Catland Books, a “metaphysical boutique” that has been open for a little over a year in Bushwick, debuted their first ever art show over the weekend. “Secret Signals: Teen Angel Magic Spirit Photography” will obviously appeal to those with an interest in the metaphysical and the occult, but I hope those in the larger art world will take notice of it as well, as the work is strikingly strong. “Teen Angel” is the nom de guerre of artist Christina Dallas. Using her friends and handmade dolls as models, Dallas creates highly staged color photographs that incorporate symbolism, hand signals, and her own original costumes, with detailed backgrounds and other props. On one wall is an installation of mostly smaller works. Her friends, all female, made up as magic priestesses, flash occult hand signals while wearing large iron crosses, Mason, and other symbols. In others, the women look like Hispanic gang members, with black lips and bandanas tied around their heads. Interspersed are hand drawings of symbols in black ink, as well as several found photographs of symbols and hand signals noted with text as “King” gang identifiers. In other found images, the artist has given them a metaphysical aura by manipulating them to feature double exposures and faces that have been smeared into obscurity.
Even without understanding the symbolism involved, the works are profoundly compelling, given their strong compositions, and vibrant, sometimes acid-trippy use of color. Perhaps the most compelling are her photos of dolls on another wall, which also happen to be the most creepy and surreal. Although they appear to be digital collages, in fact, like her portraits, their compositions are entirely staged in real life. In “Portrait of the Royal Family,” three dolls with identical faces stare intently at the viewer, with the book “Man, Myth & Magic” propped up in front of them. Their faces (made from photographs) and hair appear eerily lifelike, but their heads do not seem attached to their bodies, and their arms are little more than thin rolls of cloth. Their lips are smeared with red lipstick, and their foreheads are marked with black crosses. In another, entitled, “Portrait of Twin Greek Princesses,” two dolls appear before a background like something out of Alice in Wonderland, with giant spotted red mushrooms dotting the landscape. One has perhaps indulged in a mushroom, as she lies supine, while her sister looks at us erect, behind the book “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.” Also hung as part of the installation are several of her costumes, which outside of her photographs appear rather lifeless. Untransformed by her lens, they lack the mystery that comes across in her photographs.
How did Dallas arrive at her strange and mystical imagery? In contemporary times the closest precedents for her photography I can think of are Cindy Sherman, Audrey Flack, or perhaps Laurie Simmons. One could look to filmmakers for the answer–Jan Švankmajer’s “Alice” or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Holy Mountain” seem a much more possible basis than the aforementioned artists. But to really understand her work, one needs to look back much further to the Medieval or Renaissance time periods, when most Western Art was religious and commissioned by the Church. Modern art has all but banished symbolism, (Surrealism being a notable exception), and even subject matter it sometimes seems, but when art was made for the Church its whole point was to tell a religious narrative. Symbols that would have been widely understood by the general population were used extensively in artistic works to convey a specific meaning.
The fact there there are people that identify themselves as “witches” in Brooklyn has become a bit of a trend in the press lately. But in the art world abstraction is currently king. In the face of this, Dallas’ choice of subject matter is quite brave, and suggests the artist is not a dilettante, but rather possesses a real belief in spirituality and the occult. She seems however, less interested in any one specific set of signs or symbols than their general power to communicate the ineffable, while aligning those that find meaning in them with something larger and more compelling than their individual selves.
Secret Signals: Teen Angel Magic Spirit Photography’ is on view through April 28, 2014 at Catland Books, 987 Flushing Ave, Brooklyn, NY.