Few figures in the Los Angeles avant garde have such an intriguing life story as that of Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922-1995). Known by one name, Cameron was artist, actor, mentor, muse, and sorceress to L.A.’s beat generation. Interest in Cameron has escalated in recent years, the more so after her inclusion in a couple of Pacific Standard Time exhibitions. It’s been tough to disambiguate her too-colorful biography from her too-little-seen achievement as a visual artist. Is Cameron one of the great L.A. artists, or merely material for a future indie biopic? “Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman,” at MOCA Pacific Design Center, is the first real attempt to answer that question.
Organized by guest curator Yael Lipschutz, “Cameron” downplays the sex, drugs, and social networks for the art itself. Cameron was above all a draughtsman. Fossil (1958, above), in white ink on black ground, is original, haunting, and unlike anything else in the show.
Cameron’s style was ever-mutating, and her retrospective might easily be mistaken for a group show. At left is Harpocrates, shown as part of a grid of 20 ink drawings of occult, freaky psychedelia. Harpocrates was the child-god of silence. The cropped face must be Cameron’s husband, Jack Parsons, a co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and follower of Aleister Crowley.
“Cameron”’s most compelling pieces are assemblage-paintings of the late 1950s. Below is an untitled portrait of Crystal (the artist’s daughter, 1959) and Buried Doll (1955). These explore entropy, the universal tendency of everything to fall apart. That inconvenient truth is the nexus of mysticism, religion, and philosophy. In such works Cameron’s art connects most directly to that of her more-famous mentorees George Herms and Wallace Berman. If Berman was the father of California assemblage, Cameron was its godmother.
MOCA gives pride of place to a painting, Aleister Crowley’s Guardian Angel. The clean, illustrational style strikes me as rather dull. It is a reminder that, like Hilma af Klint, Cameron was often transcribing mystic visions more or less literally.
Perhaps in that category is a tiny portrait of an E.T.-unicorn. The title, Alien Assemblage, seems to tweak the California Assemblage movement that Cameron helped foster. In its vintage frame it is poised between a very weird Cornell box and decor for a hipster hotel. Another artist might have made a series of such things; with Cameron it was one-off.
Actually, it’s hard to make sweeping statements about Cameron’s oeuvre. Much of her work is lost or at least misplaced. The MOCA exhibition begins with Curtis Harrington’s 1955 film portrait of Cameron and her art, The Wormwood Star. All the artworks in the film are lost except for Buried Doll. It’s said that acquaintances and fans took much of her art and memorabilia after the artist’s death.
Had Cameron attended art school in this century, she would have been told to promote, promote, promote her career. She had but one single-artist exhibition in her lifetime, at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 1989 (the year she turned 67).
It’s all the more notable then that MOCA director Philippe Vergne is a Cameron fanboy. He’s written a foreword to the show’s forthcoming slim (88-page) catalog. A Vergne quote in the MOCA press release puts the pro-Cameron case well:
“Cameron has opened many doors that continue to intrigue and inspire generations of artists. Her hallucinated vision, at the edge of surrealism and psychedelia embodies an aspect of modernity that deeply doubts and defies cartesian logic at a moment in history when these values have shown their own limitations. Her work demonstrates that the space in the mind is without limit.”