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The Search for Dispravosláviye: Shanna Wadell & Rob Matthews, Curated by Rubens Ghenov


The Search for Dispravosláviye: Shanna Wadell & Rob Matthews
Curated by Rubens Ghenov

January 4 - January 27, 2013

Opening Reception: Friday, January 4, 2012, 6pm - 10pm


Rubens Ghenov – In the dictionary, orthodoxy and heresy are defined as opposites. Are cults within the latter category or do you think they occupy a different heading?

Shanna Waddell - depends on the cult
Rob Matthews - Depends on whether you are in the cult or outside of the cult.

RG -Which ones do you find might be heretical, Shanna?



Shanna - There are various degrees of a cult. Some begin, or seem to begin with a specific religious group and then begin their own movement; for instance: Heaven’s Gate had ideas of Jesus in their soup of beliefs. Jim Jones was huge on entangling Jesus but then adding extreme views including apocalyptic utopian commune which ended far from that ground. Jim Jones would be an example of beginning more traditionally Christian, then diverging. Whereas Heaven’s Gate did not exhibit that manner of religious affiliation, nor cared for those persons as devotees.

RG - Rob, where would you place it? Due to cults usually being seen noticeably outside of the conventional orthodoxy, would that mean, heresy?

Rob - I’m someone that believes in an absolute truth tied specifically to my professed faith. That professed faith claims to be a closed loop, in need of nothing outside of it to enrich it or add to its truth. Given that, I am spiritually and intellectually-bound to call any spiritual practice outside of that loop heresy because in its existence is unnecessary and distracting from truth. It’s not a popular idea in contemporary culture.

RG - Do you think early Christians would consider contemporary orthodoxy as a cult, due to say, a new cultural environment?

Shanna - It seems that early Christians, let’s say 1st or 2nd century would not consider contemporary orthodoxy a cult if the contemporary orthodoxy never deviated from the original premise. I don’t think the hang ups would be if one wore a blue or green hat, or a toga or slacks. The content of the conversation would be the primary air considered.

Rob - Which contemporary orthodoxy, from which part of the world? I don’t know what they would think because they would see their faith has grown beyond their borders and into new cultures by people speaking languages that weren’t even around when they lived. You can’t even point to this country and say there is one, consistent practice.

RG - I wonder what the apostle Paul would think of Catholicism or what Peter would think of protestantism?

Rob - I think Peter and Paul would recognize that they argued with one another about ministering solely to the Jewish community or also reaching out to Gentiles, etc, so they wouldn’t be surprised to see us still debating with one another.

Shanna - I think the content of the conversation involved with the individual, of which a person could say they are of this or that group. If Paul or Peter could speak to a person, they would more than likely know what was in their pale of orthodoxy. It seems that basic premises would be the most considered items.

RG - What was the first incident where you both decided to depict an image that dealt with the subjects of cults? Whether implicitly or explicitly.

Rob - I made paintings of the Branch Davidians’ complex on fire along with the Oklahoma City bombing. I was a junior in college when the OKC bombing happened.

Shanna - It was where I was at with my work at the time. I wanted to reveal a painting to a viewer slowly showing first the invitation, through colors and objects, but then also revealing to the viewer something broken, disjointed, unwhole, much like how a typical cult operates. Initially it is welcoming, kind, inviting, with utopian aspirations. Yet, slowly the beauty dissolves and you’re with a mess.

RG - What was the impetus back then for you, Rob? Were you dealing with similar subjects/events at that time as well?


Handling Serpents (Herring) #3, 2005

Rob - The paintings were part of a larger exploration of basic spiritual ideas that started off more abstract and color field.

That didn’t really satisfy me as someone that wanted to deal with narrative directly. I started painting what I thought were extreme manifestations of American faith.

There were some Jonestown paintings, Branch Davidians pieces and some snake handlers.

I’m not sure beyond that because it’s been about 20 years. Some of those same ideas still carry through now.

RG – Shanna, it seems that you could’ve arrived at that trajectory of thought through other things too though, am I right? But why the specific subject of cults as the conduit to carry that line of thought through?

Shanna - Cults usually begin very beautiful and charming. They fill the void, yet so many have ended in chaos. The cult paintings I believe also reveal beauty upon initial viewing, yet with more time spent observing, or investing one’s self, it becomes clear that there is something wrong and unsettling. I am not interested in well-mannered paintings

RG - I’m interested in how you both deal with it intentionally but also how it might also influence you inadvertently. Rob, most of your recent work doesn’t necessarily address these groups namely but they are filtered into your invented narratives deliberately (The Millerites, Heaven’s Gate) whereas for you Shanna, the majority of your work in this vein, still engages the subject matter head on but they also seem to spill in other areas of your work, like in the medicine cabinet paintings, for instance.

How does your immersion in this milieu create a fictive byproduct for you? Meaning how does the vernacular of these groups filter into the symbols you make when not directly painting them? As in the medicine cabinets, for instance.

Shanna - The way I view it is that I have various chapters running simultaneously. Like a tree with various branches. Yet they all come from the same vein. My medicine cabinet altarpieces come from taking the shapes of altarpieces, I simplify the contours of the altarpiece then scoop out the history within the compartments then place painted symbols that are abstracted within the shelving. The altarpiece is rooted in a historical painted place and the medicine cabinet is where we place drugs and cleansing products.

RG - But are these specific icons perhaps influences of these cults, ie: drug usage in mass suicides, Heaven’s Gate, altar pieces (religious rituals)? Mixed with other things?

Shanna - The correlation between the cult paintings and medicine cabinet altarpiece paintings is not a clear correlation. My reasoning for making the medicine cabinet altarpiece paintings is distinct from the reasoning behind the cult paintings. One could/can make a correlation, yet in my mind, or my intention, that was not so. However, I would love to hear any connecting input!

RG -The medicine cabinets begin to read like the fictionalized version that transpires from your research blowing back into the American milieu. The way I begin to read it is a symbol that has currency in the movement of cults but also remains innocuous and detached from the specificity of the subject, due also to the fact that most people have medicine cabinets. It starts to become a character of sorts, for me.

Shanna - My initial intention with the medicine cabinet paintings was due to an interest about the topics of cleansing and healing. At that time I was living in an apartment that had such a captivating bathroom. It seemed to fall out of the 1950s. I loved it. The cabinet had such a distinct shape. Then I would find myself going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the rooms with the altarpieces captivated me. I scooped the parts and pieces of the altar’s icons and i replaced with abstracted domestic icons like a toothbrushes.



Medicine Cabinet Altarpiece

RG -But that “conflation” is pretty interesting when someone is dealing with cultic rituals (altar pieces) which at times end up in drug induced suicides (medicine cabinets), no?

They seem like a fictive construct inadvertently arrived at from the research you make.

Shanna - Fictive, yes. I am merging domestic icons with religious altar icons. Within the altarpieces there is an understood history. I choose to take out that understood history and replace it with abstracted symbols. Those symbols become what we find in something like a medicine cabinet, healing and cleansing, like a toothbrush, mouthwash, eyeliner. The medicine cabinet and altarpiece are one in the same. That’s why I am finding it hard to correlate the medicine cabinet altarpiece paintings with the cult paintings. They are distant second-cousins, but not siblings in my mind. I think that that does take place when you’ve invested months and months, even years into an idea or particular subject. I believe my River Phoenix paintings I have just started have a stronger correlation to my earlier work dealing with cults. Since there’s a strong aspect of beauty and unsettlement.

The River Phoenix paintings have much more cult correlation because of his history, where he came from as a child. Since his parents were missionaries for the cult: Children of God.

I got into River Phoenix when learning more about his upbringing, not so much of his celebrity, but I have started to consider more of this subject matter in relation to how I think of my cult paintings. How when we often are attracted to a particular idea or fame in Phoenix’s case, we are enticed then it slowly starts to reveal itself to you and you get into some funky stuff like his hippiesh parents being missionaries with the Children of God cult and how young River and his sister Rain had to play guitar in the streets of Venezuela where they lived at the time.

At one point they decided to leave the cult as David Berg started to promote “flirty fishing” where they would attract disciples through sex. Their growing family came with Joaquin being born in Puerto Rico. The family took a cargo ship to the US were they then had Summer in Florida. the family wanted a new name so they changed from Bottom to Phoenix. Being somewhat of a closet hippie I love their names. So I decided to make work with him as a focus for the time being.


River Phoenix Wings and Jeans, 2012 

Rob - How does River’s untimely death factor into the work? Or are you interested in the whole family?

Shanna - At his time of death he didn’t want his acting “job” to be his name, rather he wanted to be known and experience music fame. Him aspiring to go onto the stage and play music with other famous musicians was his utopian aspiration. Yet on the night he died, he was rejected from getting on the stage and playing with the band. So, he turned to drugs, his death. This correlates to Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate in terms of the people aspiring for utopian ideals. Yet when these aspirations full bloom they result in opposite of bloom: death.

Rob - I knew how he died but not the parts about the music and the rejection. Has there been any mention of that in relation to Joaquin’s pseudo-attempt to do the same thing and make a movie about that?

Shanna - The interviews Joaquin gave about the film after all was said and done, he did not mention his brother. You think the interviewer would, but they didn’t. I seem to think there is an odd connection though.

RG – Shanna, you have a specific palette you paint in. Are these colorations derived from specific cults; Heaven’s Gate (purple cloth, Nikes, their insignia, videos), Jonestown massacre (late 70’s outfits, Jonestown landscape) or is it an amalgamation of that, your interest in the 60’s, hippie culture and others? Can you locate the ubiquitous yellows with paisley purples and pinks, the blue and green accents and the periodic blacks?

Shanna - Yes, you picked up on the colors of the specific cult and decade association in the Jonestown painting. The use of yellow refers to the insanity of the event. The black circle is an act to divorce the work and to reference the void space that cults often find themselves in. As for using purple with the Heaven’s Gate work, I want the reference to be present. At the time of their passing they covered themselves in purple shrouds. I am not the biggest fan of that particular purple as it’s a slow color. I prefer to work with fast colors that almost scream.

RG - I think that purple is quite aberrant though and you use it frequently and quite liberally, not only in the Heaven’s Gate paintings but in many others. Have you gotten accustomed to using it or has it become a type of voice, a vernacular that pronounces a certain attribute?

Shanna - Gamblin oil paints make these pastel colors. I think I gravitate toward those colors, as they are not like any other colors that manufacturers are making. They are fairly new in the scope of painting history. Certain colors are now being made that painters didn’t have even a decade ago. These pastel colors, the pinks, the purple you were talking of, run along side well with other colors that may exert themselves as dominate and they tend to keep up and not hold the saturation as other colors may as they are tints, meaning they were made with white.

RG - And Rob, is the appropriation of these cults into your narrative always intentional or do you think they arrive there at times unbeknownst to you?

Rob - I used to be very direct in a number of ways: how I rendered an image, how directly I referenced an existing source image from a book or a magazine, etc. At some point I forced myself to take full ownership of every image that I used, to create it. Once Google Image Search came about, I saw the future of art possibly just being an endless parade of paintings made from online searches. Like my friend, Matt, says, at that point ‘you’re only as good as your source material.” My means of composition started to push back against that. Also, my drawing style became more labor-intensive and more nuanced (for lack of a better word). As that happened, my work began to less directly reference known images or groups, etc and I began telling myself a story, inventing groups. The Great Disappointment drawings were probably the last pieces that I would say directly referenced something like Heaven’s Gate. And even then I changed the wardrobe, style of shoe, etc. At this point I know what I’m referencing and how I am filtering it, attempting to remove those recognizable elements or subjects. I still borrow heavily compositionally-speaking.

RG - This is something I’m keenly interested in both of your works. This fictionalization that happens with these groups or its influence on you.

In your work for instance Rob, you concoct a mélange of characteristics that are not entirely derived from the “extreme manifestations of American faith”?

Rob - Those pieces that dealt with the extreme were made 20 years ago. It’s not where I am anymore. At some point, I stopped working with what I would consider cult behavior. I didn’t approach it in a way that could sustain me. I realized that these people probably were braver in their faith that I was in mine.

As my work progressed, it became obvious to me that my work was going to be about Christianity from an American perspective, the good and the bad of it. It’s not always obvious that is what’s going on, but those two things are always there.

Once that was settled then I had to invent a language for myself. Popular culture and news, etc take care of making sure you know who Jimmy Swaggart or Oral Roberts is. There’s no need for me to draw that or more contemporary figures like Joel Osteen or Ted Haggard. I needed a set of symbols, objects, people that were mine, that wouldn’t end up on the news. Making something that might be misconstrued as pop art didn’t interest me.

RG - Are the fictive cults then a way to conflate a plethora of things while still speaking about the inward and spiritual in the American environment?

Rob - Are you speaking about a fictive group in particular? The answer changes from group to group.

RG - Not necessarily but we could delve in there. Can you speak about the Bagheads for instance?

Rob - I consider the bagheads part of an internal investigation. In some ways I’m dividing up my personality into character units in my work. Like Whitman says, “I contain multitudes”. The bagheads are angry and shameful people. But yes, they have what I think is an American presence to them because they dress like me, etc.


Studies of The Seed, 2011 

RG – Right, right

Rob - The Great Disappointment series was a shorter-lived series than I was expecting it to be. I only got four drawings out of it. I started looking more at Hudson River School paintings and simultaneously was reading about parts of the United States’ Second Great Awakening period. There was kind of an overlap in upstate New York of these things. Both in some way were determining what the US was going to be. These painters presented a somewhat fictionalized view of the area, attempting to make it rival Germanic landscape, embedding a mythology in the land where none existed for these people at least. The denominational explosion in the country at that time had roots in upstate NY as well, although not in the same area. American Christians were working out Christianity on their own terms though. The Mormons were starting up as well as the Millerites, who would become the Seventh Day Adventists.

The Millerites had a date for the end of the world. When that didn’t happen, it was referred to as The Great Disappointment. The drawings positioned a group of some sort in the Hudson River landscape to merge the two things together. Ultimately it was a good stepping stone for further work but nothing that could go much further.

RG - But with the Great Disappointment there were these other areas of symbolism attached there, right? Besides the Hudson School of Painting, which you’ve already mentioned, I’m referring specifically to the New Balance shoes and the foil hats.


The Great Disappointment #2 (detail)

Rob - The New Balance shoes are a reference to the Nikes that the Heaven’s Gate members wore. At one point I think that New Balance and Saucony were the only two shoes made completely in the US. I don’t know that either are anymore. I wanted an American shoe. I couldn’t afford Saucony. The foil hat is a pretty standard object for pointing out that your subject might be paranoid and wearing it to keep his brain waves from being monitored.

They were meant, upon closer inspection of the work, to add a level of specificity to the reading of the piece if the viewer chose to do so. To hone in on the American experience. There’s a quick emotional level to reading art and then closer investigation or patience or just time spent with work always reveals more.

RG - How did you acquire the polaroids of Sister Pauline Turpin?


one of Sister Pauline Turpin’s polaroids

Rob - The Polaroids came to be mine because MetroPulse (the local free weekly in Knoxville, TN) ran an article on her when she died in 1994-5. A friend of mine was one of the graphic designers at the paper. A woman that was involved with Turpin’s church, the Knoxville House of Faith, had shot all of the Polaroids and gave them to the paper to use in the article. When they were finished with them, they called the woman to let her know she could get her photos back and she said that she didn’t want them anymore. I got them from my friend and have had them ever since. I don’t know the woman’s name because she is not credited in the article.

RG -Do you know why she didn’t want them back?

Rob -No. I know she was no longer part of the church. My guess is that she was glad to be rid of them if she had left the church. If you had actually shot all of those photos, would you want them around? They are unnerving even for me and I never met Sister Pauline or watched her in action.

RG - What do you know of Turpin?

Rob -Not much other than she led that church for a number of years. The church is still active today. It’s, at best, Pentecostal. The article that was written about her paints her as someone that used religion and people’s weaknesses to make money and set up a pretty nice life for herself on the congregational dime…and also to avoid paying a lot of taxes.

RG - How many polaroids are there?
Rob -
About 700 that were taken over a 5 or 6 year period of time.


photo courtesy of Rob Matthews

RG – Rob, can you speak a bit about the sound piece you made for the show? Sound is not something Philadelphia has known you for but you’ve been intertwined in it for a long time. How did you develop the piece? Were there ideas that were based on specific cults, your fictive cults, a bricolage of both or neither?

Rob - Sound is something that I am interested in and that I work on when time allows but I’ve never used it in an exhibition setting because it never seemed appropriate. I don’t know that my particular gallery venues are the best place for it so having a non-traditional space seemed like a good place to try it out in a public setting.

That piece is not based on a cult. It’s based on Psalm 130. It’s currently my favorite psalm. It is about waiting and watching for the Lord. That is what ties it to the rest of the work in the show- the idea that the Lord is coming. It’s a beautiful song that can provide comfort but in the wrong hands it can be manipulated into something potentially dangerous. Cults tend to isolate verses and bend them the way it sees fit, like what Shanna was discussing earlier with “flirty fishing”. You can imagine how a song about the impending arrival of the Lord could be misused.

For me, I wanted to make something rooted in my true faith for the show; something divorced from the fictional narrative. It’s all me one way or the other but perhaps this is a more direct expression. I guess most of the time I don’t consider “direct” to be more valid than “indirect” so that’s why my drawings aren’t always like this.

The piece is paced to mimic that of the psalm. I broke it up into sections to sort of correspond to the 8 verses but I don’t think that the direction relationship is able to be perceived in the final mix.

RG -How do you think the sound piece will influence the read or flow of the show?
Rob -
I don’t have a clue. I guess it depends on what you’re looking at while you’re listening to it and how long you stand there.

RG -How does sound/music/musicians filter into your drawings (compositionally, thematically, spatially, figuratively, iconically, etc)?

Rob - It has to be a deliberate invitation from me to sound or music to influence my drawings. I don’t necessarily encourage a flowing dialogue because my actual drawings are more about the process of making them. The development of content and composition and all of that is much more open-ended so there’s the potential for things to seep in. I think if I were deliberately looking outward for inspiration then I’d be in trouble. Instead, there’s an internal process of creation and then if I find some pieces are missing, then I’ll start looking outward to plug the holes.

RG -Does that outward ever entail sound/music/specific compositions of music?

Rob - The most obvious “yes” answer to that question is using a specific piece of music to solve a problem and entertain myself a bit. In my Unmoved Moonshiner piece, I knew the guitarist’s left hand was going to have overlapping hand gestures so I made sure that the chords I used on that hand were the chords to George Jones’ song “White Lightning”:

At this point, I’m not looking for inspiration from other artists, I’m looking for confirmation of a worldview. So I’m less inspired in a way that would lead to include something in a piece or making something based off of a song and instead am just inspired to keep going. By that I mean, I feel less alone in what I do when I hear a Carter Family song or read a Flannery O’Connor story. Otherwise I might end up accidentally being an illustrator of other people’s ideas.

RG -I’m interested though in how when you make sound there’s a looping resonance which tend to slightly change but ultimately runs throughout its entirety. Then on top there are other loops or strings that run more sparse, they come in and dissolve. At times the loops become identifiable after a few minutes but then it soaks in the other aspects of the song. There are found sounds, field recordings, guitar chords. These are usually things that are found in your drawings:

_loops - the hatching of marks that cross the paper vertically
_orchestration – the centering of certain fictive characters in a space

_field recordings – landscapes, Alan Lomax (Rob is currently making drawings based on the person of Alan Lomax)

_guitar chords - guitarrists in the drawings, Picasso’s Three Musicians (hangs on Rob’s studio wall)

I wonder if certain sound pieces help you to think as to how much of a sky you want, if you desire a gray to be denser or lighter, what kind of guitars or bags are depicted. Do you find that the things that are found in sound/musicology end up being transformed into visual language?

Rob -There is not that direct of a relationship in how the sound affects the drawings. Not right now anyway. There is a level of interest in my subject matter that gets investigated in two different ways but I don’t think of the sound feeding into the drawing. Instead it would go the other way. The interest in making a field recording out in the woods would come from going out there to do research for drawings. I put an acoustic guitar track on the Psalm 130 piece because I’ve been using it as an object in my drawings for over two years. So no formal decision is affected by the sound pieces in a way that I am aware but the influence does go the other way.

Alan Lomax was one of those external solutions to plug a hole. He just happened to fit perfectly in the idea I needed for the drawing I am still developing.

RG -Both of you are immensely interested in Americana, but specifically mining its spiritual landscape. What is it about this terrain that is enticing for you?

Rob - Do you mean as opposed to a different spiritual landscape? Or are you wondering why we’re interested in it at all?

RG -Why you’re interested in it specifically, which I think might be slightly different than American spirituality

Shanna - Some on my interests involve those basic human aspects: aspiration, disappointment, ideal. These notions, for me, have crystallized within American cult history, which involves spiritual landscape connotations. Beside the big universal items of love and hope. I love researching and learning about the specific odd, even bizarre details. For instance, Heaven’s Gate wanted to ride a comet to exit this world. They called the leaders Bo, and Pe. They changed their names to mystical space names. Amazing stuff! But very sad because of all the tragedy involved.

RG - Though it appears that American spirituality/religion has been mainly based and/or formed upon Christian theology, it was also mixed with other spiritual beliefs and practices. Theosophism, Yorùbá syncretism, Spiritism, amidst others. Whereas Americana seems to umbrella a kind of spirituality, which does indeed borrow from the historical former but also from the folkloric prone aspects of the culture (science fiction, emphasis on apocalyptic readings tainted with a colloquial bent, exacerbation of single scriptural text above others that monopolize an immediate and specific fear, etc).

Rob - My interest would probably be limited by my experience/worldview. I don’t want to pretend like I can understand something that I don’t. It evens out because if there is a folk tale from a different corner of the world that piques my interest, I can figure out a way to translate it into an American version or, more than likely, that American version already exists because people around the globe generally do similar things. Like Kurosawa’s Man With No Name being converted into Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and having a mountain of Italian Catholicism being mixed in for a new spiritual read. In the end, it’s what I know. I get the Cold War and post-Cold War United States and how pop culture and 20th century American folklore developed because of it. It feels more honest to navigate that territory. When the Heaven’s Gate people appropriated some Star Trek ideas and recruited a lot of people susceptible to those ideas, it made sense to me even if it was tragic. The human mind is soft and unless you know in your core what you believe, then someone smarter than you can tap into what makes you tick and exploit it.

RG – My interest in both of your works is this specific attention to Americana not due to the fact that you are both American but that you seem interested in remaining specific about that interest. There are tons of American artists that deal with things globally, but I’m keenly interested in the aspect of your O’Connorism. I think it’s not only that you two are American that you choose to deal with what you know, it’s more than that. The insistence seems to be a type of regionalism.

Rob - Yeah, I think I’m a regionalist at heart. Maybe that’s part of it. I’m not really excited about seeing someone in New York making something almost identical to a person living in Berlin or in LA. Those are different life experiences. I want the art to reflect that. I feel that way about music as well. I want to look at or hear something and get a glimpse into that world that I’m not occupying.

RG – Maybe what I’m getting at is that you and Shanna concoct an Americana of an Americana, a folklore out of an existing one by taking it and creating a new sort of Americana via the fictive elements of your works that are essentially extracted from Americana. A bit of self cannibalism.

Rob - I haven’t lived in the South for a while but I still would say that I make art that is something an American from the Southeast would make. It’s what I know and it’s what deeply resonates with me, particularly something like O’Connor’s concept of the Southern grotesque. I keep this Sally Mann quote within reach because I think it explains it:

"I think there are certain things you can say about Southern artists and that is their love of the land, their commitment to the past, their susceptibility to myth but the main thing I think about us Southerners is we’re willing to experiment with dosages of romance that would be fatal to any other postmodern artist."- Sally Mann.

If you combine that sentiment with O’Connor’s dark sense of humor, I think you can identify a lot of concepts in my work. All that said, people grow up in an area and fully reject and move away, like they are looking for the place they were supposed to be raised. I get that as well. It’s hard to imagine Robert Ryman being Robert Ryman in Tennessee. He had to go. Tom Petty needed out of Florida to go to LA. Conversely, someone like Albrecht Durer went to Italy, learned what he needed and went home to do his thing. That feels more like what I think I am doing. So to your last point, yes, I do think that I am creating a world within that world. There are probably artists in other cultures that do the same thing I can’t think of them right now but that model of creation has been done by William Faulkner and even someone like Quentin Tarantino. Even The Simpsons fits that model. Springfield. Where is it? Wherever you want it to be.

RG - Yes, Faulkner. And that Springfield of yours keeps writing itself out in numerous mythologies. What’s strange too is that Shanna’s Springfield is out of California, hippie’s 60’s and washed out 70’s sixtiesrama.

Rob - Shoot, we all know that the South and the Northeast and the Midwest and the West Coast are four different countries.

That fictional world that I currently deal with is not large. It’s a small, isolated version of reality. When I’m formulating ideas, it feels real but also isolated. The American fiction and folklore that interests me operates on those same terms. The worst to me is a movie like Independence Day that tries to film the entire country and the entire world getting invaded. It’s too much. A sci-fi movie like The Blob doesn’t invade “the United States”. It invades a small town. That explosion of contemporary NY fiction from people like Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Franzen confines itself to a corner of the country. Faulkner made up a county. The Don Delillo books I like don’t try to take on too much beyond one town. Even ET just hung out in one city. Each good Coen Brothers movie is about one geographical area: Minnesota, LA, Chicago, Texas, you get the point.

RG - Shanna, let me retract a bit and go back to something you said. Do you think your interest in the bizarre is also derived from our engagement with fiction? Do the both of

you find, in this triad of cults, Americana and fiction, that fiction has a way in the mind of these cult figures even if undiscerned?

Rob - I guess I’m confused by what you mean by “has a way” in the mind of these cult figures.

RG – Meaning, that fiction somehow infiltrates into the psyche of these cult leaders and followers. The hero protagonist, the anti hero, shooting of polaroids at every sunday meeting (as a story board of sorts), nomenclatures derived from sci fi (The Away Team from Star Trek repurposed by Heaven’s Gate) and customs and traditions that are strangely made up almost fictively minded.

Rob - Well, sure. I’d agree with that. But I know that people believe that about me as well. RG – How do you mean?

Rob - Oh, just that I’d agree that there is a fictitious narrative leap in the head of someone involved in one of these groups, but I know that people that aren’t Christian at some point have to say that I am participating in a fictitious narrative as well.

Shanna - I am having trouble with the word “fiction.” When I think of fiction, I think of novel, or story. Whereas, my paintings are composites of events. My cult paintings are interested in death and transport. I don’t think an A plus B = endpoint C. From my research, leaders like Jim Jones, Harold Camping, Marshal Applewhite, Charles Mason, one of their greatest errors was the infatuation with the grandiose idealizations that they felt compelled to manipulate onto others. They were not mildly or unconsciously delusional, they were absorbed in their grandiose.

RG -Not so much that they had/have a grandiose fiction on the forefront of their mind, but that perhaps fiction as in novels, films, books and the sort have a deeper and more clandestine way in their psychology. I remember reading shortly prior to Saddam Hussein’s execution that he was extremely interested in Hollywood and that such movies inform[ed] his ideas about the world and f[ed] his inclination to believe broad conspiracy theories” 1 and perhaps had an affect on him self consciously as to how to dress, appear in public and conduct affairs. 

Rob -I’d say that sci-fi is particularly effective in that regard. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a Jedi religion spreading worldwide. If it is present in that direct of a way then it can’t help but be working on a different level.

RG - I’m more interested if you guys think it works in the aforementioned cults indirectly.

Rob - I think it works on everyone indirectly to the degree that people participate in popular culture so it probably wouldn’t be any different in shaping a spiritual discussion. !Depending on the group and depending on the leader, you have to factor in mental health and a person’s grasp on reality anyway. I knew a guy in Knoxville that would watch CNN and then absorb that as if it was his life. You’d ask him what he’d been doing that day and he’d say “I’ve been debating abortion on CNN with so-and-so.”

For a number of years in the US, sci-fi was the unknown and that wasn’t a good thing. It was built out of Cold War fear that a bomb was going to drop on your head. Star Trek upended that do a degree and used sci-fi in an utopian manner like Shanna investigates. Both utopian and dystopian sci-fi is part of the larger cultural discussion now to where you don’t need to be a huge fan of either to be aware of them so those ideas can seep into religion like Scientology.

Shanna - The leaders are absorbed in a fiction, which plays out in their daily lives, they assume themselves saviors or special messengers and without them specifically you are lost, that’s why they gain so much control over their devotees.

Rob -That said, epic narrative ideas about heroism and religion are as old as Gilgamesh so it’s just a new twist on an old idea. 

1. Mark Bowden, “Tales of the Tyrant”, The Atlantic, 05/02

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  1. tigerstrikesasteroid posted this