Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995) was a towering figure in L.A.'s storied mid-century counterculture, whose bohemian, subversive art and life continues to resonate with unfurling influence across the generations. Yet, even among her most ardent admirers, Cameron remains a figure shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding. Mostly what people know has to do with her husband, Jack Parsons (1914-1952) -- a handsome and charismatic rocket-science pioneer, founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, bon vivant occultist, victim of communist-blacklisting, and L. Ron Hubbard frenemy who died under conspiracy-theory-ready circumstances just when things were getting really interesting. If you've seen her star turn in the Kenneth Anger film "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," you may already have fallen under her spell without even realizing it. She's familiar to some as a practitioner of Aleister Crowley's ideas about the malleable fabric of the universe and the use of magic -- especially the bit about opening the doors of perception. But with a few rare exceptions very few have seen her visual art in person -- which is a shame, because it is her accomplishments as a visual artist of singular vision and iconoclastic bravery which are the heart of her power as a cultural force.
On the eve of the new exhibition, Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman (on view from October 11, 2014 to January 11, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center) and in the wake of the Getty's PST survey which lavished attention on her (mostly male) colleagues and contemporaries like George Herms, Kenneth Anger, Wallace Berman, Robert Heinecken, Curtis Harrington, and even Dennis Hopper, it's apparent that the time has arrived for a proper revisitation of her legacy. It's not that there's a total dearth of information on her available -- but, like much of the imminent coverage surrounding the exhibition -- most of that material has to do with her compelling biography, and there is a dearth of art-historical analysis of the work itself. Not that that's entirely the media's fault -- she was known for almost never signing, frequently destroying, and refusing to publicly exhibit her paintings and drawings, so the vast majority of it has remained in private hands all these years, in large part according to her own wishes. But as MOCA offers the largest survey of Cameron's work since 1989, including nearly 100 works of art, process and source materials, and salient ephemera -- much of which had long been thought lost -- senior curator Alma Ruiz and guest curator Yael Lipschutz are aiming to change that.
Cameron never went to art school, and that's probably for the best. Her visual art was an outgrowth of something else entirely; something that needed to remain raw, outsider, ritualistic, and mystical. In an interview recorded around 1988 with Sandra Leonard Starr from the Getty Research Institute archives, the artists states, "I was very impressed as I was of anybody who was a product of art schools because they always had a finish that I hadn't learned." She was an accomplished draftsman stemming from her employment during WWII drawing maps for the U.S. Navy -- an experience largely credited with the confident line drawing that dominates her style. But at the same time, the regimented paradigm propagated in art schools back then would have beaten a refinement into her style that does not belong there, and that would not have served her higher purposes. Because her artworks did have a higher purpose -- as conduits for her adventurous spiritualist practices and illuminations of her psychic visions.
She tended to view her works as ritualistic energy totems, rather than as precious objects for commerce and archive. (That has a lot to do with the not signing and the sometimes setting on fire.) In her essay for the exhibition catalog, Lipschutz recounts Cameron's own statements on the matter in this passage: "We were what I call the Freudian generation. Psychology sort of released us. As I have come so well to realize," she wrote, "the myths are not remote fables for entertainment, but the real archive of the human race and when the conscious mind and the unconscious mind synchronize -- the legendary adventure becomes the real, concrete present -- and perhaps these incredible maps of the plights of Gods are in truth, the only guide signs for the hero who ventures out beyond safer regions -- the unknown." MOCA Director Philippe Vergne, in his remarks for the catalog, waxes eloquent and poetic on this aspect of her practice. "If not written, a history that can be hallucinated is the only strategy to overcome the gruesome cruelty of a culture that has neglected the values of humanity for too long; a culture that might leave the negative trace of systematic erosion, destruction, and obliteration."
Of course, this insight comes in 2014 -- at quite a remove from the cultural context of the mid-1950's in which Cameron was discovering her rebellious path and staking out her personal style. One of the better-known anecdotes from that time recounts the circumstances of her brief gallery career. Her artwork had first appeared in 1955 in the first issue of Wallace Berman's celebrated journal Semina. In 1957 Berman included her drawing "Peyote Vision" -- depicting a woman having sex (and enjoying it!) with an otherworldly spirit-world creature -- in his exhibition at Ferus Gallery. When the LAPD vice squad shut down the show for lewd material, Cameron vowed never to show her work in a commercial setting again (as did Berman). Indeed, a reaction of fearfulness toward the unleashed sexuality and mythological power of female energy she depicted in all her work remained all too common through the years in a male-dominated art world. Additionally, the unapologetically narrative, symbolist, naive and surrealist aesthetic of her work, influenced equally by medieval manuscripts and Beat sensibilities, was at odds with the slick, futuristic conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s in California. And of course, she was a woman.
To their credit, the exhibition's organizers place special emphasis on Cameron's value as an icon of alt-culture feminism -- not only in terms of the actual content of her work which spoke directly to the incarnation of female deities in the world of living flesh, but also in terms of the example she set with the absolutely indomitable way in which she lived her life and defended her principles. Philippe Vergne, again from the catalog, appreciates how "From Cameron's work, a museum can learn courage. The courage of a woman who defied the conventions of her time and followed so many women who remain in the shadow of patriarchy but who have often taken more revolutionary risk than their seminal husbands, lovers, and friends." Lipschutz further notes that, "This examination of Cameron's work comes at a time when the careers of a number of her female contemporaries -- such as Jay De Feo, Niki de Saint Phalle, Dorothy Iannone and Barbara T. Smith -- are being rediscovered as well." On Cameron's unorthodox life as an artist, Lipschutz remarks, "One might argue that Cameron's rejection of the commercial art world negatively affected her position in art history. Yet it was mystical transcendence that fueled Cameron's journey into the unknown and her path would not have looked the same had she been focused on financial success." In that 1980s interview with Sandra Starr, Cameron remembers those days with a gritty fondness that will doubtless resonate with a new generation of boundary-blurring, collective-thinking, lifestyle-immersed artists on the hunt for a more enlightened path. "We were the raggedy-ass kids. We had nothing except each other, and a lot of balls. Because we were sure that we were unique."
Members' Opening: Friday, October 10, 2014, 6-9pm.
Panel Discussion: Sunday, December 14, 2014, 3pm at the West Hollywood City Council Chambers Panelists include Tosh Berman, Jean Ferro, George Herms, Yael Lipschutz and David Meltzer.
Two things Southern California has in abundance: sunshine and plastic. Chief among the artistic prime movers that pushed L.A. onto the international art-world stage was the Light & Space movement, the ultimate byproduct of Southern California's sunkissed and spaceward-thinking intellectual environment.