"Magic is a place where categories dissolve," says artist Jesse Bransford. His show "Nomina Magica," Latin for "Magical Names," will be exhibited at the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf until January 9.
"Nomina Magica" is a highly eclectic blending of esoteric traditions. Images from Hindu tantra merge with Navajo designs, witchcraft symbols, and Nordic runes. Most of the drawings resemble minimalist Tarot cards. OES Staff (for S. A.) is a four-color pentagram with an inscribed pentagon: the symbol of the Order of the Eastern Star, a lodge of the Freemasons. It's almost like Bransford is inventing his own religion. Yet the work doesn't exactly feel New Age. It's a little too knowledgeable, too personal. It's not the visual equivalent of a self-help book. When asked to name his influences, Bransford furnishes a long list, including Philip K. Dick, Aleister Crowley, Walter Benjamin, the Sufi Idries Shah, and the Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. As an NYU professor, Bransford has learned to footnote his obsessions.
The works' titles offer insight into his intent: To Receive All You Ask For, To Protect Trees; To Help Plants Grow; To Speak to Plants, Against Melancholy II. Each piece is both a work of art and a literal magic charm to create the effect of its title. In a circuitous way, Bransford is actually returning to the earliest roots of art. No one knows why cave dwellers drew luminous paintings of stags and bison on the cavern walls of Lascaux 19,000 years ago, but quite possibly a magic ritual was involved. (By painting a stag, the artist may have mystically ensured that a hunter would kill one.) How does Bransford define magic? "It's two parts mind-body interaction, two parts sublime nature awe, another part psychedelic reverie, another part spiritual satori," he says. Bransford's art has included magical elements for the past 20 years.
The geometric precision, sharp colors, and sense of higher purpose are reminiscent of the late work of Wassily Kandinsky, who subscribed to the mystical system: the Theosophical Society, a group founded in New York City in 1875 that combined spiritual techniques of East and West. Bransford's larger works play cat-and-mouse with symmetry, and have background washes of watercolor or ink that function as a visual commentary on the symbols in the foreground. "I also imagine them as nebulas, clouds, seen from a distance," Bransford explains.
His work can befuddle the rationalistic Manhattan art world, but is perfect for the Seligmann Center, which began as a small farm owned by Kurt Seligmann, one of the original Surrealists. Seligmann's book, The Mirror of Magic (1948), a heavily illustrated overview of the occult, is still read by young adepts; in fact, Bransford himself has three copies! Crystals were found buried next to the fruit trees on the property, a sign that Kurt and his wife Arlette practiced biodynamic farming, a system of agriculture based on principles outlined by Rudolf Steiner. Bransford camped on the grounds for three days while installing the show. He also painted a magic circle on the gallery floor, quite similar to the one in a photograph of Seligmann from 1948 in which he entertains friends at a party in Manhattan, wearing a tuxedo and holding a metal scepter; near his feet is a human skull.
Bransford lives in Williamsburg, but also owns an octagonal house in Catskill, which contains his studio. Along with its many influences, Bransford's art balances city and country. And one can hear, in its symphonic geometry, the voice of the octagonal house!
Jesse Bransford's "Nomina Magica" will remain at the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf until January 9. (845) 469-9459; Occitizensfoundation.org.