The Tate/LaBianca Murders, also known as the Manson Family Murders, were a pivotal point in Los Angeles and U.S. culture, signalling the end of the happy days of hippiedom, proving conclusively to grown-ups, squares, and law enforcement that long hair, rock n’ roll, and drugs were bad, beyond bad, beyond the baddest; an evil combination that led to madness and brutal slayings in wealthy neighborhoods.
David Van Gough‘s “MAN/SON and the Haunting of the American Madonna,” a painterly exploration of Manson and the underground river of occultism and conspiracy that Van Gough believes runs through Manson, and by extension America, is especially timely. Not only did it open at Hyaena Gallery the week celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ first single (Manson was famously influenced by the band, and built his psychotic, apocalyptic vision around their music), but on October 4, 2012 Bruce Davis–a Manson Family member convicted along with Manson and another man in the murders of musician Gary Hinman and stuntman Daniel “Shorty” Shea–won a recommendation of parole after 40 years in prison.
Davis’ parole is pending review by the entire parole board and Governor Jerry Brown, and was opposed by former Manson Family member Barbara Hoyt and Debra Tate, the sister of actress Sharon Tate. Sharon Tate, the nine-months pregnant actress wife of director Roman Polanski, was brutally murdered along with seven others during the Manson Family killing spree August 8 and 9, 1969.
Sharon Tate is the muse for David Van Gough, the American Madonna of his Hyaena Gallery’s show’s title. His portraits of the actress are perfect 1960s-era nudes, yet utilize the Rubens’ classic technique of greenish shadows to contrast pink flesh. Appearing in the pair of nudes are occult references: The goddess Nuit is etched into the black background of Pig above the withered apple next to Tate’s curvaceous haunches, referencing English occultist Aleister Crowley, while a tail appears from below her coccyx in the shape of the number 6 on its side, hovering above the mystic numerals 333. The tail is similar to a pigs tail; Manson members painted the word “pigs” in their victims’ blood. The numeral 6 forms the visual third of the “number of the Beast” 666, while 333 is mathematically half that notorious figure. On her back Van Gough has etched an inverted pentagram. Death and the Maiden is a more straightforward, yet still occult-themed nude: Tate’s back is still towards us, and she turn the opposite direction from her pose in Pig, holding a skull, a symbol heavy with a range of meanings.
Tate’s image cascades through the majority of pieces on exhibit, gloriously naked, her large luminous eyes downcast, and then in a final piece, Death of the 60s that evokes the paperback cover of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49, Tate’s pregnant belly is ripped open, as it was during the Manson Family’s rampage. The reference to the Pynchon novel is appropriate as The Crying of Lot 49 is fraught with conspiracies, and conspiracies run throughout MAN/SON. While chatting with Van Gough at the reception, I pulled up the book’s image on my iPhone, and he was thrilled that I’d recognized the homage.
Charles Manson and his grimy, murderous band of dystopian followers are storied anti-culture figures, jumping off points for numerous artists whose use Manson, his “family,” and their crimes as starting points for cultural commentary and/or to épater les bourgeois.
Raymond Pettibon drew Manson frequently in his early artwork, and his work shown at MOCA as part of “Helter Skelter: Los Angeles Art in the 1990s” and “Under the Big Black Sun,” featured images of Manson; Pettibon’s Do the Creepy Crawl in MOCA’s permanent collection utilizes one of Manson’s pet phrases. Multi-media artist John Roecker immortalized another Manson phrase with Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, a feature length, stop-action animation, sci-fi version of the Manson Family; Roecker also collages and screens Manson’s face in some of his art pieces. Don McLean refers to the Manson family murders in his mega-hit song “American Pie” with the line
Helter Skelter in the summer swelter.
Guns N’Roses recorded one of Manson’s songs, “Look at Your Game, Girl,” at Axl Rose’s insistence, while Brian Hugh Warner famously became the rock star Marilyn Manson, and South Park animated Manson for a Christmas episode.
Van Gough takes a deep, painterly approach to the Manson saga as he explores the occult undercurrents, both historical and speculative. In War, Shiva the Destroyer dangles the head of John Lennon as a white dove and a blackbird form a swastika. The painting draws upon the Beatles’ influence on Manson, as well as the influence of Hinduism on occultism from Mme. Blavatsky on, calling up the mystical symbols and swastika used by Hitler; Manson and his followers would carve swastikas into their foreheads during the lengthy Manson Family trial. Blavatsky and Hitler appear in Something Witchy, while the Beatles appear again in both God of Fuck and the intricate Bad Vibes which traces strange “coincidences,” mythologies, and facts. Aa tangled maze of connections tangles, labyrinthine, across the faces of Blavatsky, Hitler, Aleister Crowley, L. Ron Hubbard, rocket scientist Jack Parsons, the Beatles, those murdered by the Manson Family, and other famous figures, linking the Kennedys and Frank Sinatra to Blue Jay Way where the Beatles stayed to the CIA’s MKULTRA mind control program to Liverpool where the Beatles were formed and where Van Gough was born and lived. As a teenage the artist devoured movie magazines, reveling in horror films and discovering the connection between the star of Fearless Vampire Killers, its director (Roman Polanski), Rosemary’s Baby (directed by Polanski), and a group of murderous hippies who struck fear into the tony enclaves of Beverly Hills and Los Feliz.
To an occultist there are no coincidences; when I got in my friend’s car to head over for the opening–he had no clue what it was about, just something to do on a Saturday night–his CD player shuffled onto the Beatles’ White Album, a major influence on Manson. Manson’s obsessive analysis of the album and his perverted preachings about it propelled hos followers to murder.
Hyaena Gallery shows Low Brow, Dark, and Goth art reveling in depictions of horror, carnival, pin-up, occult, and serial killer iconography. Bruce Eicherlberger‘s pyrography and painted eggs fill a case; vintage china plates with insulting phrases grace another, while a huge Cthulhu sculpted from a violin and long pieces of carved wood hovers playfully next to portraits of Betty Page and Lily Munster. Amid these illuminations of a current zeitgeist, friends and fans of Van Gough–including Christopher Ulrich whose show “The Reckoning, The Final Chapter in the Christ Chronocrater Cycle” opens December 7 at La Luz de Jesus; Vega who’d done an artists’ panel at The Loft Liz’s earlier in the day for her installation; and the delightfully gloomy Goth culture writer Dahlia Jane wearing a dress she’d created using custom-made Manson themed fabric–greeted the artist and engaged him spirited discussions about art, conspiracies, murder, mayhem, and the American soul.
(Top photo: Rise )“MAN/SON and the Haunting of the American Madonna,” David Van Gough October 1-31 Opening reception, Saturday October 6 8pm-10pm Hyaena Gallery 1928 W. Olive Ave.
Burbank, CA 91506
Open Tuesday-Saturday 11am – 7pm, Sunday, noon-5pm, or by appointment