At the center of Rithika Merchant‘s visual language is the issue of natality. Indeed, the umbilical cord is attached to a variety of life sources in her work, though each carrier—from winged goddesses to humanoid females, to the fabled Tree of Life—suggests a pseudo-scientific explanation for why things are the way they are.

Merchant is not alone here. Her work, in fact, feels like part of a cultural centrifuge, with more than a few recent exhibitions having focused on symbology and the aesthetics of the occult. I’m thinking of the Marjorie Cameron retrospective at Deitch Projects this past September; the small showing of Steven Arnold’s tableau-vivant photographs at Daniel Cooney Gallery in Chelsea; the recent show of new Mark Ryden paintings at Paul Kasmin Gallery (also Chelsea); and now a pair of group shows spanning the early 20th century to the present.

The first is titled Language of the Birds: Occult and Art, which opens next Tuesday (01/12/16) at the 80WSE Gallery at NYU and features work from more than a century back; these include paintings by neo-paganism’s doyen Aleister Crowley, short films by Kenneth Anger, and paintings by the recently-deceased Paul Laffoley (among others).

The second is Hieroglyphica, currently on view at the Stephen Romano Gallery, in Bushwick, which is paired to a retrospective of watercolors by the American visionary and outsider artist Charles Dellschau. The latter’s strange blueprints and cryptographs for constructing Wizard of Oz-like aircraft works well with Merchant’s Hieroglyphica, the latter being the more trendy of the two.

The greater question, I suppose, is why the sudden uptick in magic from creative types? One could argue it has always been there and perhaps that’s true; it might just be a matter of where one is looking. Certainly by looking outward to the entire spectrum of creativity, magic is easier to find. Comic book wizards like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore, for instance, have for three decades now woven their own Poe-like fabric into the most generic of American artforms.

The bourgeois arts, so inextricably-linked to liberal institutions and commerce, however, have been less esoteric. Recent decades have seen the gallery world more generally inclined to non-metaphysical areas such as materiality, process, social progress, and mainstream science. Conventional wisdom suggests a renaissance in metaphysics might coincide with some large-scale catastrophe, wherein the nascent inward-looking masses make a total break from technology and decadence.

Granted, there seems no end in sight to the current wars in the Middle East; and neither numerous ecological catastrophes around the globe, nor the Great Recession of 2008 have tempered the crushingly unstoppable advance of digital technology and establishment politics. Yet the artists featured in these and other shows are hardly examplars of religious conservatism. If anything, they’re the alternative; i.e. a kind of blue-state spirituality you might say.

In terms of Merchant, the Bombay-born artist has lived in Barcelona during the last few years. (She moved there after graduating from the Parsons New School of Design in Union Square.) Her highly-detailed compositions—on paper, stained in gouache and ink—draw on a number of antique sources, from the Hindu Vedas, to Egyptian chimeras, to Native American mythology. That her source material is somewhat native to the artist herself reduces the work’s kitsch-factor, perhaps, though Merchant’s work barely touches on identity politics outside of feminism, which is vague, but sensual and evocative.

One recent drawing (below) features eight nude female figures with penguin heads, lounging and kneeling beneath a full moon, which I admit made me want to dust off my old ’80s Penguin Cafe Orchestra LPs (with Emily Young sleeve art) for a fresh spin. The moon, in fact, figures prominently in Merchant’s work; she told the Huffington Post earlier this year that the moon is traditionally associated with madness and lunacy, and that it teaches us to “accept the darker side of our selves—be it the destructive aspects, or the more taboo.”

More generally speaking, Merchant points to circles and orbs as symbolic of femininity, eggs, birth, and cosmogony. Some of her drawings, particularly those which expose inner-anatomy and plant-like tendrils, recall Frida Khalo at her most symbolic. When Merchant’s humanoid figures transform into plant-life, the work brings to mind the crude drawings of the Voynich Manuscript—an indecipherable medieval codex with a multitude of anthropomorphic vegetative forms.

At some level, I admit, it is difficult to judge the real merit of Merchant’s art. Not because there are not tell-tale signs of intellect and talent here, but because the recent profusion of this type of art is so delectable that I find myself unable to muster any real skepticism. The body says yes; the mind begs for caution. Ultimately, what this trend in occultic art seems to be is the latest crossover from low-brow to high-brow—which, as shows like the ones at NYU and the Romano Gallery suggest, has a robust (if hidden) history, despite being largely ignored by curators and critics. That still doesn’t explain recent surge in popularity.

The truth is, occultic and spiritualist art has long-existed on the fringes—in esoteric books and pamphlets, science fiction and comic books, rock and new age album covers, and any number of other cheap pop culture formats. Without assigning all that is demotic, or potentially popular, to perdition, we should acknowledge by now that high-brow and low-brow are differences not of essential merit, but of demographics, and that the two have invariably blended to a greater degree than is perhaps taught in today’s elite institutions. To that end, esoterica is no longer fringe.

Spiritualist art, however, appeared in the mainstream once before—namely during the late 19th century, when the Symbolists, Pre-Rafaelites, and Art Nouveaus of Western Europe turned art into a lifestyle for the first time. They did so because they were the first inheritors of mass-production; though by now (a century hence) all those lacy theatre posters and floral kitchenwares seem more the kitsch of their day—a kind of backdrop to the emergence of European modernism—than anything else. And so it may be with this current iteration of spiritualist art too, should any of it actually stick.

Rithika Merchant is but one of the new flavors available for sampling. I believe it was Seneca who wrote: “When the sleeping earth rises in the strength of a giant, refreshed by wine, may we all drink from the same wide chalice!” (Brian Chidester)

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