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'Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman' at MOCA/PDC

'Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman' at MOCA/PDC
"Black Egg" underscores Cameron's bohemian sensibilities. (Museum of Contemporary Art)

Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922-95) was an actress and artist better known as just Cameron, her familial birth name. The notoriety hinges primarily on two things.

One was her role in filmmaker Kenneth Anger's short underground classic, "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome." The other was her role as catalyst, three years later, for a ludicrous vice raid that shut down a 1957 exhibition at Ferus Gallery, thanks to a Cameron drawing called "Peyote Vision."

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Pleasure and peyote. If you're sensing that sex and drugs (if not rock 'n' roll) are at the heart of the matter, you're not far wrong. In 1950s Los Angeles, Cameron was a counter-culture muse.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art/Pacific Design Center, "Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman" assembles about five dozen works, mostly on paper, from the 1950s to the 1980s. Organized by MOCA's Alma Ruiz and guest curator Yael Lipschutz, the show is subtitled with the name of an early suite of 20 drawings inspired by poems written by her late husband, Jack Parsons.

Co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he was killed at 37 in a freak home-lab explosion. The florid "Witch Woman" line drawing "Merlin" seems to be his portrait.

The legendary wizard's idealized head is crowned with flowing tendrils of hair and marked by Spock-like pointed ears and a heart-shaped mask. A cross, a medieval shield and a dagger complete the ensemble. Stylistically it's closer to Aubrey Beardsley (think of his elegant 1894 illustrations for "Le Morte D'Arthur") than to a Surrealist daydream.

Parsons, scion of a wealthy Pasadena family, was an avid follower of the kooky metaphysics and mystic mumbo-jumbo of British occultist Aleister Crowley. He was also a friend of L. Ron Hubbard, the wackadoodle science fiction writer. Some of Crowley's ideas on the transcendent power of "creative will" were incorporated into Scientology, Hubbard's philosophy of spiritual rehabilitation. They can be sensed in Cameron's art.

Take "Black Egg," an undated painting on cardboard. A nominal self-portrait, the iconic rendering of a flame-haired priestess shows her delicately holding the ovum in her hands as if it were an enchanted crystal ball. The egg's black shape is echoed in her dark oval eyes, blanked-out portals of inward vision.

As has often happened with compelling women who demonstrate artistic verve, Cameron was pretty much socially limited to the role of men's muse. Her work is thus rather thin. The drawings seem like arcane notations in an evolving personal narrative, while the few paintings on canvas are mostly dark muddles – a primordial ooze from which nothing much finally emerges.

The most beautiful and successful works are a group of small, abstract watercolors. Their layered flow of transparent color, sometimes inflected with a shimmer of gold, evokes energy evanescing. Fluid brush-marks come together in flame-like bursts of color, or else they evaporate into a pale hazy blur like fading fireworks.

Many were made in the 1980s, late in Cameron's life. Given the economic hardship of her bohemian existence and, in the view of some, struggles with mental illness, they represent a far distance from her initial counterculture forays.

But the counterculture is where her significance lies. Most notable among the earlier works is "Peyote Vision," the line drawing that caused the Ferus Gallery kerfuffle.

It shows a nude woman on all fours being mounted from behind by a cosmic male figure, his thick spinal cord pointing toward a force-field of radiating lines, which burst inside his head like a Tesla plasma globe. Her long, shredded tongue flickers, an upraised torch burning with erotic pleasure.

Artist Wallace Berman included a small reproduction of the drawing in his first (and only) Ferus show, and the notoriously repressive LAPD vice squad pounced. Berman, a supposed threat to public tranquility, was dragged off to jail in handcuffs. Cameron might not have been much of an artist, but her work, like her life, stood in estimable opposition to the stultifying conformism of L.A.'s prevailing 1950s ethos.

MOCA/PDC, 8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (213) 626-6222, to Jan. 11. Closed Monday. www.moca.org

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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