by Robin Scher
“The truth is out there,” that quintessentially quotable tagline from the hit 90s TV series The X Files, reflects an ongoing fascination. The obsession with this statement lies in its absolute nature: the truth, not a truth. This idea speaks to an objective reality, a place that lies beyond our subjective perceptions and experiences of the world. The paths toward reaching this destination take many forms, encompassing spiritual practices, creative expression and psychonautical exploration. And while the combination of these pursuits was once the remit of counterculture, today they could not be more interconnected and mainstream. To know why is interesting unto itself, but let’s look beyond that to the more curious nature of this recurring curiosity.
At least one way to understand what gives this trend shape is to look at its trailblazers. And who better than the totemic figure of Burt Shonberg. Who the hell is Burt Shonberg, you ask? Well, get a load of this guy…
Born 1933 in the town of Revere, Massachusetts, Burt Shonberg received his first formal arts education from the Boston Institute of Fine Arts in the early 1950s. This was followed by a brief military stint where he began painting murals in the army mess halls until he was discharged in 1956. This, though, is all preamble to the real action, which started when Shonberg moved to California later that year.
Upon arrival, Shonberg enrolled at the Los Angeles Art Center and soon enough found himself enmeshed in the local cultural milieu. There, Shonberg came to meet, among others, his future agent Forrest J. Ackerman, publisher of Famous Monster of Filmland, and George Clayton Johnson, who would go on to write Logan’s Run as well as episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. It was also among this set that the young artist experienced his first hallucinatory experience and with it, an awakening that would help forge the oncoming psychedelic art movement that came to shape the artistic output of the 1960s.
Shonberg was somewhat of a pioneer of that art movement, in fact. Almost a decade before Psychedelic Art really caught on, the young artist was including esoteric objects and symbols in his work. From figures of the moon to the Sphinx, Shonberg combined these elements with a style most akin to Cubism and Surrealism, which ran counter to the modes of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism popular during that time.
An army’s worth of squid’s ink has been spilled recounting the by-gone days of the Beat Movement and ensuing psychedelic era of the 60s that emerged. But here’s a squirt more. It’s 1958 and Shonberg, living in a small squat above the Sunset Strip, is getting by on food and wages paid for painting murals for local coffee houses (Theodor Bikel’s Unicorn Cafe, Pandora’s Box, and the Purple Onion, to name a few). Surrounded by the growing interest in alternative religions, UFO phenomena and monster movies, Shonberg found himself drawing inspiration from these various influences. Frankenstein’s monster, for one, came to hold a particular place in his imagination, lending its visage to an eponymous Café Shonberg soon opened up with Johnson in Laguna Beach.
Around that time, Shonberg also struck up a relationship with a certain Marjorie Cameron. To the uninitiated, Cameron, an artist and witch, was somewhat of a cult figure in Los Angeles. Rocket scientist Jack Parsons, who was with Cameron for six years, believed she was the Scarlet Woman he had been trying to invoke through a series of ceremonial rituals conducted with the help of L. Ron Hubbard. Filmmaker Kenneth Anger later followed suit, casting Cameron as this mythical figure in his 1956 underground hit, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Shonberg and Cameron came together through their mutual affiliation to a branch of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of Oriental Templars). Some years into their relationship they even tried to give birth to the famed occultist’s prophesied Son of Babylon, the antichrist himself. Needless to say, the pair cut quite a figure and when they weren’t trying to summon Satan’s spawn from their desert ranch, they could be seen rolling around town in an old black hearse. This period had a profound impact on Shonberg, who would come to render his mystic muse in a number of works from that time.
Several of these paintings are currently on view at the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft as part of the exhibition, Beyond the Pleasure Dome: The Lost Occult World of Burt Shonberg. Marking the first time Shonberg’s work has been exhibited publicly in 54 years, the show, which runs until 15 November, presents an opportunity to revisit this idiosyncratic figure and the various influences that make his work so prescient today.
“What does it look like or mean when an artist strives to show their audience the feel and look of expanded consciousness? Of another world they have seen and been absorbed into? Is it even possible with the material tools of paint?” asks Robert Cozzolino, curator of paintings at Minneapolis Institute of Art, in the catalogue introduction to the exhibition. In this provocation, we might find the kernel of Shonberg’s journey and what he sought to express through his work. And even more so, what his explorations might say about our culture’s present fascination in exploring those untold bounds.
Roger Corman’s House of Usher (clip). Artwork by Burt Shonberg.
The turn of the decade proved to be just as eventful for Shonberg. His brief tryst with Cameron largely faded, Shonberg’s continued involvement with the occult next manifested itself in his collaboration with prolific filmmaker Roger Corman on his movie adaption of Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher (1960).
Although commissioned to paint portraits of the film’s titular family, Shonberg was selected by Corman for his unique style and vision. “Burt’s work had a mystical, mysterious quality, and was perfect for capturing the evil inherent in the faces of the Usher family ancestors [. . .] Together, we came up with one of the most unique and memorable uses of painting as a storytelling device in film,” writes the director on his attraction to Shonberg’s work in his contribution to the exhibition catalogue, an essay titled “Like Turner on Acid.”
Incidentally, acid would come to play a significant part in the next chapter of Shonberg’s artistic life. Following a call for artists, writers, and actors to take part in a research study at the University of California-Irvine, Shonberg entered into a series of trials investigating the impact of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide 25 on the creative process. Injected with a dose of up to 150ml of LSD, Shonberg would come to have life-altering experiences that would shape his understanding of space and time that he would later translate through his work.
What we are left with are the results of this artist’s singular experience. One painting in the Buckland exhibition, for instance, features the ghostly presence of a Roman Centurion adorned with an Egyptian-style headdress floating behind a sphinx-like character. Typical of Shonberg’s occult pre-occupations, the work seems to reveal the presence of a hidden mythos underlying our reality. And while it takes a very specific set of references from the artist’s context, the spirit of the work could not be more relevant today: the search for understanding requires peeling back the curtain of our visible range.
Beyond the Pleasure Dome, exhibition visual essay. Courtesy of Stephen Romano Gallery.
Robin Scher is Head Of Communications at Goodman Gallery, South Africa. He is a graduate of Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, has a Masters in Cultural Reporting and Criticism, and is the former editorial assistant at ARTnews magazine.