Beyond the Pleasuredome: The Lost Occult World of Burt Shonberg
August 17 through November 1, 2021
By ALFRED ROSENBLUTH, October 2021
Running from 17 August to 1 November 2021 at Buckland’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magick in Cleveland, Ohio, Stephen Romano Gallery presents “Beyond the Pleasuredome: The Lost Occult World of Burt Shonberg”, curated by Brian Chidester. A visionary painter who was most active in the 1950s and 1960s, Burt Shonberg experienced relative obscurity during and after his time – a condition which this particular show seeks to redress.
The show’s earliest-dated work, “Untitled” (1954), makes a fitting introduction to Burt for the majority of readers likely encountering his name for the first time as it indexes multiple early 20th century conventions foundational to his style and from which he would depart in later works. In this particular water color, a vast landscape replicates itself within and without the shifting facade of a soldier’s bust (likely a self-portrait as Burt had served in the military). A synthetic balance between cubism and surrealism is tangible, nodding to established masters such as Dali and Di Chirico through the lone figure facing a desolate horizon and the amorphous, cracked structures cast in high relief that surround the subject’s base. While such elements dominate the gestalt of the watercolor, closer observation reveals then-more uncommon tropes. The Modernist convention that pushes a subject, such as a face, in this case, to redistribute itself into a shifting composite of subjectively observed moments, would not be the same that adds features such as the soldier’s third eye that hangs to his right and sprouts a tail like that of Horus’. In the sky, emanations of otherworldly lights herald entry points through which Burt’s emergent vision opens upon the paper in ways yet to be fully developed. No other featured work contains such a multivalent density of information; as though compelled to formally demonstrate the reach of his knowledge and facility before departing into uncharted territory, Shonberg does so within this single work.
Despite this exhibit’s significance as Shonberg’s fourth-ever show and first solo show in fifty years, one needn’t have been alive in the 1950s to have been able to casually encounter his work, most likely in the form of his murals adorning the streets of Laguna Beach and the walls of its Cafe Frankenstein, of which he was a co-owner. Anyone familiar witth Roger Corman’s film adaptation of “Fall of the House of Usher”, would have already experienced Shonberg’s ominous likenesses of the deceased, which Corman commissioned to adorn the film’s interior mansion walls. Corman’s high-profile association was not the only one to benefit Shonberg’s career – it seems any given period of Burt’s career was shadowed by at least one respectively definitive relation that would have a profound impact on his creative trajectory. After a year of his romantic involvement with known occultist and provocateur, Marjorie Cameron, Burt himself had the chance to meet Dali and Picasso in person while traveling with subsequent romantic interest and fellow artist, Valerie Porter. The list of established contacts goes on, but considering that he had the affections of individuals who have moved mountains for him, including the same George Greif who helped bring the Beatles to the US and Marshall Bearle, the manager for Van Halen, the question at the center of this exhibit remains: why was Burt forgotten?
The potential reasons are many – Brian Chidester, Art Historian and the show’s curator explains in the show opening’s follow-up conference that while Burt “blended existing motifs in a way that existing artists hadn’t,” he “made no actual breakthroughs”. Brian writes: “Shoneberg was too strange for even the ‘60s California sci-fi world, and far too removed from the fine art establishment, to be embraced by either.”
As Shonberg’s life and work bare the truth of these statements, they are likewise innocently summarized in the illustration of his Café Frankenstein menu: depicted is the Monster, Burt’s autobiographic double and misfit icon, grasping a copy of Allan Ginsburg’s “Howl”; a statement that reads as his disavowal of acceptance – to remain a misfit among the acceptable beatnik vanguard.
Returning to a specific work that continues this theme, the work “Title Unknown (the Bride of Frankenstein)” (1958) illustrates the unique syncretic sensibility that Chidester mentions, through which Burt developed his vision and imagined his own matriarch of Hollywood’s horror canon. The resulting likeness vibrates within an uncharted space where the modernist application of pallete knife and casein paint constructs an artifice of sewn-together flesh. With an opacity reminiscent of Mondrian’s mask-like visages, her pallor condenses the environment’s hue into an echo of its green and pink greys. Embedded in this continuity between figure and ground is the perennial communication of mystics that as things are within so they are without.
With that said, to appreciate Burt’s work as the visionary project it ultimately was, stylistic acuity can only remain a question for art criticism’s objectives rather than be conflated with the artist’s primary concerns. Burt shares in an interview “that he places ‘no limitations’ on his brushes, abides by ‘no academic rules’ – although he knows them – and simply strives to ‘explore the unknown – [his] unknown […] however difficult [it was] to communicate with people’.” Despite the uncompromising idealism that doubtless further ensured his sentence to obscurity, Burt, as a serious artist, remained aware of his work’s reception: “People are looking for a label they can attach to everything,” he says, “when they fail to find it, the object gets the only label they have – bad.”
In the end, despite external pressures, we know Burt’s professed need to express the immediacy of his impressions superseded the desire to be a relevant voice in the era’s dominant conversations. He took his chances in remaining devoted to his purpose –a decision whose fruits too often come to be recognized only posthumously as we can see.
A relationship with the spiritual dimension of life is for visionary artists such as Shonberg, is central to their work. His first encounter with “The Eternal Now” took place a whole two years before he would be introduced to actual “mind manifesting” substances – which started with Marjorie Cameron and then formally with Dr. Jangier under controlled administrations of LSD in 1960 as part of a clinical trial to observe the effects of lysergic acid on creativity. In contrast to what would come later, this initial experience “beyond the limits of so-called ordinary, everyday consciousness” in Burt’s words: “was not induced by any chemical means or yogic-type efforts on my part it came by itself and took me by surprise. Every day, for seven years straight, I was hit by a number of widely-separated, momentary blasts of unexpected light.” Seeking to reconnect with this initial experience, he would continue to test the limits of his consciousness using “whatever means available” – that his style likewise attempts to go beyond any single established formal convention makes for a poetic continuity of life and work.
Moving out of the linear progression of time and into one closer to Burt’s initial revelation, we begin with a later work “Title Unknown (Peyote Vision)” (1965). Before us unfolds a bare landscape, whose sky collapses and reveals a single orbital point through which the apparent scaffolding of reality is exposed. The structure of these marks carries a geometry that convincingly follows the reported visuals of peyote use which appears to be as infinitely close as it is infinitely far. The painting’s effects convey the relationship such a vision might have to the conventions of ordinary perception and provide an optical basis by which we may understand Burt’s paintings as portals.
This sky-bound rift darkens into the void of a sphynx’s head in “Title Unknown (Sphinx 1)” (1959), where the light blue abstraction of the previous piece condenses from its higher octaves into a recognizable form of Egyptian Antiquity. We begin to see how the application of paint that mimics the abstract, visual component of psychedelic experiences now acts to create recognizable forms. It’s as though having gone to the edge, we are witnessing Burt work his way back from the “blast of light” to reconstruct the world of appearances in the shape of his vision.
“Title Unknown (Sphinx 2)” (c.1958-1961) brings us before a grand Sphinx who, partnered with a heavy black orb, hardly comes into full resolution. The sands of its vast desert whip and obscure the composition’s edges as though we are given a vision Burt was able to scry from illusive whispers caught within unseen dimensions.
A feature of Burt’s visionary works that bears mention is the presence of the Moon whose waxing orb haunts the frames of his paintings. Representing the unseen other, whose presence is legion in the reports of mystics, her reading as a physicality that courts the Earth contains significance to Burt’s initial sudden vision in 1957 (a key facet of which was the full apprehension of the Earth at its cosmic, interstellar magnitude beyond the default anthropocentric scale). As a symbolic body of gendered energies, her recurrence likewise evidences the artist’s proclivity towards the lunar-centered cosmologies of Western Esoteric traditions. In one instance, a scarlet moon hangs above a hollow-eyed Sphinx in “Title Unknown” (1960) which snaps into full graphic resolution before a landscape of glowing alien structures – one can’t help but observe that this particular piece could easily substitute as a lost Arcanum in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot Deck as illustrated by Lady Freida Harris.
Coming to “Title Unknown (Magic Landscape: Lucifer in the Garden)” (1961), we find ourselves within a richly-detailed scene not quite like any that has one single specific precedent. Before us reclines a Faun-like creature genially regarding the apparition of a butterfly as it just barely congeals from between the clouds in the blue of empty space. Leafy wreathes frame this communion between the creator and the created against the backdrop of a distant mountain below a lone eclipse – its verdant mass casts the silhouette of a forgotten biblical tower. About the Faun languish his material children – atop his knee, a homunculus gestures towards his contented sphinxes. The glowing light that punctures this scene permits a clear description of form but obscures enough so that the inherent haziness of a vision glimpsed with one’s inner eye is preserved. Where a painter such as Dali could be compelled by their unmatched virtuosity to render every detail with painstaking clarity, Shonberg demonstrates a vision that seeks union with the viewer rather than their admiration. Like the focal point of “Title Unknown (Peyote Vision)” (1965), the butterfly acts as the same portal in the opening of space through which Burt has learned to distill and control his vision. We know Burt sees his paintings as he is when he paints them, we are aware of his capacity for autobiography – in this painted garden we are seeing the image of Burt seeing his persona experiencing his consciousness in the way the he strove to express it in his work. This work orchestrates an image of an ouroboric unfolding – it is always twilight in the garden, Lucifer has made the world his own.
That his work was never of its time allows its potential to remain unbound to any style or trend to come and perennially accessible. Whether his work may or may not have been “successful”, it is, like Burt was himself, open to those receptive to its authenticity. What probably best advocates for the deservedness of Burt’s recognition as an important figure in American Visionary Art is the recommendation of a figure who himself achieved an inestimable impact on the shape of popular visual culture:
“Crossing paths with Burt altered my artistic consciousness. He was a one of a kind visionary and my collaboration with him remains one of my most treasured experiences.”
-- Roger Corman WM