’s term), and their embattled watchfulness toward the entrenched bourgeois enemy. It’s possible to imagine, however, another metaphor: art cult. Modernist artists, mostly lapsed believers, considered themselves a humanist spiritual elite or priesthood — even while being led by autocratic gurus through apostasies, schisms, and excommunications. Formalism, the deification of the visual, was not the sole force behind modernism — just its predominant origin myth for thirty years, and contemporary art now investigates all manner of non-art culture.
A Golden Dawn is a conceptual installation by Savanna Snow and Michael Eli comprising nearly 100 paintings accompanied by site-specific sculptures and wall paintings, based on the mystical order that flourished in England and the United States during the spiritualist fervor of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Combining elements from ancient Egyptian religion, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and Theosophy, among other traditions, this eclectic cult erected temples (named after Egyptian gods) in London, Edinburgh, Chicago, and Paris. Although it was egalitarian regarding gender, its structure was hierarchical. Wikipedia: “The First Order taught esoteric philosophy … astrology, tarot divination, and geomancy. The Second … taught proper magic, including scrying [i.e. divination by peering into pools of ink], astral travel, and alchemy. The Third Order was that of the ‘Secret Chiefs,’ who were said to be … no longer incarnate … [directing] the lower two orders by spirit communication ….” Members included the novelist Arnold Bennett, the occult writer and magician Aleister Crowley, the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, the Christian mystic Evelyn Underhill, and the writers Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Gustav Meyrink, Bram Stoker, and William Butler Yeats — not your usual navel-gazing mad tea party!
Eli and Snow thus have succulent material here, which they have lovingly mined in their paintings (on driftwood gleaned from historically pertinent sites, suggesting time’s flotsam wreckage), but the history remains distanced. A Golden Dawn‘s people, terms, and symbols are painted in a Pop style combined with free brushwork and patterning, but decontextualized, with their provocative titles — “Black Marigold,” “Hercules Powder,” “Madame S,” “Thelema,” “Lubalion,” “Tattvas,” “The Enochian Key,” “Staff of Neptune,” and “Ipsissimus (faun)” — left unexplained. Exoteric civilians unequipped to grasp the hidden esoteric meanings will enjoy the visuals, but the essentially aesthetic approach feels like the speed governor on a powerful engine. A Golden Dawn runs through April 19 at Art at the Oakbook (423 Water St., Oakland). 510-549-1018 or TheOakbook.com