Demons, art and poetry

The Falk Gallery’s newest exhibition, ‘When the Old Gods Walked the Earth,’ features the work of ArtCNU alum Bertie Piatt

The Falk gallery exhibition features “Beleth” by Bertie Piatt
KRISTEN ZICCARELLI / THE CAPTAIN’S LOG

BY SABRINA RIVERA

In a series of blurry windows that look into the shaky forest visions of Bertie Piatt, a CNU alum’s photography series, When the Old Gods Walked the Earth, hangs on the walls of the Falk Gallery. Piatt’s work consists of eight photographs featuring dark photos with the cloudy figures of smoke, cloth, and modern people representing various goetic demons.

The pieces “Beleth” and “Asmodeus” were particularly interesting: the former shows a woman dancing across a dark cemetery, the white cloth she holds blurred behind her like a wisp, similar to the pale horse that Beleth is said to ride according to demonology. The surprising brightness of the scene uniquely contrasts the grim tones that a cemetery usually exudes, and the blurred movements of the woman’s dancing make her mysteriously hard to pin down. In books like The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King by Mathers and Crowley, Beleth is stated to be preceded by a band of musicians; but in this photo I like to imagine that she dances to silence, as all that precedes her are gravestones.

“Asmodeus” features a different scene. Piatt, in this self-portrait, is shown as the demon king Asmodeus laying on what appears to be some type of large industrial metal slab like it was a coffin, with a blur of white smoke hovering past his head. The frame is much closer to its subject than in Beleth, which gives a more personal focus to Piatt’s face. I thought this was certainly on brand – Asmodeus is known as a demon of lust in some texts, such as Malleus Maleficarum, written by Heinrich Kramer in 1486. The starker focus on Piatt’s face gives a visceral feeling through eye contact that I would expect of something titled “Asmodeus,” managing to provoke a sense of intimacy without being sexual.

The photo series is accompanied by an original poem by Piatt, describing the loss of pagan gods and the pain experienced by humanity in moving from one tradition to another in a traditional ABCB rhyme scheme. I didn’t find the poem itself gripping; the rhyming and meter felt too strict, as if words like “tourist” and a few lines were added simply to make it work, hampering Piatt’s ability to meaningfully connect his words to his art, especially when the photos don’t adhere to strict stylistic structures like the poem does. The series might benefit from a poetic structure that was more freeform like the photos themselves, more flowing, and more interpretive.

According to Bertie Piatt’s bio on his website, www.bertiepiatt.com, he was born in 1990 and is from Gloucester, Virginia. His art often reflects his viewpoint of being a “habitual outsider” and has a unique focus on self-portraiture that is influenced by classic cinema. After taking a quick look at Piatt’s Instagram (@bertiepiatt), When the Old Gods Walked the Earth seems to be a faithful extension of his usual style, which uses dark color, natural and architectural subjects, and plays with focus to show ephemeral feelings that are difficult to showcase. Don’t look for hidden objects or minutiae when looking at Piatt’s exhibition – there’s an ambience to each scene that has to be taken in all at once. The blurred movements of each subject expands across the scene so that you can’t look in any one corner by itself. However, this method has its own drawbacks.

I must admit that while the collection piqued my interest, I would not say that they fully drew me in. There’s a certain attraction to the ambience of each photo that makes it “flow” easily from one to the other, but the lack of a clear subject in a few of the photos made it difficult to really take something from a photo. I was left with a mild interest in knowing more about what Piatt wants us to see because it was hard to see much past the theme, especially in connection with the accompanying poem displayed on one wall of the exhibit. A strength of the series’ simplicity is that it leaves it open to interpretation; the photos would be incomplete without the poem, and vice versa. For this exhibition I would say not to get too caught up in a single photo, because you’ll miss out on how each part of the series interacts with another; it is not a series of singular images one after the other, but a collection of emotive portraits that would feel strangely isolated if not viewed whole.

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