I found Rik Garrett's artwork by happenstance. My friend posted something about the art exhibit in New York with William Mortensen and Rik Garrett's work, which was being showcased at the time. It hit something near my core. The pictures that I saw were from his Earth Magic series, which demonstrated women witches as both singular entities and a group in a forest. The photographs seem from another world, activating the feeling of timelessness uncanny: when and where were these photographs taken? Have I been there? Am I allowed to be there?
There's a feeling of purposeful intrusion, which is intentional, as Rik later states. These pictures conjure up the question of whether or not the viewer is taking voyeurism too far. The answer, of course, from a meta-viewpoint is no, the models in these pictures wanted to have their picture taken, but without context clues, we run into a far more interesting quandary. Who and what are these women? Could they hurt me?
Rik and I met up in Wicker Park to discuss his new book, available in one of the above links, but Rik has been making involved pieces of artwork for years, from his alchemical series of journal-ish books to his series on symbiosis. His enduring curiosity with the clandestine informs much of his work, but beyond this idea of hidden knowledge is an eye for placement and aesthetic, which makes his work not only thematically worthy but appealing or maybe alluring is the better word.
It's an enlightening interview that I'm honored to publish.
Jordan Reyes (leafing through Rik’s book): What do these symbols on the pages mean?
Rik Garrett: It’s a language that I invented that is related to the series. It works on different levels. it’s a symbolic witchcraft language, but also esoteric. It came about while I was working on these photographs, thinking “Okay, if there’s this society of witches that is outcast from society, like a tribe, they would have a written language.” It’s become something more elaborate. I’m still working on it. It may actually be leading into a new project.
JR: So can you read these?
RG: They can be read in a few different ways. They can be read phonetically, although it’s not linear, so there’s room for interpretation. To give away some of the mystery (points to symbols on page) these are kind of literal interpretations of the photograph. For example, this symbol has parts that mean “branches,” “body,” and other things. It gets involved.
JR: So it’s a different spoken language too?
JR: So what would this one sound like?
RG: Well, here’s the trick. Spoken, I still have to check by notes because (laughs) I’m the only one who knows this! So there’s no one to practice with. I’m still brushing up and learning how to pronounce this. There are 56 symbols.
JR: So each glyph is made up on different symbols?
RG: Yeah, so there are probably eight or ten symbols in that glyph. The whole idea is that it’s organic but non-linear.
JR: That’s really cool. I’ve always loved code-breaking. I suppose that’s somewhat related to, and I don’t necessarily want to say “coven,” but the “other-ness” of a group of women.
RG: A lot of the early books made for condemning women for witchcraft were made to describe what witches were, what power they had, what they were about.
JR: Like a DSM for witchcraft?
RG: That’s exactly what it was. It works that way on different levels: it can condemn things in a way. And those early books were full of religious or moral tones. They could tell you about the issues, but these women were portrayed as being apart from society and being of their own or of nature. It made sense to push that and say “yes, they’re embracing this. It’s apart from society and that’s not a bad thing.” So adding layers of code plays to that. And there’s a long history of code-making in the occult with symbols and sigils. A symbol might come up that means “the moon” or a demon that someone is trying to conjure.
JR: There are pictures here where women are alone or in communion. What do you think affects the grouping of a witch?
RG: After working on this series for a while, it seemed important to have multiple witches in a picture. The idea is if you walked into the woods and came upon this scene, it wouldn’t be inviting. It’s somewhat forbidden. But if you come across multiple figures, you’re really not supposed to be there. It’s just a further representation of this society apart from us.
JR: When you talk about a witch, it seems to be specifically woman. Is there a male version?
RG: A lot of the early books that I mentioned will start off saying that there are male witches, but then the entire rest of the book is all about woman. Like the Malleus Maleficarum brings up male witches briefly, but then it goes on to say why women are afflicted by witchcraft and why it was inherently a feminine thing. I’ve always had interest in thinking that there was this feminine thing that I didn’t have access to. I get a feeling that people on both sides of this had something similar. The men writing that book had a similar feeling, but it was expressed negatively.
JR: Is it a longing?
RG: I think so. I think that the people who wrote that book were operating from a place of fear, but I romanticize it, and there’s a history of that too. So it gets tricky, and there’s a fine line, because when you make something bigger than it really is, you may lose something in translation. I personally like the idea that I don’t have access to it.
JR: I think it’s kind of nice. Secrets can be nice. It’s nice not knowing things. I really like deep sea creatures and I like not knowing about it. It’s uncanny. It activates the sublime in my subconscious because it’s kind of terrifying, but it also invites curiosity.
RG: That’s a really good analogy. I can’t think of anything scarier than the deep sea, but it’s fascinating. Every year they release x amount of new animals in the deep sea and they’re all terrifying. Like the Coelacanth that they thought was extinct, but they found in a fish market or something. I’m terrified, but I’m fascinated by it.
JR: Pressure, darkness.
RG: And then just the types of life forms on this planet that can exist that make no sense to our minds.
JR: I always wonder if there’s like life within the cracks of the earth, or like living in some lava that we can’t see because we can’t go into lava. I like to think about the hidden, clandestine society of animals. Anyway, back to witches, there are different ideas of witches in the world, like the Baba Yaga in Russia. Is there a certain lineage or tradition of witch that you’re incorporating in your work?
RG: It’s definitely a Western witch, more European, and therefore American. The idea of witchcraft in all cultures is fascinating, but for some reason the idea of European witchcraft that caused mass hysteria and whether there’s anything to that has been very interesting to me. I wonder if people from other places or other societies would even see witchcraft in this series of photos. They might not. It’s not explicit.
JR: Where does the title “Earth Magic” come into play?
RG: I’d worked with some other bodies of work that had titles in different languages - it added a layer of secrecy that way. I wanted this title to be straightforward and accessible because there are other things to be inaccessible, like the symbols. And there are a ton of books out there called “Earth Magic,” but that was intentional for me. I think that was pretty much it: I didn’t need to add other layers of secrecy.
JR: I was looking through your website and saw you were working on “vintage alchemical books.” What are those?
RG: I started that project ten years ago. I was using a 4” x 5” polaroid film where you got a print and a negative, so you could go in a dark room and make prints with those. So I had a stack of these prints and I wanted to make an album, but that turned into a book, and then it turned into an elaborate book, and eventually these hidden journal entries paired with some audio recordings. So I started with this black book I was working on at night. Then I thought about making a white book and a red book, which triggered me to think about the line of alchemical work. If you’re working on turning led into gold, or whatever material, as you heat it and keep heating it, it turns black, white, and red. I related this to the alchemist him or herself growing - there’s a spiritual growth there too.
RG: So I ran with it. They became very involved. I made each page by hand, maybe using a photograph or cutting something out of a canvas and painting it, or doing something.
RG: It is, but that’s also related to my love of coded language. Most of them are completely unreadable. The first book I pretty much destroyed the text in one way. It’s a cathartic in a way. There’s a green book too, which was the fastest one I made. It only took a month or so and was very much about catharsis and exorcising some things I needed to erase from my life. So I wrote text and then used tape to rip the text off the page, and then I burnt the text into ash, reconstituted the ash, and then painted that back over the first pages with a different message. It was very much about moving forward in that way.
RG: I was doing that, and began to think that alchemy is sort of the masculine bent of Western esotercism, and I wanted to concentrate on the feminine aspect for “Earth Magic.”
JR: So is “Earth Magic” in response to that?
RG: In a way, yes. When you’re working on something, some ideas just spark other ideas and things shoot off into their own trajectory.
RG: I always think I’m having some brilliant new idea, and I realize that I had done something similar a while before. That’s what I thought when I was making the language in Earth Magic and then I remembered that I had been playing with hidden text forever in one way or another. So it’s not all that different.
JR: You said you’re married. What does your wife think of Earth Magic and the feminine witchcraft aspect?
RG: She’s in the book! She’s always been a part of my projects. We met when I began working on the black alchemical book. She’s always in my projects in one way or another.
JR: I was curious who the models were, and one of them is your wife!
RG: The models are mainly people I know. People who have an idea of what I’m talking about and understand it and maybe have a bit of a feral, earthy, wild side to explore.
JR: Does it need a knowledge of witchcraft?
RG: I realized that sometimes it’s better if it’s not a particular interest. I’ve seen that sometimes if it is, people may want to insert too many signifiers of a contemporary witchcraft.
JR: Preconceived notions?
RG: Yeah, and I try to keep it timeless and somewhat ambiguous. You couldn’t say when these pictures were taken or what kind of witchcraft is being represented.
JR: When I saw this, my friend Erik had seen William Mortensen’s stuff in New York, and he posted about your art, and it really resonated with me. It did hit something archetypal or primal.
RG: That’s good. That’s what I hope for. I don’t want to be cocky enough to say that I’ve done that, but that’s good to hear!
JR: So the visual aspect of the book and photographs. How do you know what you’re going for and how do you know if you succeed?
RG: Editing was hard. There were a lot more photographs, but it was also a lot more involved than digital photographs. I was getting negatives and then would have to develop them, so there was more process behind it.
RG: I was getting probably five to ten photographs per photo shoot.
RG: I usually have more of a feel than a definite idea. For this series, a lot was informed by the setting. We would show up to the woods and they would influence what happened that day. The earth feeds into the photographs. I would also work with the people of course, telling them what I was thinking. As I got more photographs, I would start trying to get a little more variety, and kind of plan as I went. The whole thing is a conversation.
JR: What are some of your favorite movies?
RG: When I was in High School I think I watched Blue Velvet every day. I grew up in a weird suburb on the West Coast. Something resonated with me in that mysterious duality of a town. I think that fascination carried over to some of the things I’m working on.
RG: Lately, I’ve been watching some old silent movies. So I have an interest in Film Noir and German expressionism and moody, atmospheric things.
JR: What made you want to do photography and visual art?
RG: I was always working on some art-related project since I was young. It’s the generic response, but it’s true. My mother always wanted to do photography when I was young, and she ended up opening a photography studio. Her darkroom was next to my bedroom, and was a big inspiration.
JR: Was that mysterious?
RG: Oh yeah. That definitely related photography to the feminine. But, yeah, the darkroom was very mysterious.
JR: In a film, when you see a darkroom, you get this sense of dread and it’s usually because in a film noir or film noir influenced movie, there’s always photography accoutrements but there’s also a dude dead in a bathtub!
RG: So when I was 14 or so, I had to take a class about photography to prove that I could use the darkroom. Eventually I kind of took over.
JR: Last question. What are you working on now?
RG: Several things. There are a couple of projects that pick up where Earth Magic leaves off. There’s one that’s specifically related to the witch’s sabbath, so it’s related to the Earth Magic series, but instead of making negatives, they’re one-of-a-kind phosphate positives. And then they’re treated in an esoteric manner. Since they’re a clear positive, they have to have something black put behind them. So I made a black enamel that has tinctures of witchcraft in it with stuff like belladonna. So that’s painted on the back kind of like a magic mirror with the idea that it’s something to gaze into and also be a reflection.
RG: So that’s one thing and then there’s a series of photographs where the prints themselves are made with human menstrual blood. It’s my adapting of an old process in a new way. But that’s my interest in feminine mystery.
RG: Secretly I’ve been working on a series involving mixed media and collage that relates in some ways to Earth Magic. I’m not ready to show this or a few others yet.