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Darker Stars:

The Roots of Steampunk Art

January 26 - March 31, 2012 C a v i n - MO r r i s G a l l e r y

Darker Stars: The Roots


S t e a m p u n k A rt

c av i n - mo r r i s G al l ery

Ja nua ry 26 - Febr uary 25, 2012


We have not changed much since we placed a hand against the cave wall and spat paint to leave a mark near a crevice that signals the portals between multiple dimensions. Things have changed. We haven’t. We do everything now that we did then. We eat and mate and give birth get sick, kill people and die. We are meateaters or we are herbivores. We take land away from other people and we contemplate nameless and abstract mysteries. Time has passed and still we are who we are. In retrospect, the end of the nineteenth Century was an amazing time in both good and bad ways. There was something in the air before the First World War that got progressively dimmer after it ended. A feeling that that I do not believe many of us have felt in our own lifetimes-- blind generalized hope. More then hope, a child’s hope. An adult hope. Positive optimism. There was a belief in the natural redemption of a positive life process. It was an idea that, for better or worse, an individual could tap into a slipstream of ideas and actually make something happen. This wasn’t limited to a academy or the blue-blood elite; this was open to anyone, and although mostly malecentric, there was at least the conceit of democracy. It was possible after the wilderness frontiers had all closed, after the West Coast had been reached, after there was nowhere else to swarm, to expand one’s internal territories. The mind itself has no boundaries. One could explore the rapidly decreasing Wildernesses like Sir Richard Burton had in Africa, and the mind could fly through the arcane and the occult and easily navigate the logistical problems of outer space. That was one side of it. That positive drive was by no means a whole picture of the time. There was also a darkness. Not a medieval darkness, not a darkness of plague but rather the mirror image of hope, -- despair. Hope and Despair drank in the same bars, lived in the same penthouses, and slept with the same men and women. Some call this mixture of tension between the two as it manifests in technology, the occult, fantasy, do it yourselfism or DYI, horror, spirituality, decadence and science in their most creative aspects: Steampunk. Steampunk is history written as revisionist with its roots in the present as well as the past. In this case revisionism itself is played as a high art by us, the curators. No one will ever define it because in actuality it exists in a visionary language only on paper. It inducts into its rolls any hero who invented in a pocket of time from say the 1860s to the 3

1940s. That is an eighty-year span that includes Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Joris Huysmans, Richard Burton, Thomas Edison, Nicolas Tesla, and on and on through H.P. Lovecraft. The authors were no more Steampunk than the artists were. The writers did not write as part of a movement, they wrote for themselves. Calling these artists Steampunks is certainly not the premise of Darker Stars. Perhaps, in truth they could be called proto-Steampunk or protean even, but it is not the concern of this exhibition to tag things. The work of Emery Blagdon, Charles Dellschau, Henry Darger and Melvin Edward Nelson (M.E.N.) certainly rose up from the context of their society and cultural surroundings and in a certain sense, and although influenced by the worlds around them, each creatively invented his own wheel. That the world was dark is evident in Darger’s work. Blagdon’s work was a response to the possibility of dying young. Healing was the antithesis of death. M.E.N. had a vision that would enlarge Man’s spiritual and physical capacities through astral projection and space travel. In the same vein Dellschau’s depictions of the airships of the Sonora Aero Club expanded not only man’s dominion over Nature but signaled his increase of control over his own body and physical power. These were all very much late nineteenth and early twentieth Century concerns. Of particular interest to us are the spiritual concerns and struggles of Henry Darger and Melvin Edward Nelson. The Victorian era was noted for people like William James and his peers who sought to find a nexus point for science and metaphysics. The idea of communication with the dead was widespread and James had archives of guided drawings and telepathic experimentation in the libraries at institutions like the Center for Psychic Research in Manhattan, which he helped found. In those archives is a notice from the Jansen Society run by the medium, Helen Butler Wells, whose work is in the companion exhibition Drawing Parallels. The Jansen Society met on Riverside Drive in New York in the early teens and twenties. Receiving images and putting them on paper from spirit guides was a socially acceptable way for a woman of restrictive High Society to make art. Melvin Edward Nelson was familiar with Theosophy and edgier spiritual practices including the practices of the so-called New-Agers, some of who lived on his land. Emery Blagdon knew his Bible but never really directly spoke to a spiritual process. But if we look at what he did, from his dousing with a stick for electromagnetic currents in the earth, as well as his use of objects charged with marks and designs to draw energy to serve healing, there is definitely a form of his role as mediator between tangible and intangible natural forces. It is interesting to note that Nelson also divined for electromagnetic energy in the earth but he used crushed pigment mixed with water on paper to capture the force lines of his 4

efforts. I won’t use the word ‘shaman’ here but will choose mediator instead. Since Neolithic times mankind has had this designated role for a charismatic human being who would breach the gap between this world and other, active, parallel planes of existence. This need still exists in the nonWestern world but has dissipated in much of the West. All four of the artists in this exhibition recognized invisible forces…only Blagdon did not conceptualize non-human entities. The relationships between the mediators and the spirit worlds they contact have never been easy. A mediator can be physically as well as emotionally and mentally wounded by his or her contact with other realms. Sometimes the other plane kidnapped the body or at least the consciousness of the mediator. As the hunter-gatherers became more sedentary the spirit world got more complex. No longer was communion with other planes an experience for the whole group. Specialists were needed. The personae of the spirits changed. As the edge of the forest became a new boundary of civilized existence the spirits still lived in the forest. Fae and other beings populated the other planes. But the faeries were fierce and sometimes cruel. They abducted those who visited them and often did not return them for long periods of time. Years. They used the humans to seed and bear their babies though changelings were often sickly. If the descriptive language used here sounds familiar it should, because as society became more urban it progressed through various forms of folk religion until it began to decay. Or did it? The reason that language sounds familiar is because it is the language used in this century to describe UFO’s and aliens. It is the same language of other beings taking hostages and then returning them to earth. M.E.N. gathered the fused soil from beneath the runners of landed spacecraft and ground it into pigment, calling it stardust. Most of Darger’s action takes place on a parallel planet and he does include winged beings (Blenguins) in this world. There are some who attribute some 19th and Early 20th Century UFO sightings to airships manned by humans in top-secret circumstances rather then by aliens. It still is not clear whether Dellschau believed in extraterrestrials. The whole idea of Steampunk is revisionist. Its process is to look back on certain threads of history and reweave them into the present and future. There are no rules. A literary precedent has been set but, as that literary history has broadened and indeed darkened and brought in more decadent elements. I It is common now to include J.K. Huysmans and his ilk for their embrace of the phantasmal and artifice as weapons against bourgeois complacency. Huysmans began as a libertine and ended up as a devout Catholic. What is germane to this exhibition is that there is a Steampunk or Steamgoth literary lineage but the same lineage isn’t set up for the Art. As I mentioned, there are no rules and so, with this exhibition and several to follow, Cavin-Morris Gallery is going to explore alternative revisionism and establish some Old Masters in the historical lineage of what is now seen as Steampunk Art. Despite the twin sisters of poverty or depression, it was a hand-me-down from Victorian times to 5

feel that, with the right machine, the right invention, the right harnessing of one of Nature’s energies (usually having to do with electromagnetism or electricity or steam), one could be rich and a world savior to boot. The Inventor was a god. The role models were people like Thomas Edison and Nicholas Tesla. Inventing could push the outer limits of individual opportunity. One could be rich, famous, and in control of one’s destiny. It is this feeling of do it yourself unlimited opportunity that the Steampunk and Steamgoth communities draw upon. Through the frontiers of the human mind one could infinitely expand control of the world. But the mind does not automatically draw within the lines. Others shared the fantasy world Jules Verne imagined. Charles Dellschau’s Flying Machines were not a literary device. They represented the hopes and dreams of someone who completely believed in their existence, who saw them built and who ostensibly flew in them. Dellschau becomes the center of this exhibition because of his fixation on airships and flying. He is the epitome of what Steampunk design is all about. But he wasn’t looking backward to revive a lifestyle. He was living in his present and trying to move the world forward with his ideas. Melvin Edward Nelson was another for whom the magazine, Popular Mechanics, was a Bible along with Theosophy tracts and the science fiction magazine, Fate. For him the machine had a different spin and fed a visionary hunger. He was physically in tune with the concept of cosmic geology and the ability of the human mind to receive otherworldly information -- the very voices of planets being born, of the healing energy of interplanetary light emanations. He, like others, approached the metaphysical with a scientific manner. He joined Dellschau in reaching Man’s dominion out further from the skyways of earth into the planetary airways. He designed and built machines that would harness universal energy using electromagnetism and light; the mind and body would fuse and see first hand the awesome births and deaths of planets and stars and use this experience for healing, and he would be the inventor who made it possible. Emery Blagdon grew up with the same belief of the inventor as God. If properly tuned and psychically aimed, a machine could prevent disease or heal the ill. He knew he was intuitive. He could invent and build the machines but he couldn’t necessarily explain how they worked. That was the work for scientists. Meanwhile he could channel energy through the Healing Machines and put them to work on an earth that was suffering. Although his goal was a positive one, it was still infused with poignancy in his recognition of the dark side of Nature and Her legacy of Disease and Death. Electromagnetism could be recycled through the machines to counter these curses. The Victorian times were also an era of exploration of the occult; of mediums and visionary voyages, of the embrace of mental depression as a route of survival and a sign of creative intensity. In Au Reboirs, by Joris-Karl Huysmans, the main character, Jean Des Esseintes, builds a mechanical fish to float in a false sea to replace Nature’s more risky version. Some in the Victorian world, in opposition to bourgeois complacency, held a need for individual freedom of expression close to anarchy. Religion was also potentially a path to darker visionary worlds. In Henry Darger’s struggle with the blood, and complete immersion demanded by Catholicism, he used Prussian soldiers and huge explosions as forces that both protected and threatened the world. War became the ultimate world of adulthood, both attractive and terrifying. Darger’s vision is a bridge to the Goth viewpoint in its dance on the edge of cruelty. If there ever is a revisionist timeline of Steampunk and Steamgoth Art then the names Charles Dellschau, Melvin Edward Nelson, Emery Blagdon, and Henry Darger, certainly should be recorded as some of the natural self-taught progenitors. 6

This first exhibition examines artists who are self-taught and for whom there is little differentiation between their lives and their artwork. The art itself was really life process. The second show in this series will present works by both trained and untrained artists dealing with the same subject matter.

The Secrets of Charles Dellschau: The Sonora Aero Club and the Airships of the 1880’s, A True Story, by Dennis E. Crenshaw Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists, edited by Leslie Umberger , Emery Blagdon: Properly Channeled All drawings in this essay are by the founder and medium of the Jansenist Society of New York City, Helen Butler Wells.


Emery Blagdon, Cascades, c. 1955 - 1986 Wire, copper, tin foil, plastic, paper tape, mixed media 77 x 7.5 x 6 in / 195.5 x 19 x 15 cm, EmB 965 8

Emery Blagdon, Untitled #339, c. 1955 - 1986 Steel wire, plastic, paper, tape, mixed media 44.5 x 7.25 in / 113 x 18.5 cm, EmB 339 9

Emery Blagdon, Untitled #284, c. 1955 - 1986 Steel and copper wire, wood, cans, mixed media 65 x 16 in / 165 x 40.5 cm, EmB 284 10

Emery Blagdon, Untitled (Box) #935, c. 1955 - 1986 Steel and copper wire, wood 6 x 6.5 x 6 in / 15.2 x 16.5 x 15.2 cm, EmB 935 11

Emery Blagdon, Untitled, c. 1955 - 1986 Steel and copper wire, tin foil, paper 22 x 13 x 13 in / 56 x 33 x 33 cm, EmB 22 12

Emery Blagdon, Untitled, c. 1955 - 1986 Steel and copper wire 30 x 17 x 19 in / 76 x 43 x 48 cm, EmB 12 13

Emery Blagdon, Untitled, #723 c. 1955 - 1986 Enamel, board 10 x 10.5 in / 25.5 x 27 cm, EmB 723 14

Emery Blagdon, Untitled, c. 1955 - 1986 Paint, wood 8.25 x 12 in / 21 x 30.5 cm, EmB 6 15

Emery Blagdon, Untitled #753, c. 1955 - 1986 Enamel and board 12.75 x 5 in / 32.5 13 cm, EmB 753 16

Emery Blagdon, Untitled #270, c. 1955 - 1986 Mixed media, popsicle sticks, wire, tape 14 x 5.5 x 7 in / 35.5 x 14 x 18 cm, EmB 270 17

Melvin Edward Nelson, Planetscape #2, n.d. Mineral pigment, watercolor on paper 18 x 24 in / 46 x 61 cm, Nel 170 18

Melvin Edward Nelson, Cosmic #7, 1962 Mineral pigment, watercolor on paper 18 x 24 in / 46 x 61 cm, Nel 168 19

Melvin Edward Nelson, Atom Event, 1965 Watercolor on paper 18 x 24 in / 46 x 61 cm, Nel 142 20

Melvin Edward Nelson, Cosmic #4, n.d. Mineral pigment, watercolor on paper 11 x 16.5 in / 28 x 42 cm, Nel 159 21

Melvin Edward Nelson, Planetary Ladder, 1964 Mineral pigment, watercolor on paper 11 x 17 in / 28 x 43 cm, Nel 136 22

Melvin Edward Nelson, Planetary World, 1963 Mineral pigments on paper 8.5 x 11 in / 21.5 x 28 cm, Nel 22 23

Melvin Edward Nelson, Untitled, n.d. Mineral pigments on paper 13 x 20.5 in / 33 x 52 cm, Nel 51 24

Melvin Edward Nelson, Untitled, n.d. Mineral pigments on paper 14 x 20.5 in / 35.5 x 52 cm, Nel 50 25

Melvin Edward Nelson, Untitled, n.d. Mineral pigments on paper 12 x 17 in / 30.5 x 43 cm, Nel 98 26

Melvin Edward Nelson, Untitled, n.d. Mineral pigments on paper 12 x 17.5 in / 30.5 x 44.5 cm, Nel 61 27


Henry Darger, Untitled (3 Slowing Attackers Confused by Defenders in House), n.d. Watercolor, pencil and collage on paper 19 x 48 in / 48 x 122 cm, HDa 1 29

Charles Dellschau, 4807, 1921 Watercolor, pencil, and collage on paper 22 x 13 x 13 in / 56 x 33 x 33 cm, CDe 7 30


Charles Dellschau, 4790 Bomba, 1921 Watercolor, pencil, and collage on paper 22 x 13 x 13 in / 56 x 33 x 33 cm, CDe 8 32


Charles Dellschau, 4511 Aero Gander - From Below, 1921 Watercolor, pencil, and collage on paper 22 x 13 x 13 in / 56 x 33 x 33 cm, CDe 8 34


Charles Dellschau, 4510 Aero Gander - Above, 1919 Watercolor, pencil, and collage on paper 22 x 13 x 13 in / 56 x 33 x 33 cm, CDe 5 36


Charles Dellschau, 4329 Longtour Aero, 1919 Watercolor, pencil, and collage on paper 22 x 13 x 13 in / 56 x 33 x 33 cm, CDe 3 38


Charles Dellschau, 4567 Outside Flanck - Short Central, 1920 Watercolor, pencil, and collage on paper 22 x 13 x 13 in / 56 x 33 x 33 cm, CDe 4 40


Emery Blagdon (1907-1986) Even within the Outsider Art field, where hard-to-classify works by self-taught artists are the stock in trade, some creations are more unusual than others. Consider the work of Emery Blagdon, a former hobo who settled on a farm near the Sand Hills of central Nebraska. Blagdon, who died in 1986 at 78, made “healing machines”: ornate thickets of wire, aluminum-foil stips and wood scraps that he also called “my pretties.” He was 48 when he began making these peculiar constructions, which grew to fill an 800-square-foot shed. Living in isolation, Blagdon devoted the rest of his life to his “machines.” He believed they generated electromagnetic energy that could help cure arthritis and other ailments of people who stood near them. The Blagdon oeuvre’s journey to market has been inextricably linked to what Dan Dryden and Don Christensen, lifelong friends, call the “twists of fate” that have marked their paths since their childhoods. Mr. Dryden was operating a drugstore in North Platte when he first met Blagdon in 1975. Mr. Dryden soon visited Blagdon at his farm, where the artist-inventor led his visitor into his shed and flicked some switches to illuminate what had become his magnum opus. “It was lit with Christmas tree lights strung throughout the hanging sculptures and by painted light bulbs in coffee cans on the dirt floor,” Mr. Dryden recalled. Stacks of paintings lay on the ground beneath the wire of works, and small wire ornaments decorated the rafters. Mr. Christensen and Mr. Dryden returned to North Platte for a school reunion in 1986. They arrived to learn that Blagdon had recently died without leaving a will, and that local officials were planning to auction off his property. To rescue the work from the scrap heap, the men decided to bid on it. Blagdon left no writings, and little known about his life. In the only film of him, a local television news clip from 1980, a reporter asked the leathery old recluse to explain how his constructions generated energy. Like a Beckett character, Blagdon replied tersely: “I can’t.” For Mr. Dryden, “that was enough.” Anything anyone might want or need to know about Blagdon, he suggested, lies in the mystery of his art, which is, in large part, its subject. For many Outsider Art enthusiasts, as this work becomes better known, such enigma may fuel its allure – and help secure its place in the annals of a rich and unconventional art history. -Excerpt from the New York Times article “A Loner’s Belated Company,” by Edward M. Gomez, Jan. 2004

Henry Darger (1892-1973) Henry Darger was born in 1892 and lived in Chicago with his father“a tailor and a kind and easygoing man,” until 1900, when the elder Darger, crippled, had to be taken to live in a Catholic mission, at which time the young Henry Darger was placed in a boys’ home. He was institutionalized in 1905, shortly after his father passed away, but managed to escape in 1908. For the next 50 years, Darger managed to support himself with menial jobs in Catholic hospitals. Later in life he barely got by on Social Security checks. He attended Mass frequently, dressed humbly, and generally lived a very reclusive life. It wasn’t until after his death that his landlord, photographer Nathan Lerner, discovered Darger’s creative life’s work hidden amongst the hoarded debris in his rented room. Darger created nearly 300 watercolor and collage paintings, bound into three volumes, to illustrate his masterpiece, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, a tale about a world torn apart by war. He began to work on In the Realms of the Unreal (as it is commonly called) when he was about 19 years old, and when it was completed, after decades of work, the typewritten manuscript was 15,145 pages long and comprised 13 volumes. The heroes in this tale are always the children, the villains typically adults. This story of war and peace, of good versus evil, loosely parallels many of the events of the American Civil War. The fantastic watercolors accompanying the narrative and measure up to 12 feet in width, are among the works by Darger that are most celebrated today.

Charles Dellschau (1830-1923) Charles August Albert Dellschau was born in Brandenburg, Prussia, and emigrated to the U.S. at age twenty. A father of three, he was a butcher by trade and lived and worked out of an attic apartment in Houston, Texas. After his retirement in 1899, he began to create a series of scrapbooks in which he made drawings of primitive flying machines - which he named press blumen, or “press blooms”. Each machine was named, numbered, given a story and fictional designer, with detailed diagrams from various angles – he also included newspaper clippings related to aeronautics or other pertinent scientific discoveries. He often made notes in both German and English, and incorporated strange symbols throughout the drawings that comprised a secret coded story. After his death in 1923, the drawings remained undiscovered for over 40 years. The entire body of work was discarded into a landfill, coincidentally salvaged by a used furniture dealer named Fred Washington. He lent them to a local college student who then used the books for a display they were putting on representing the story of flight. The Art Director of Rice University and one of Houston Texas’ leading fine arts collector, Dominique de Menil, was so impressed she bought four of the books. Commercial artist and UFO researcher Pete Navarro acquired the remaining books. The Witte and the San Antonio museum acquired four books each from Navarro. Of the remaining four books, two were ultimately sold to a commercial gallery in New York, one to the ABCD collection in Paris, and one other is in a private collection in Brooklyn NY.

Melvin Edward Nelson (1908-1992) Melvin Edward Nelson left Michigan at the age of twenty six, after experiencing an epiphany that he could tele-transport himself into the cosmos, looked down on earth and see the formation of made something and my hands were very happy. I made more and more and gradually arrived at the work . . . I make today. The material is stretched over a wooden hoop and I have no plan to execute, only the need to make something. I always work on one piece at a time; it would be like a spell broken if I hopped from one to another. “I always seem to start in the center and it grows outwards. I feel a great sense of urgency when working and I feel very driven towards a goal. But I never seem to know what that goal is. It’s a feeling I have to express. They are not representations of any one thing but I think they represent my inner self. The part of myself that very rarely comes to the surface in everyday life but is a unique constant deep inside. They are expressions of my love and wonder at what is around me. The pulsing world, the microscopic life that teems around and within our hearts, organs and the stars, us everything to marvel at and revel in.�

Copyright Š 2012 Cavin-Morris Gallery Cavin-Morris Gallery 210 Eleventh Ave, Ste. 201 New York, NY 10001 t. 212 226 3768 Catalogue design: Mimi Kano, Marissa Levien, & Jurate Veceraite

Darker Stars: The Roots of Steampunk Art  

featuring Henry Darger, Charles A.A. Dellschau, Melvin EdwardNelson (M.E.N.), and Emery Blagdon

Darker Stars: The Roots of Steampunk Art  

featuring Henry Darger, Charles A.A. Dellschau, Melvin EdwardNelson (M.E.N.), and Emery Blagdon