In many ways, the late 2010’s are starting to resemble the 1960s. There is a new attitude of political distrust and a bitter sense that the country is trying to revert back to values that espouse racism, sexism, and recently, neo-fascism. While artists are busy finding ways to fight the swell of hate overtaking our country, Justin Beachler is bringing back hippie era coping mechanisms of occult magic, stoner dens, and tye-dye. His solo show, Babalon Working at Bunker Center for the Arts plays with the light and dark sides of 60s counterculture in an incense scented installation.
We met at his home studio to discuss the upcoming show at Bunker and take a look at the work in progress. “I was very interested in the 60s and psychedelic culture when I was younger. I’ve been making work about it since I was in Charlotte Street in 2013, creating Head Shop with Tim Brown from OK Mountain.”—an artist run collective in Austin. I didn’t see Head Shop, but I did see Beachler’s Old & In The Way last year at Haw Contemporary. The display of homemade water pipes made from flavored beverage bottles was congruent with Beachler’s interest in clashing colors and inelegant display. Haphazard as it looks, his aesthetic has specific origins. “When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in head shops and music stores. It was a weird capitalistic form of subculture. Everything in all the stores looked the same, with the same posters, the same weird dragon wizard holding a glass orb. And after I made the funny work, I went back to the darker side of psychedelic culture that I remember from my childhood.” Beachler sites one particular experience that awakened him to the culture of drug use. “My dad’s a biker, and I remember being in these biker houses with him, in spaces with Easy Rider centerfolds everywhere. Once, I found a medical clamp with macramé woven to the bottom, with a roach clamped on the end. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. My dad stopped bringing me after that.” Pulling from this formative memory, Beachler reconstructed what he saw that day for Babalon Working, tying his own macramé helixes and found feathers onto medical clips, now with sticks of incense pinched between the teeth instead of the last puff of a joint.
In his own words, Beachler describes his work as “frivolous and irresponsible.” Exploring the conceptual potential in consumer objects in a time of great global distress is a way of watering down the conversations we need to be having. “The concept’s I’m working with aid in nothing but distraction from the serious cultural problems currently at hand,” he says of his work. The Internet has certainly provided us fantastic tools for distractions, and Beachler uses his Instagram feed to layer hyper-colorful and erotic stimuli into images of blended meaning. These posts are flavored like a bad acid trip, shrill and lurid enough to wipe all thoughts of political outrage from your mind for a moment during the scroll. Beachler’s posts are hard to untangle on a little screen and feel more like sketches of the finer art that enters the gallery. His posts contrast the phenomenon of using Instagram to sell a twee bohemian lifestyle, as many successful accounts portray the sun flared wanderlust dreams of the flower children. Beachler’s psychedelic/occult/erotica aesthetic leans into the digital age with a well-curated false reality.
The show’s title Babalon Working refers to a “sex magick ritual” performed by L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons in 1947 based on Aleister Crowley’s Scarlet Woman. The ritual was designed to manifest the liberated woman archetype, a stand-in for the Whore of Babylon. (Parsons felt he achieved this when he met Marjorie Cameron, but the second part of the ritual—impregnation—was unsuccessful.) Beachler relies heavily on myth and assumption to inform the audiences experience of his installation, which evokes a ritual recently completed in a dark area of the gallery. “Everyone has a different part of the story before they arrive at the gallery. I gave my friends one piece of information, the press another, and the gallery another. Nobody walks in with the full story.” He cites a party with the Terry Radio crew before he installed the bongs at Haw. One party-goer walked in and smiled, turned to a friend and said “We smoked out of those.”
Though the work lacks real authenticity (Beachler was born in 1981) it is palpable to an age group that grew up with the same occult culture curiosity and access to the Internet in the early aughts. “The psychedelic thing is making a comeback, and the Internet is full of it,” says Beachler, who grew up reading the classic drug experience review site Erowid.org. It’s a joke to equate a few tye-dyed tapestries and beaded curtains with any anti-capitalist and anti-consumer sentiment today, but Beachler sees this as a source of irony for today’s generation. “We’re using irony to fight a crippling sense of or hopelessness for the future. Irony is one of the only conceptual forms that feels right at this moment.”