By: Jessica Simmons

In the early 1970s, an enigmatic, silver-haired patriarch ceremoniously referred to as Father Yod helmed a commune on the grounds of a stately Los Feliz mansion. Dubbed the Source Family (named for Yod’s eponymous vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip), the movement espoused tantric sex, vegetarianism, Yogi Bhajan-inspired mysticism, rigorous meditation, and psychedelic rock (with an in-house band led by Yod himself). At the crest of his popularity, Father Yod enthralled over 150 young, sometimes underage followers into his eccentric sphere, and had 13 wives, all of whom collectively inhabited the Los Feliz “Mother House” and adamantly enacted his radical, free-loving doctrine. Isis Aquarian, one of Yod’s followers and former wives, prolifically photographed the group’s inner workings, amassing an archive that illuminates the peculiar psychology underlying the Source Family’s fervent gospel. 

The group exhibition Children of the Sun at LADIES’ ROOM (a gallery in the Bendix Building that solely exhibits female-identifying artists) thematically orbits around six of Aquarian’s uncanny photographs, employing them as a lens through which to examine ten other artists whose work also offers mystical interpretations (with the sun as a consistent motif). Despite the inclusion of myriad non-documentary work--the most engaging of which includes paintings by Rema Ghuloum, a photograph by Natalja Kent, a drawing by Madam X, and a video installation by Shana Moulton--Aquarian’s lushly seductive photographs nonetheless function as the exhibition’s backbone, firmly rooting the surrounding work in the ethereal language of New Age spiritualism, even if only by association. With this in mind, Children of the Sun can be viewed as comprising two distinct camps: works either tangentially engaging with the surface-level aesthetics of New Age mysticism, or, more fruitfully, delving into the deeper psychology that underlies blind devotion to esoteric belief systems in the first place. 

Both camps are anchored by Aquarian’s photographs, which point to the Source Family as boasting a highly manufactured aesthetic doctrine inasmuch as a philosophical one. In The Source Family Women and Girls with Rolls Royce (1973), for example, a large group of willowy, long-haired, bra-less women--some visibly pregnant, some flanked by children, all adorned with billowing dresses--pose around the Family’s eggshell-white Rolls Royce, atop which perches a young blonde woman who, like a Hollywood starlet, appears ceremoniously poised for her on-screen sacrifice. The cult’s optics reek of quintessential hippiedom, and therefore also strike a resounding chord with certain fashionable trends in contemporary mainstream culture. The image could have been pilfered from today’s social media; it finds visual echoes in everything from the saccharine bohemian pastiche of wellness influencers and Coachella attendees to the hyper-saturated, ominous cinematography of last summer’s cult horror film Midsommar (which also highlights the infernal power of the sun). Several paintings in the exhibition also find referents in this aesthetic mise-en-scéne: Mary Anna Pomonis’ Sailor Venus, Roberta Gentry’s Float (2018), and Julika Lackner’s Emerging no.3 (2017) all deploy radiating geometric patterns in crisp, kaleidoscopic colors, subtly recalling both tantric mandalas as well as a specific psychedelic stained-glass abstraction depicted in Aquarian’s photograph, Father Yod and Isis in Temple (1973). However, while these hypnotic and elusive paintings may dabble in the esoteric aesthetics of mysticism, they avoid overtly pointing to the mesmeric devotional language of spirituality--rather, they ultimately present squarely as abstractions. 

Alternately, Madam X’s Cosmic~Human (2019), a mandala-style drawing on paper composed of a seemingly infinite number of intricate marks, and Shana Moulton’s three-minute video, Morning Ritual (2016), a dexterous critique of the conflation of New Age spiritualism and the wellness movement, directly embrace mysticism as a highly structured visual language. Taken together, both works offer the exhibition’s most layered examination of the type of seductive, spiritual axiom that, decades earlier, attracted Source Family members to Father Yod. In Cosmic~Human, undulating glyphs and sacred geometries reveal the drawing’s making as an exercise in endurance and devotion--one that equates the artist to a pilgrim undertaking grueling circumambulations. Morning Ritual functions similarly, although as a more humorous farce. Moulton (as her alter ego Cynthia), arises from bed with a hallucinatory vision of a pulsating parasite in her belly, which she attempts to exorcise through a repertoire of yogic exercises. The video’s kitschy, surrealist montage codifies Cynthia’s beleaguered anxiety, probing the ways in which desire for healing can bleed into a state of comic desperation, psychological compulsion, and even sadism. While Children of the Sun deviates from a deeper excavation of spiritual obsession as sadism in exchange for an airier presentation of the mystical symbology of the sun, both  Cosmic~Human and Morning Ritual serve the exhibition well by engaging with spirituality’s dark underbelly. 

By pairing these two interpretive works with such highly specific documentary photographs, Children of the Sun muddles the boundary between the real and the surreal. The presence of an alter ego--or alternate spiritual identity--is a key tenant of this dissolution, as it solidifies the breakdown of rationality that mystical devotion entails. Father Yod (née Jim Baker), Cynthia (the artist Shana Moulton), and Madam X (whose identity is anonymous) are all in fact alter egos--discarnate identities whose immaterial existence is made concrete by committed belief. In this sense, Aquarian’s photographs, despite being documentary in nature, present as the most surreal works in the exhibition, serving as an index of the ways in which religious dogma can completely cannibalize objective reality. (Here, note that Isis Aquarian has since adopted her Source Family alter ego as her formal, legal name). 

Eventually, a second metaphysical identity--YaHoWha, an otherworldly alter-alter ego in the form of an utterly unmoored, self-professed deity--cannibalized Father Yod. As YaHoWha’s obtuse brand of spiritual sadism peaked, his tentacled hold of his followers slackened. Former Source Family members have spoken of the prevalence of sexual coercion under the guise of tantric magic and other arcane rituals such as gazing directly into the sun until it nearly singed the eyes. These narratives blur the threshold between the fanatic spiritualist and the critical observer, revealing that steadfast belief might materialized in a slow slippage between the two. For YaHoWha , this slippage from man to fanatic to deity was rather abrupt, indelibly surreal, and ultimately cataclysmic. As the exhibition’s thrust stems from the assertion that YaHoWha (née Father Yod, née Jim Baker) was a veritable sun--a brazen, blinding force that enlivened his own cultural ecosystem--the story of his untimely demise is tragically pertinent. On August 25, 1975, in his amateur attempt to soar off a cliff towards the sun, YaHoWha was mortally wounded by delusions of his own untouchable brightness.

1 The Source Family, directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos (2013; El Segundo, CA: Gravitas Ventures).

2 Ibid.

annie wharton