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William S. Burroughs, Rub Out The Word

Stellan Holm Gallery
524 West 24th Street, 212-627-7444
February 15 - March 22, 2008
Reception: Friday, February 15, 6 - 8 PM
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Stellan Holm Gallery is pleased to present Rub Out The Word by William S. Burroughs (1914-1997). Born in 1914, Burroughs was one of the most eminent thinkers of the twentieth century. Instantly recognized for his erudite writings, Burroughs was also a brilliant artist. Between 1987 and 1995, he was prolific in producing works, spending hours each day painting, drawing, and shooting. This exhibition will demonstrate a wide spectrum of Burroughs’ art – paintings, works on paper and shotgun paintings.

Nagual Art

In the Carlos Castaneda books, Don Juan makes a distinction between the tonal universe and the nagual. The tonal universe is the everyday cause-and-effect universe, which is predictable because it is pre-recorded. The nagual is the unknown, the unpredictable, the incontrollable. For the nagual to gain access, the door of chance must be open. There must be a random factor: drips of paint down the canvas, setting the paint on fire, squirting the paint. Perhaps the most basic random factor is the shotgun blast, producing an explosion of color into unpredictable, uncontrollable patterns and forms. Without this random factor, the painter can only copy the tonal universe, and his painting is as predictable as the universe he copies.

Klee said: “An artist does not render Nature. He renders visible”. That is, he glimpses the nagual universe – the unseen – and, by seeing, makes it visible to the viewer on canvas. If the door to the random is closed, the painting is as predictable as the universe – it can only copy, and for many years painters were content to copy Nature. What I am attempting, then, can be called Nagual Art. The shotgun blast that exploded can of spray paint, or a tube or other container, is one way of contracting the nagual. There are, of course, many others. The arbitrary order of randomly chosen silhouettes, marbling, bottling…

He who would invoke the unpredictable must cultivate accidents and randomness… the toss of a coin, or a brush, the blast of a shotgun, the blotting of color and form to produce new forms and new color combinations.

He can carry the process further by arbitrarily inserted silhouettes, the outline of a man, a house, a tree, can be as random as an exploded paint can, leaves dropped at random on the surface, grids, masks, circles, pieces of broken glass an picture puzzle, and words. I have used a phrase, like “Rub out the word to wind”, then translated this phrase into Egyptian glyphs. The word is being used not for its meaning, but as image.

Since the nagual is unpredictable, there is no formula by which the nagual can be reliably invoked. Of course, magic is replete with spells and rites, but these are only adjuncts, of varying effectiveness. A spell that works today may be flat as yesterday’s beer tomorrow.

The painter is tied down to the given formulae of form and color applied to a surface. The writer is more rigidly confined, to words on a page. The nagual must be continually created and re-created.

The bottom line is the creator. Norman Mailer kindly said of me that I may be “possessed by genius”. Not that I am genius, or that I posses genius, but that I may be at times, possessed by genius. I define “genius” as the nagual, the unpredictable, uncontrollable, spontaneous, alive, capricious and arbitrary. An artist is possessed by genius sometimes, when he is so lucky.

~ William S. Burroughs, January 1989
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