Generalized humans, shapes in watercolor, stand in front of a world that looks like a swirling snow globe.

Scrawled across Zachary Cahill’s promotional banners and digital photographs of watercolors, are questions: “What is a painting? Why do we still do it?” The emblem USSA, a fictional world constructed of USSR and USA, is marked on all works as a returning incantation.

As if following the conditions of bringing a spirit from the dead, Cahill summons an answer from the invisible, painting directives on top of thick woods. Another painting asks, “Our psychic connection, But How? Why?”

Only a Painting, Zachary Cahill, digital photograph of watercolor on plexiglass, 18 x 24 inches, 2014

In a similar way full of sickly color, Zach’s watercolors share the constricted sight of paintings by Austrian artist Maria Lassnig. Her paintings are made with what Lassnig called “body awareness”. Fluorescent, painted humans wear constrictive goggles, disfigured through interactions with the outside world. A translucently painted wall of color floats in front of neon eyes. Maria Lassnig paints self-portraits that look like the self is overtaken – mouth open, head upturned and paintings of one body merging into another, neither body fully formed as self-portrait.

Almost all of Maria Lassnig’s images look stunned. Several portraits feature the eyeball held out away from the body, as well as above the head. Eyeballs are no longer used for seeing, but as overly-conscious tools of awareness. Eyeballs that examine the activity of looking.

Transparentes Selbstporträt, Maria Lassnig, oil on canvas, 1987

I saw Zachary Cahill by chance, shortly after seeing his exhibition called USSA Wellness Center at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He asked me what I was reading these days. He was reading a book about religion, far-reaching into the past.

Books are installed within Zach’s exhibition and are on his mind. Several books compose the reference material of a reading library situated within the exhibition, thematically a wellness center within a tubercular sanatorium.

Inside this wellness center library, another influential book sat on the shelf, the shelf hung behind chairs of seated art viewers: The Preparation of A Novel by Roland Barthes. In our conversation, Zach mentioned this was a book he had many times recommended to everyone, and would recommend to anyone. The novel describes the process of planning a novel, a meta-novel, then, much in the way USSA Wellness Center is laid out according to the logic of a wellness center. The center includes a reading room, patients’ displayed watercolors, and hallway inspirational banners, as well as containing earnest watercolor washes of cliff precipices.

USSA Banner, Zachary Cahill, installation at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2014, image courtesy of Tom Van Eynde

I brought up the Barthes book about grief, Mourning Diary, a diary kept after death of Barthes’ mother, a book written concurrently with The Preparation of a Novel and Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. The book was formed from a collection of notes on notecards, as with most of Barthes’ writing. Statements were written directly after the death of Barthes’ mother and continue up until his own death. Everyone grieves, and most want to attain wellness.

“But to see proof is a relief.”

“Do you have a book that you would recommend to everyone?” asked Zach. My mind drew a blank. Goodnight Moon, I thought. A book that loves sleep, loves to usher in sleep, with a wish goodnight to each object in the universe – the lamp, the cup and saucer. This universe contains one bedroom and the moon. The book is written séance-like in its bidding goodbye of each thing. Goodnight object, goodnight object, goodnight object.

I asked Zach about his séance that will begin at midnight at the MCA this Saturday, September 13th. Would it contain all of the props I had heard his séances contained before – complete darkness, a summoning of people in line?

Things I know about a séance are few. Popularity of the séance grew in the 19th century with the rise of Spiritualism. Séance comes from the French word meaning, seat, or session. Summoning of spirits no longer only happens while seated.

As a hypnotist speaks, an inert body listens: formally, sweater over shoulder, Susan Howe sits at her table, illuminated by a lamp with hands placidly folded beneath her book of words. Rather than gathering spirits, but akin to the method, Howe gathers words.

Words flow through, less a narration than a retrieval of emotion. The poet is like a medium, and the medium practices body awareness. From centuries-old sources, her poems are fragmented quotations, reaching far back.

“I need an excuse to reach that far back,” I thought, “and I love to have excuses.” The language comes even-keel. An invitation to a séance:

Susan Howe, from performance with David Grubbs WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER, 2014

Erin Leland
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