Art

Drinking the Kool-Aid With Elijah Burgher’s ‘Bachelors’

Elijah Burgher, Bachelor with solar-anal emblems (Jonathan), 2015, Colored pencil on paper (all images courtesy the artist and Zieher Smith & Horton, New York)

Elijah Burgher, Bachelor with solar-anal emblems (Jonathan), 2015, Colored pencil on paper (all images courtesy the artist and Zieher Smith & Horton, New York)

What is the possible transgressive and transformative power of cults? Do cults offer an alternative and queer form of relationality and community that counters the restrictive and repressive effects of both heteronormative and homonormative society?

Well, Chicago-based artist Elijah Burgher certainly seems to think so in his current exhibition Bachelors at Chelsea’s Zieher Smith & Horton Gallery.

Elijah Burgher, Bachelor (Paul), 2015, Colored pencil on paper

Elijah Burgher, Bachelor (Paul), 2015, Colored pencil on paper

Using symbols and rituals based in the occult, Burgher represents an imagined cult called Bachelors of the Dawn throughout the exhibition. His New York solo debut, the show features a range of delicate vibrantly colored pencil portraits of cult members and monumental drop-cloth paintings filled with fractured languages and eroticism. Burgher’s exhibition exists as an invocation–a cull for subcultural ways of being.

Understanding the figure of the bachelor as a subversive symbolic character, Burgher describes in the gallery’s press release, “The figure of the bachelor is crucial, embodying a refusal to marry and repeat the structures of the nuclear family and the patterns of personhood it perpetuates.”

Elijah Burgher, BotD (Eden, repeat), 2015, Acrylic on canvas drop cloth

Elijah Burgher, BotD (Eden, repeat), 2015, Acrylic on canvas drop cloth

While cults often get a bad rap due to the influx of crazy (*cough* Scientologists), the Bachelors of the Dawn are closer to Brion Gysin’s notion of the possible magical power in the fracturing of language and Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY)’s frequently employment and belief in the strength of sigils as a means of erotic evocation. Like TOPY, sigils–signs or emblems that contain a magical and often erotic power–are central to Burgher’s artistic language whether swirling in the background of his brightly colored pencil drawings or emblazoned on his tapestry-like paintings. Cutting up and transforming the traditional written word into an illegible but psychically powerful symbol, Burgher’s sigils strip language of all meaning, instead imbuing the sigils with a mysterious and ephemeral energy.

From solar anal emblems–paging Georges Bataille–to reconfigured and recontextualized letters, Burgher’s sigils reference both the erotic possibilities of magic rituals and abstraction. It is certainly no mistake that one of the most known and revered rituals concerning sigils produces a magical power through climax and sexual fantasy. By undermining language, Burgher’s Bachelors of the Dawn create their own method s of communicating desire.

Elijah Burgher, Bachelor with "demons" (Sleezy), 2015, Colored pencil on paper

Elijah Burgher, Bachelor with “demons” (Sleezy), 2015, Colored pencil on paper

As Allan Doyle writes in the exhibition’s corresponding essay “Gay Death Cult,” “Born into what Friedrich Nietzsche calls the prison house of language, the members of the cult see signification as a primary technology of social control. Their deformation of linguistic signs is a bid for emancipation through a revisiting of the traumatic entry into symbolic life.”

Elijah Burgher, BotD (Love Machine), 2015, Acrylic on canvas drop cloth

Elijah Burgher, BotD (Love Machine), 2015, Acrylic on canvas drop cloth

Not only do the sigils reference the potential in destroying language, but they also reflect the idealistic history of abstraction. Turning language into an impenetrable abstract form, particularly in his enormous paintings, Burgher produces a link between the belief in the utopian possibilities in the abstract with the magical aspects of the sigils. Rather than a record of expression, emotion or strictly adhered to artistic theories, Burgher’s sigil paintings exist as archives of ritual.

Elijah Burgher, Bachelor (Anthony), 2015, Colored pencil on paper

Elijah Burgher, Bachelor (Anthony), 2015, Colored pencil on paper

Like the hidden, coded meanings within Burgher’s paintings and drawings, his portraits of the Bachelors of the Dawn–based on photographs of his friends–are also unknowable. With only one portrait “AOS” gazing directly at the viewers, the Bachelors exist in a completely separate world of their own construction. Glancing away, the nude figures deny possession by the viewer.

In his essay, Allan Doyle expresses the viewer’s inability to decode the sigils or the gazes of the Bachelors. As he states, “Like his stripped nomads, we occupy a space filled with enigmatic signifiers we cannot decode and the confusion of the real and represented induces a vertiginous loss of self. Joining this imaginary sect offers a potentially transformative experience.”

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