Elijah Burgher: Our Lady of the Latrines

Opening: Friday, Feb 23, 2024 5 – 8 pm
Friday, Feb 23 – Apr 6, 2024

1709 W. Chicago Ave
2nd. Floor
Chicago, IL 60622

View the show on our website here

Western Exhibitions is thrilled to present our fifth solo show with Elijah Burgher. In Our Lady of the Latrines, Burgher focuses his ongoing engagement with iconography from ancient history and religion in a new series of drawings that take as their subject the notorious 3rd-century Roman emperor, Elagabalus. The drawings will be accompanied by a presentation of sketchbook pages and research notes as well as an essay by the artist exploring the occult dimensions of the myths surrounding the life of the emperor. Our Lady of the Latrines opens in Gallery 1, alongside Juliet Jacobson’s show in Gallery 2, at our Chicago location on Friday, February 23 with a free public reception from 5 to 8 pm. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 am to 6 pm.

During their* brief reign, the teenage emperor, Elagabalus, shocked the senate, soldiers, and general public by replacing Jupiter at the summit of the pantheon with the Syrian solar deity, Elagabal; coercing senators to participate in rituals from the eastern provinces that they deemed exotic and uncouth; and committing the sacrilege of marrying a vestal virgin so as to bear god-like children. They were also said to have made political appointments based on penis size, prostituted themself in the imperial palace, built a luxurious suicide tower so they could perish in style, and smothered guests to death at a dinner party with an avalanche of flower petals. Elagabalus ruled a mere four years until their assassination by the praetorian guard in 222. By one account, they hid from their pursuers in the palace latrines where they were discovered and slain. These thrilling but dubious stories and others like them form the basis of Elagabalus’s myth: the boy emperor as corrupt tyrant, sexual deviant and religious zealot. In the modern period, starting roughly with the Decadent art movement, Elagabalus’s fortunes began to turn. They have been subsequently recast as an uncompromising aesthete, anarchist and sexual martyr. Originally demonised, Elagabalus has belatedly been deified by their admirers nearly two millennia after their death.

Wheels, Holes and Coins for E/H (Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil), 2023. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 16h x 12w in.

In Burgher’s essay on the emperor, originally published in Religious Studies Review and presented at the Occulture Conference in October 2023, he brackets considerations of the historical person who came to be known as Elagabalus and focuses on the myths and legends surrounding them instead. He interprets these accumulated stories and images as the centuries-long formation of an egregore, a spiritual entity generated by collective patterns of belief. Burgher states that “the concept has the advantage of emphasising a collective relationship to images, and positing both the demonic power of those images and the agency of individuals and communities in sustaining and even drawing power from those images through imagination and ritual.” He additionally asks what a belated deification and contemporary cult of Elagabalus would entail: “What is her desire? How do those of us who count ourselves amongst her lovers best serve her? What do we gain—or lose—in devoting ourselves to her?”

Burgher sketches a response to these questions in “Our Lady of the Latrines” through sustained meditation on the likeness of Elagabalus, drawing from surviving imperial busts and coins as well as later representations in the works of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Simeon Solomon and others. The artist elaborates their image with hatched colored pencil over washes of watercolor. The technique imparts a flickering, chromatically intense surface to the portraits that summons the spirit of the emperor into the present. Other works depict salacious anecdotes about the emperor’s life. “Judgment of Paris” pictures Elagabalus playing the role of Venus on stage while senators in the audience react with a mixture of disgust and excitement. In “The Black Stone,” an orgy of revellers gyrate around the phallic meteorite that was the focal point of the cult of which the emperor served as high priest. In these latter works, Burgher loosens his grip on his materials, allowing his line to dance more freely around the paper and the watercolors to pool and reticulate. These modestly scaled works on paper serve a devotional function while ironically engaging with the hoary conventions of history painting. The exhibition will also include a selection of Burgher’s sketchbook pages, composition studies and research notes, a key component of his practice that has not been regularly shown.

Judgment of Paris, 2023, Colored pencil and watercolor on paper, 14 x 10 in.

*Elagabalus’s gender and sexuality have been the subject of recent debates. For instance, the North Hertfordshire Museum in the UK recently reclassified Elagabalus as transgender and now uses “she/her’ pronouns for the emperor. This press release makes use of “they/them” to encompass traditional and revisionist accounts of the historical person as well as their many mythic avatars, including fin de siècle, surrealist, gay, and trans renderings of the emperor’s story and image.


Elijah Burgher is an artist and occasional writer currently living in Berlin. His work was featured in Scrivere Disegnando: When Language Seeks Its Other at Centre d’Art Contemporain, 2020; For Opacity at the Drawing Center in New York City, 2018; the 2014 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; the 2014 Gwangju Biennial; and The Temptation of AA Bronson at the Kunstinstituut Melly in Rotterdam, 2014. He has recently exhibited at the Schwules Museum in Berlin, LAXART in Los Angeles and the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. He has attended residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the Fire Island Artist Residency. His work has been discussed in The New York TimesArt in AmericaFrieze, ArtReview, Artforum and was included in VITAMIN D2, the hardcover survey of contemporary drawing. He received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Elijah Burgher is represented by P.P.O.W in New York City, Western Exhibitions in Chicago and Ivan Gallery in Bucharest.