September 12, 2021
• Los Angeles
A BLUE 1969 CADILLAC COUPE DEVILLE is parked on North Orange Drive across the street from Jeffrey Deitch’s LA gallery, a flying saucer affixed to the roof. License plate: UNARIUS. The sidewalk is swarming for the opening of “The Emerald Tablet,” a group show organized by and starring local painter Ariana Papademetropoulos. The crowd stews in the hot sun, phones waiting to be deployed as two men slowly toil around the car; what exactly everyone is waiting for remains enigmatic, at least to me. Eventually it becomes clear we are watching thirty-three white doves being laboriously stuffed into the celestial ornament. At last, loud, tinny classical music emanates from speakers affixed to the vehicle as the birds are unleashed, flapping, one after the next, into the air until they vanish over the low Hollywood buildings.
“Are you an artist in the show?” I ask the man puttering behind the wheel of the UFO-bedecked Caddy, the back fender of which is embellished with the message “WELCOME YOUR SPACE BROTHERS.” “No, I’m the driver,” says Jack Appel, a friendly middle-aged man with a New York accent. Once the manager of the Bulova watch headquarters in Queens, he moved out West years ago, after hearing a student of the Unarius Academy of Science being interviewed on the radio. On later googling, I learn that Unarius is a nonprofit organization, founded in LA in 1954 and devoted to spiritual betterment through interdimensional consciousness, past-life therapy, and fraternity with benevolent extraterrestrial civilizations. Jack tells me I can check out one of the group’s videos in the gallery, one of many they are in the process of digitizing. “We got thousands of tapes. We taped everything.”
It’s as good an introduction as any to “The Emerald Tablet,” which places Papademetropoulos’s fey paintings alongside other magically inclined art, broadly conceived, in a loose essay on Hollywood esoterica. The show takes its name from the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, a pseudepigraphic alchemical text that purportedly inspired the Emerald City of L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), famously adapted into the classic 1939 film. His American fairytale has been interpreted, variously, as a populist invective against the Gold Standard and an occult allegory, the latter theory attributing the story’s arcane symbolism and themes of astral travel and self-actualization to the author’s study of the teachings of the Theosophical Society, which he joined on September 4, 1892—by a curious fortuity, 129 years to the day before the Deitch show’s opening.
The first room is filled with five of Papademetropoulos’s paintings from this year: hard-edged, tightly surfaced, infatuated with effects of iridescence and transparency. The Tamed Beloved traps a white unicorn in an austere interior somewhat reminiscent of Magritte’s Time Transfixed, 1938, its body gradually attenuating into sheer planarity. I catch the artist posing for a photo with jewelry designer Darius Khonsary in front of Origins, 2021, a painting of a nacreous bubble floating in front of a desert volcano blowing pink and orange smoke, Judy Chicago–style, into the cloudless atmosphere. With some shyness, I reintroduce myself to the artist; we were childhood friends when I was growing up in LA, but have long since lost touch. We talk about Palm Springs symbolist Agnes Pelton and cosmic coincidences, and she introduces me to her friends, Depop influencer Kiera McNally and indie-rock whistler Molly Lewis. Both are pictured in profile, floating in a skiff on black water in Plutonian Cave of Eleusis, 2021, named after the mythic site of Persephone’s abduction. I’m told that Lewis will perform at tonight’s dinner. “Whistling is a super-spreading activity,” she warns me.
Painter Avery Wheless and gallerist Hilde Lynn Helphenstein, alias Jerry Gogosian, gamely pose for a photo in front of a working carousel by Raul de Nieves, outfitted with fantastic creatures (equine and otherwise) festooned in globs of sequins and beads. “It was entirely unplanned,” Helphenstein says of their coordinated outfits (crop tops and loud ’70s bellbottoms), adding that she “got the pants for ten dollars on Instagram.” Surrounding de Nieves’s revolving bestiary are Henry Darger’s child nymphs, Precious Okoyomon’s voodoo-esque doll made of wool, dirt, and blood, and Alix Vernet’s stoneware reliefs of the Witchcraft Victims memorial in Salem, Massachusetts. Presented on a gilded tray, Luigi Ontani’s opalescent polychrome ceramic boots at once suggest Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the Wicked Witch of the West, the latter also conjured in the shriveled rictus of Jordan Wolfson’s demoniacal House with Face, 2017. On the opposite wall, the tragipathetic hero of a painting by Sedrick Chisom commits Harakiri in a blazing inferno before Isabelle Albuquerque’s acephalous, hirsute nude couchant orgy for 10 people in one body, no. 8, 2021. The substrate, Albuquerque explains later, is a high-detail scan of the artist’s body, digitally augmented with eight nipples. She sourced the hair from wig stores on Wilshire and in Tarzana, and one of the claws from the coyote that killed her cat. “It was found in her fur on the eve of her death,” she tells me, “The sculpture’s own death is embedded within her body.”
“It’s kind of a Forbidden Planet vibe,” says Beck of the spooky analogue synthscape he created for the show’s dimly lit third room, painted the exhibition’s namesake emerald and anchored by the florescent orange hearth of one of Mike Kelly’s Kandor reliquaries. Beck politely declines to be photographed. Draped in pastel pink and green chiffon, Celeste Appel, wife of Jack, and fellow Unarian Jennifer Stovall oblige me in front Crystal Mountain Cities, 1982, one of the group’s aforementioned videos. Embedded in one of the fake boulders scattered around the gallery—“Rocks are like plants,” Ariana tells me later, “you can never have too many”—the footage shows spiritual leader Ruth Norman, turned out in white feathers and pancake makeup, riding in a swan boat. Behind another mock rock, viewers marvel at Leonora Carrington’s gemlike Untitled (Arc de Noé), c. 1962, its menagerie of ethereal beasts embarking in the gloaming. Nearby, Jean-Marie Appriou’s Tristian, 2020, an upright bronze figure of the eponymous knight bearing a hatchling dinosaur in a glass orb stands sentry over Sea Horse, 1950–52, by mononymic LA painter, poet, and Thelemite sex magician Cameron. A swirling depiction of a woman and the marine animal merging into a single entity, it was finished the year the artist’s husband, Crowleyian adept and Jet Propulsion Laboratory founder Jack Parsons, blew himself up in his Pasadena laboratory while making pyrotechnics for a movie.
After the opening, we line up for nasal swabs outside Casa Deitch, a 1929 Spanish revival in the Hollywood Hills just west of Los Feliz. “Cary Grant used to live here,” says someone. “The last party Ariana had was elf ear–themed,” says someone else. Wreathed in a gilded laurel diadem, Darius the jeweler aptly deems the evening’s aesthetic “Ancient Grecian drip.” Sparkles, unsheathed nipples, and general diaphanousness abound. Champagne is served poolside as we await the outcome of our antigen tests, gathered at tables decorated with plastic rock crystal votives. Raul de Nieves, who brought his mother as his date, DJs reggaeton and Hall & Oates as the concierge nurses call out our results by number (I’m guest 41). “Like bingo,” says Ariana, attired in a décolleté Gucci gown. (In 2019 she appeared, with Harry Styles and a camarilla of artists, designers, and models in a campaign for the house’s Mémoire d'une Odeur—a maenadic romp through the crumbling environs of the Italian castle where Balthus lived for thirty years.) Also present, in the commercial and at the party, is Black Lips saxophonist Zumi Rosow. Brad Pitt, promised to be in attendance days prior, is MIA. But beloved character actor John C. Reilly is there, and lets me trouble him for a photo, genially requesting I identify him as “Marty McFly.”
Art critic Andrew Berardini arrives, having freshly committed Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” to memory. “It’s a tiny bit saccharine, but I still love it,” he says. I have a cigarette with him and Isabelle Albuquerque, and bashfully ask her whether her furry sculpture was inspired, in any part, by the Jellicle body horror of the recent Cats film. It wasn’t, she says, “but it’s very witchy.” She tells me about flying ointment, a hallucinogenic salve witches rubbed on their broomsticks to simulate the effect of flight. Andrew, who is at work on his second book about color, busts out a tanka by the tenth-century courtesan poet Izumi Shikibu:
In this worldlove has no coloryet how deeplymy bodyis stained by yours.
In the so-called party room, I enjoy idle, amiable small talk with a nice fellow (whom I later learn is video artist and music video director Chris Cunningham) over a buffet dinner courtesy of hypey Fairfax trattoria Jon & Vinnys. We help ourselves to grilled broccolini, burrata and white peach salad, and six-hour Bolognese in the playfully demented ambiance of Richard Woods’s electric blue faux bois paneling, Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s cheeky light sculpture golden showers, 2000, and a chimerical sofa by Gaetano Pesce (equal parts bear, salmon, and toucan). Hanging in the abutting kitchenette is a photograph of Cary Grant, bobbing in the pool with his soi-disant roommate, tall-in-the-saddle cowboy actor Randolph Scott.
“Is there a dongle in the house?” Back in the garden, Molly Lewis’s postprandial concert is briefly delayed by technical difficulties. “Dongle,” Reilly intones from the audience, bemusedly repeating the word as if he were examining an alien object. “Dongle.” (He plays sax, arrayed in kingly velvets in Lewis’s video “Oceanic Feeling,” which also features Papadimitropoulos and McNally, flanking her like living caryatids.) Somebody produces a dongle and the show begins. The sound is worth the wait, lush and woozy—“part tiki-bar exotica and part spaghetti-western dreamscape” as Nate Rogers put it—and embubbled in a knowing nostalgia. The ping of a text message, amplified through the PA system, momentarily returns the audience to the present. “Airplane mode please,” says Lewis, and continues whistling, encircled by yuccas and ponytail palms on a landscaped path overlooking the lighted pool.
A rumor swirls about an afterparty at the Chateau Marmont, but everyone ends up at Jordan Wolfson’s house in Silverlake, which our host clarifies is a rental. “Should we do Elvis?” he asks. “Let’s do Elvis.” He puts on “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame.” At some point, the music switches over to the tropical portent of the theme from HBO’s White Lotus, and people vibe out on the carpet by the gas fireplace, sipping makeshift tequila and kombucha cocktails from Santa Claus mugs. I ramble to my childhood friend about a kind of sadness of her art, and she kindly agrees. “There’s a sadness because you want to be there, but you’re stuck in reality.”
I go to the refrigerator in search of better mixers. Inside, I find a dozen varieties of jams, marmalades, and preserves. Outside, I find more poetry: enlarged stanzas from William Carlos Williams, printed directly onto the fridge door, between a heart and an alien head each inscribed with the word “sex”:
I have eatenthe plumsthat were inthe icebox
and whichyou were probablysavingfor breakfast
Forgive methey were deliciousso sweetand so cold
The refrigerator, Wolfson told me, came with the house.
— Chloe Wyma