Mike Germon’s Archaeomancy, at Beep Beep Gallery through May 9, traffics in the intrinsic ambiguity of symbols. He mixes, matches and subverts the imagery of religion, science and the occultism that has for centuries declared itself an alternative to both.
The robed figure of Our Lady of Enlightened Petrification rules over a realm of human skulls and Platonic solids that in reality are illustrations of the forms of various crystals. Dethroned is a figure that wears the geometric shape of pyrite or fool’s gold in place of a face, and who perches atop another unstable geological structure. It may or may not be relevant that the geological sciences were the first source of skepticism regarding the accuracy of the Book of Genesis, decades before Darwin proposed his theory of evolution.
Darwin puts in a cameo appearance in a work featuring many other pictorial elements, but this exhibition is mostly devoted to resonant ritual objects and their (lack of) meaning. The animal heads superimposed on an icon of the Three Hierarchs (John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, in case you were wondering) in Three Prophets form a trinity from a synthetic religion elaborated in the altar below, on which the severed pieces of a serpent rests amid cups presumably meant to be filled from the cruet of wine on the shelf above it. A Tibetan ritual dagger sits on a similar shelf in front of two seemingly unrelated collages in the adjacent gallery.
It is difficult to disentangle all the references, and that may be part of the point. The imagery of religious objects (recently given the name “material religion” by scholars), like that of culture in general, communicates messages that are susceptible to several different interpretations. Science ought to be unambiguous, but its findings are also subject to interpretation, and the technology that issues from scientific discoveries is subject to mythification, at least potentially. Germon’s earlier works made much of the worshipful attitude toward the Space Age by midcentury moderns 50 years ago, but there is less of this in the present show.
In fact, there is a great deal of low-budget occultism on display: Palmistry for All, as one book title has it. A Dictionary of Mysticism next to a three-branched candelabrum serves as a pedestal for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation science fiction trilogy from the early 1950s, a vast tale of optimism regarding the capacity of human knowledge to resolve the crises of the cosmos.
Germon is not nearly so optimistic regarding human capacities. One of his most effective juxtapositions conveying this message is temporary: a clipboard holds an illustration of a Luca Giordano painting of the Archangel Michael piercing a prostrate personification of Evil with a lance; over this, he has placed a reproduction of Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes, a famed painting of the wreckage of an Arctic explorer’s ship, its flag being torn apart by polar bears. The broken mast of the ship aligns perfectly with the shaft of Michael’s spear, or did — the alignment appears to have been set askew by curious viewers trying to see the obscured parts of the Michael painting.
This type of juxtaposition typifies Germon’s sincerely ironic approach to the limits of reason and revelation alike. The confident declarations made in many decades of the previous century by the scientific community and the bland optimism of the corresponding religious community have been called into question for a variety of reasons, ones that were scarcely on the horizon in an age that now appears nostalgically simple. It seemed, of course, extraordinarily complex to its participants, who nevertheless felt that the upward path of humanity could be mapped with certitude. Today the act of mapping itself is regarded with skepticism by many.
Germon’s most impressive accomplishment in this exhibition is a revised Ouija board, substituting the table of the elements for the letters of the alphabet featured in a standard-issue model. The wry supposition is that the universe itself will convey meaning through the revelation of new or familiar chemical combinations—assuming that it is the universe that creates the message, and not the trembling musculature of the people wielding the moving planchette.