Let’s be frank about one thing up front: magic, wicca, witchcraft, occultism… it’s all pretty domesticated at this point. Like those who make homemade jelly, or handcrafted bread, or soy candles or pickles, there is no shortage of sensitive, think-outside-the-box individuals living in cities and college towns who also make crystal jewelry, oracle bowls, and bottled spells. Here in NYC, there are a dozen boutiques specializing in these (and other) hot commodities.

Alexis Palmer Karl is a multi-media artist working in this field, or with these flavors, though in an art gallery context. A solo exhibition is up now at the Pratt Institute Manhattan Campus (on the second floor) and it pits her magic-based work against the invisible mundanities of modern campus design.

On one wall is hung a pair of photographs of a dark-haired female standing in a cleared patch of forest. She holds aloft a black bowl, whose handles are made of rams horns, acting out a ritual scenario. To the right is a placard, not of the image’s title, but rather of an announcement that the building is wifi compatible.


There are also brochure racks for college classes set next to Karl’s video loop showing three young blonde females cavorting and dancing in circular, occult-like patterns. Fire extinguishers and restroom signs hang next to a long table filled with Karl’s collection of skulls, taxidermies, and black opal pendulums.

The commentary is unintended, which the artist let me know (disappointingly) when I entered the building for a preview last week; yet it somehow gets its point across. All these dangerous ideas of antiquity, once suppressed and repressed by way of torture and execution, now situated in a flat, uncaring modern world. One more thing, one more idea, just another product. It almost makes one long for the Inquisition.

The females in the photos and videos look not unlike models in magazine ads, or skin-care commercials, and Karl admits they are models she uses regularly. Another indication of the commodification of everything that was once dangerous? And if so, do we prefer commercialism to ideological terror?

In the same way, Karl’s skull sculptures are reminiscent of those done in the last decade by Damien Hirst, who encrusted his with diamonds and other precious stones. In Karl’s version(s), there are crystals, purple and white, which are affixed to the skulls, but also seem to’ve grown out of them—an impossibility in real life, as the elemental constituents of these stones began formation a billion years ago, while even the oldest skull samples of our species date back no more than a million years.

Ritual skull and witch bottles

But what of that fantasy? It seems death-obsessed, like so much wicca-culture, upon first glance. Is Karl’s dream one of extinction, whereby one day our collective remains will be no more than a petrified memory, embedded with the rest of the billion-year-old carbon, like those stones we mine today for jewelry and other commemorative displays of love and wealth?

I’m also reminded of the old Renaissance-era depictions of St. Jerome, as created by artists such as Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, and Mattias Grünewald. Each placed a human skull in the frame of their image: an indication of time as juxtaposed against the timelessness of God and heaven. It is the Devil who tempts Jerome with temporal things, a sentiment that also inadvertently echoes through Karl’s work, by its weird juxtaposition of the ancient with the sterile newness of the campus space.

The bigger message of the Jerome artworks is that time is always moving, therefore “now” remains ever-fleeting, and capturing it requires a special kind of meditation: one where the individual literally has to take time “out” of his or her day, thereby suspending time in an alchemical contemplation of that which stands outside of it.

Sadly, it seems the light of such spiritual longing is rapidly fading in our present time; that we are surrounded by way too much fucking technology and corporate intrusion, not to mention an establishment so repressive that it’s easier than ever to be hopeless about one’s life. We feel utterly small, with little resolve or recourse in which to make any real difference.

To that end, Alexis Palmer Karl’s exhibition offers no solid form of redemption; only a personalized expression of her quest for answers, couched in a language that suggests spirituality might still be possible in this cold world.

Moth and Skulls close up

You can watch her video, gaze at her photographs and one large oil painting, or wrap your fingers around the chain that suspends her rock pendulum, even stare into one of the black bowls next to Karl’s skulls, filled with potent liquid, and partake in the mystery of your own life.

This may end up being just another game to you—a silly trend; well-meaning, yet naive. Or perhaps you’ll take it as a clarion call. To seek, to resist, to act. The feminist overtones are obvious throughout; yet there is a universal element too.

One special way of thinking about it all is that doors open to us; mundane things and quirky things alike are placed in our path. To the initiate, these may be the signs and symbols of a hidden world of meaning. To the rest of us, it’s more of that big hunk of lead we’re used to getting in this life. The message is: it’s up to you to turn it into gold. (Brian Chidester)

All images are (c) Alexis Palmer Karl. Used with her permission.

The Coven Painting