Witchiness is definitely in this season. First Stevie Nicks re-released two of her most mystical-looking albums, then filmmaker Anna Biller introduced us to The Love Witch. At the end of February, witches gathered at Trump Tower to cast a spell on the president using candles, salt, and other odds and ends. There are at least three more anti-Trump spells planned for the spring, and Lana Del Rey has publicly endorsed all of them.
D.C.’s Transformer art gallery might not have intended to tap into this zeitgeist of female magick, but its current photography exhibition, Luminiferous Aether, does just that. The title of this collaboration between visual artists Chandi Kelley and Marissa Long refers to the debunked 19th-century theory that light travels through an invisible medium called “luminiferous aether.” Kelley and Long’s photos tap into this idea of a magical, unseen material by playing with the tension between the physical and the intangible. Kelley focuses her work on metamorphosis and “the unknown,” while Long tackles the concept of portals that disrupt time and space (something that might interest a lot of Hillary Clinton supporters, even the non-witches).
The most magical photos of all come from Long. Her use of draped cloth and candles will remind viewers of Stevie Nicks’ witchy aesthetic. A photo of a white flower set against black drapery looks like an altar that some teenager might dedicate to her secret crush. Another photo, showing a mysterious black portal suspended between two candles, looks at once like part of a coven’s ceremony and also like something that Nicks might have put on an album cover.
Many of Long’s photos create an optical illusion that makes their portals seem three-dimensional. Other photos, like a shot of a woman curled into a ball, stand out for being unsettling. In that image, the woman’s body represents a portal, and the viewer is left wondering where it could possibly lead to. There’s also a photo of a portal made of tangled twigs, which looks menacing even if you haven’t seen Stranger Things. If any of Long’s portals lead to the Upside Down, it’s definitely that one.
Some of Kelley’s images are even more unnerving, especially the ones featuring detached plaster hands. Hand casts were once a fairly normal way to remember a deceased love one (after Queen Victoria’s husband died, she kept a plaster cast of his hand in her bedroom). Yet today’s viewers might squirm when they look at Kelley’s images. The plaster hands are obviously inanimate, but they’ve been cast in life-like poses, and it’s the tension between those two qualities that makes them particularly creepy.
Many of Kelley’s photos focus on images from the natural world. A ritualistic picture of a coyote skull, titled “Memento Mori,” evokes Georgia O’Keeffe; a book decorated with a mountainous landscape is paired with light and drapery to create a sci-fi effect; and her picture of a snake floating in space just looks cool as hell. Her photos of seashells are a little less compelling, perhaps because it’s hard for a picture of a shell to shake off its association with beach house kitsch.
Transformer is a small gallery with only one room, and Luminiferous Aether is a small show. It’s not an exhibit to wander around and get lost in, but it’s a nice place to stop by with a friend on your way to your next tarot reading.
At Transformer to March 11. 1404 P Street, NW Washington, D.C. 20005. Free. (202) 483-1102. www.transformerdc.org.