Asher Hartman’s art is located at the intersection of performance, theater, and magic. He doesn’t practice hocus-pocus or the style of Gothic witchery seen in the 1996 film The Craft; he creates spaces for psychic, intuitive work that allows people to come together and create as a group. For the past twenty years, Hartman has written, directed, and performed in ritualistic magic-making marathons.
Hartman moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco in the 1970s to complete an undergraduate degree in theater at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He stayed for a master’s degree in studio art at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). He never meant to take up residence in Southern California, but people in the sprawling city of Los Angeles continue to inspire him. Yet Hartman credits the political climate that surrounded his childhood in San Francisco as a major influence.
“I was born about the time of unrest at San Francisco State University, and we moved to Berkeley about the same time, so I grew up around the backdrop of protest, witnessing a lot of police brutality, even as a toddler,” Hartman says. “I remember someone saying that his parents had been taken by an alien in a space ship, later learning that police took them in a helicopter. The way we interpreted it was magical—that people could be taken away.”1
Hartman sold out the first run of his performance Purple Electric Play! (PEP!) at Machine Project, the Echo Park creative hub. PEP! deconstructs and questions the role of the actor and nonlinear storytelling and also challenges the implied passivity of the audience. Brought back by popular demand, PEP! had its second run in January. Written and directed by Hartman and assistant-directed by Caroline Kim, the performance wove together a web of time-traveling archetypal characters that revel in and question the role of the creative class. Like all of his work, the writing of PEP! began in an inspired moment.
“I went to the library one day and I said to myself, ‘I am just going to close my eyes and whatever book I put my hand on will be my research,’” said Hartman. “I put my hand on a book that had pictures of several street-art paintings, and a sketch [by Jacques-Louis David] from around the French Revolution. I remember how much I had been interested in the French Revolution as a young person, so I started researching that again.”
From there, Hartman began a process of automatic writing, sitting at a laptop, in a sort of stream of consciousness. Various scenes, many of them violent, emerged from this activity. Strange monologues also cropped up.
Visions, dream sequences, and psychic readings are an important part of Hartman’s work. Before embarking on PEP!, he performed a psychic reading of the Gamble House in Pasadena, a historic landmark and former home of David and Mary Gamble of the Procter & Gamble company.
His 2011 performance The All-Stars of Non-Violet Communication at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (part of the exhibition So Funny It Hurts, curated by Brian Getnick) cut to the heart of comedic language by homing in on “the moment in a stand-up routine when the comedian turns against the audience, heaping savagery upon them in an attempt to defend the comic’s role as container and messenger of a society’s unacknowledged debts and burdens.”2
As the 2010 artist-in-residence at the Hammer Museum, Hartman and Gawdafful, the theater company he founded, staged Dream-In, inviting people to camp in the museum courtyard and share written descriptions of any dreams that occurred during their stay. (ArtSpa and Machine Project hosted the event.) The dreams were then given to Gawdafful, a group of local “psychonautic actors,” who channeled and reexperienced them together throughout the museum.3 The dream reenactments were then recorded. And in collaboration with the artist Haruko Tanaka since 2007, Hartman has presented Krystal Krunch, a series of workshops for creative people who wish to access their intuition.
Hartman does identify as a queer person but he wouldn’t pigeonhole his work as only “queer.” While growing up, he was most influenced by performers and artists who were queer or perceived as being different. Hartman says, “I loved them for their subversive power, their magical and transgressive nature.” He cites influences like the comedian and actor Paul Lynde, the campy dandy who occupied the central seat in the television game show, Hollywood Squares; the puppeteer Wayland Flowers from ’70s and ’80s television and theater; the fantasy and science-fiction artist Barclay Shaw; and the actor, comedian, and director Charles Nelson Reilly, who dabbled in magic throughout his career. The influences of sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, and Bewitched also enter Hartman’s work but do not guide it. The work comes through him in ways that are as magical and illusive and mysterious as his childhood.
1. “Remembering the Strike,” San Francisco State Magazine, Fall/Winter 2008, accessed January 13, 2015, https://www.sfsu.edu/~sfsumag/archive/fall_08/strike.html.
2. Asher Hartman website, accessed January 13, 2015, https://www.asherhartman.com/perform4.html; https://www.asherhartman.com/performance_video/performance_video0.html.
3. Asher Hartman website, accessed January 22, 2015, https://www.asherhartman.com/perform7.html.