Aleister Crowley, occult philosopher and mystic, is best remembered for his precept: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” This phrase is often misinterpreted as an excuse for a hedonistic lifestyle because Crowley himself engaged in taboo sexual exploits and drug experimentation, edifying some to pursue individual, anarchic freedom. Really, though, Crowley promised desires fulfilled by one’s destiny, prefiguring “The Secret,” the bestselling New Age self-help book, by about a century.
Crowley was never one to water down his thinking in pursuit of popularity. Instead, his strange writings, including instructions for pagan rituals, appealed mostly to fringe thinkers. William S. Burroughs, beat poet and author of “Naked Lunch,” picked up on Crowley’s philosophy with zeal, distorting its lessons to accommodate his own blatant drug use and sexuality demonized by mid-century American morality. In a 1978 interview, Burroughs misquoted Crowley, effectively reversing the dictum: “What you want to do is, of course, eventually what you will do anyway. Sooner or Later.” His interviewer accused him of being “amoral.”
Burroughs’ “Portrait of Aleister Crowley,” a painting on paper from 1988, is now on view at Th!nkArt Salon, in Wicker Park, along with a dozen or so of his other works. Burroughs’ palette tends toward the visceral tones: dried-blood crimson, shocks of red, vomitus green. The acrylic paint was applied energetically with a painter’s knife, sometimes accumulating into a crusty mass and sometimes taking on an ethereal air behind swaths of frenzied spray paint. No human face emerges from the portrait of Crowley, but a portal to some grim ghost-land sits front and center.
With titles like “The Assassin’s Gun” and “Tanks, World War I,” vileness and violence reign supreme. Was Burroughs thinking of the AIDS epidemic depleting his fellow gays during those dark years in the late eighties? Maybe, but Burroughs always celebrated the sordid. “Naked Lunch” and “Junky” made drug use seem hip, he carried a gun on his body (used variously to accidentally murder his wife and, later, to make ‘shotgun paintings’), and he often participated in underground gay activities.
Burroughs wasn’t a hero of gay culture in the usual sense. He didn’t fight to normalize homosexuality into the mainstream and he didn’t preach against the public perception of it as immoral and dangerous. In fact, his writings play up the dangerous and degenerate aspects. Surely this was a realistic picture of some pretty negative experiences, but it was also the acceptance of difference as empowering, as if to say: If you think my actions are ugly, and that makes me unique, then I will prove it. Burroughs’ paintings, though not masterpieces, are interesting because they come from his hand. As such, they’re small testaments to a subculture hacking away at conformity.
Across town, at Gallery 400, artist Michael Ruglio-Misurell tore up the space for his “Project 12,” a fictional shopping-mall food court destroyed by a riot. The immersive installation is believable like a movie set, and visitors are free to wander amid the ruins. Soon details and clues emerge: jean cut-offs hang from a clothesline, “undies” (the artist’s word) are stuffed into corners, tube socks hang from a urinal’s lip. In fact, urinals are everywhere here, stacked and in pairs, and so are plaid garments, popping up in almost every corner. Pink polka-dot vinyl threads through installation. There’s a makeshift tent ripe with pillows. There are glory holes.
It seems a band of gay outsiders stormed this food court and have since taken up residence. Whoever they are, they’ve effectively disrupted the shop-till-you-drop consumer ethos, replacing it with a destroy-till-you-fuck pleasure principle. It’s as if something had to be destroyed so that something else could be created.
Echoes of Burroughs ring here; just replace junk for junky. From the debris rises a sex den—the ‘disgusting’ type, where urinals, piss play and strangers are fetishized. The flags of a subculture are present if you know how to see them: the plaid garments symbolize the macho-man role. Knotted and in torn pieces, they serve as gags and cum rags.
Why take down a shopping mall? Again, the plaid shirts are cues. Ever since it’s become the hipster garb de rigueur, hawked at Urban Outfitters and H&M, plaid lost its symbolic power. Consumerism is the great equalizer. It has even set the stage for homosexuality’s mainstream entrance, queering products to increase salability. The stores in Ruglio-Misurell’s mall attest to this. They are called Paradise, Allure and Chicken Hole. With a glory hole punched into Allure, there’s no saying what might appear on this side of seduction.
In 1975 Gordon Matta-Clark sliced huge holes with a chainsaw into an abandoned warehouse in New York City. The site was an underground cruising spot for gays, now granted exposure by Matta-Clark’s violent cutouts. Both Matta-Clark’s gesture and the cruising were illegal and dangerous in 1975. In contrast, Ruglio-Misurell’s installation is co-sponsored by Westfield, a shopping-mall corporation with five outlets in Illinois. It seems that perversion is still a worthy tactic.
Published in Newcity (August 31, 2009)