While still painting (often live on stage at major events and festivals), Alex and Allyson Grey themselves have embarked on what is probably the most ambitious psychedelic art project ever—the long-term construction of a Chapel to house the Sacred Mirrors series, and as a genuine pilgrimage site for visionary art.
“The underlying primary psychic reality is so inconceivably complex that it can be grasped only at the farthest reach of intuition, and then but very dimly. That is why it needs symbols.’ –Carl Jung.
In the earliest body of work that has established Alex Grey’s special place in psychedelic history, his art manages to blend the physical realms of the human body—a feat in itself only achieved by many years of training in medical drawings—with the psychic energy fields and auras of the mystics and quantum physicists, the knowledge of which has come to the artist from years of meditation, study, and contemplation. Human figures are stripped of their covering (“the skin encapsulated Ego”) to reveal a complex multi-colored system of organs, bones, veins, and arteries that can be seen to be generating rainbow fields and crackles of pure white energy that penetrate the vacuum in every direction, an effect that could seem ghoulish were it not for the presence of the subjects eyes, which gaze out at the viewer with an often astonishing humanity and are revealed as the true ‘windows of the soul’.
Published in 1990, Sacred Mirrors; The Visionary Art of Alex Grey has now sold over 150,000 copies and has been translated into ten languages. The Sacred Mirrors series itself is twenty-one paintings that are conceived to be viewed as a single experience; and a kind of psychic ‘map’ to reconnect us with the spiritual by stripping away the various layers—the ‘biological, sociopolitical, subtle, and spiritual aspects of the self’—to reveal the universal essence.
Later Alex Grey paintings show these figures complete with skeletons, veins, and aura fields, in the acts of prayer, dancing, loving, dying, … all powerful visual metaphors that seek to integrate the connection between body-mind-spirit, and the great mythologist Joseph Campbell’s assertion that the human body is a ‘bio-organic field-generator’; a series of energy fields that are generated by the body’s major organs—the chakra system in the Vedanta—and that combine into one singular field of consciousness that is the ‘ego’ of the human individual.
Both mythology and great art often originate at the juncture of numerous competing and coalescing streams of human thought, and both Joseph Campbell’s ideas and Alex Grey’s art have arrived at a time where modern scientific thought is undergoing a radical paradigm shift as we move away from the old Newtonian ideas about singular points in time and space (a human construct) to the realization that the Universe is as series of interpenetrating fields being generated out of the Quantum Vacuum, and that all forces, (including most likely consciousness) that originate, and potentially operate, at this unseen quantum level.
‘The new spirituality in art—as well as in philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics—would have to be a Spirit approached more directly and immediately, not in mythic forms, but in direct intuition and contemplative absorption.’ – Ken Wilber, “In the Eye of the Artist: Art and the Perennial Philosophy,” from the foreword for Sacred Mirrors by Alex Grey.
Alex Grey’s art is a powerful visual metaphor for a concept that is often difficult to grasp, so skillfully combining the scientific vision that our generation has become accustomed to with the ancient knowledge of akashic energies and aura fields that the two become effectively integrated, and a kind of transmission of teaching or ‘enlightenment’ occurs, often without the viewer having any knowledge of the complex entanglement of meditations and philosophies that have resulted in the artist’s singular view.
Technically, Alex Grey’s paintings reveal great skill and years of training, while viewed from a strictly philosophical platform, they represent the hard-earned understanding of a significant philosophy, a viewpoint so clearly grasped that the artist is capable of transmitting that knowledge to others through the remarkable clarity of his vision. (Alex Grey himself often describes his art as a ‘visual philosophy’.) A stunning achievement, and one made all the more significant in these days of brutal prohibition by Alex (and Allyson) Grey’s enthusiastic championing of psychedelics (or entheogens as they prefer), and their frank admission that many of these visions have been delivered to them via the psychedelic experience.
The most obvious example of how influential the publication of the art-book Sacred Mirrors; The Visionary Art of Alex Grey by Inner Traditions has been to contemporary psychedelic culture is the fact that the entire contemporary genre of what would have once been called ‘psychedelic art’ is now called ‘Visionary Art’ by the growing number of artists, curators, galleries and collectors who participate in it. The term ‘Visionary Art’, as mentioned by Ken Wilber in his introduction to Sacred Mirrors, Alex Grey has taken from the mystic-artist William Blake, and was encouraged by his editor Ehud Sperling to include it in the title.
What exactly is meant by Visionary Art is hard to define and can mean a number of different things to different people, but it generally implies a respect for the Sacred or at least a glimpse into the Mystical, and the belief that the art has arrived as a ‘transmission’ from the Absolute or God, rather than purely as an invention of the artist. (Much in the same way many now prefer to use the term ‘entheogens’, rather than the more tainted term, psychedelics.) While not recognized or accepted by the traditional art world (Alex Grey, for example, has had few museum shows, and is not represented by any major gallery), the still nascent ‘Visionary Art Movement’ is undoubtedly the most vibrant and youth-driven form of art available in the world today, and it is quite happy to showcase itself at the events and festivals it creates, most notably Burning Man, which is arguably the most significant development in the art world, and should be recognized as the last 20th century/ first 21st century ‘art movement’. (‘Burning Man art’ and ‘Visionary Art’ are pretty much 2 sides of the same coin, with the incredibly profound and gorgeous Burning Man temples of David Best, Shrine, and others being the ultimate example of where the two meet.)
Alex Grey has said that after the unexpected death of Terence McKenna, he felt that he (and others) had felt the call to ‘step up and speak out about psychedelics’ to try and occupy the void in psychedelic culture that Terence’s early departure created. And one of the reasons that Alex Grey has become the most popular speaker on psychedelics since Terence McKenna—and perhaps the thing that separates him from other visionary artists—is the fact that there is a serious philosophy behind Alex’s work, and that he himself has been (and continues to be) one of the great students of psychedelic history.
The fact that Alex Grey was more than just a great painter became obvious in 1998 with the publication of his book The Mission of Art that revealed the extent of his underlying philosophies. (I personally consider Alex to be a philosopher who uses painting as the main medium for explaining his philosophy.) Tracing the development of human consciousness though art, and the role of the artist as a kind of lightning rod for the future, the corner stone in Alex Grey’s philosophy comes from the assertion by the universal historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) that the growth and decline of civilizations is a spiritual process, and that new civilizations arise to give birth to ‘better religions’.
Proposing that the creation process of the artist is a mystical link with the source of the creation process of the Universe itself, and that Visionary Art itself can be the foundation for a new world religion, Alex Grey is the first major psychedelic voice since Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts to return the conversation about psychedelics back onto ‘traditional’ mystical grounds. A long time Vajrayana practitioner, Alex Grey’s personal psychedelic philosophy diverges sharply from Timothy Leary’s often politically-inspired rhetoric, or Terence McKenna’s fantastical talk of self-replicating tryptamine elves and the mushroom spore as a spaceship, by rationally arguing that psychedelics are in fact the most effective way for modern man to truly know God.
In his incredibly popular slide-show presentation that he and Allyson Grey offer to promote the construction of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, Alex Grey traces psychedelic history all the way back to the cave painters and explains to his enthusiastic audiences that both psychedelics and art have been an integral part of the religious experience for thousands of years. The only speaker in the psychedelic community these days that has the power to hush a packed dance floor and make the kids willingly sit down, Alex Grey’s ‘pull’ has in fact become so great that when he and Allyson appear at festivals to live paint and give their talk/slide show, they are now often in fact the headlining attraction. For while Alex Grey’s work is pretty much entirely outside of the mainstream art world, these days he may well be the most popular artist in America.
The test for that popularity will be the construction of the actual Chapel of Sacred Mirrors on land purchased by the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors Foundation in Wappinger Falls, New York, in 2008. An ambitious project that will take many years to complete, the Grey’s appear undaunted in their task, and CoSM was granted Church Status that same year. Since the unfortunate death of Terence McKenna in 2000, and the stroke suffered by Sasha Shulgin in 2010, Alex and Allyson Grey’s tireless advocating of both the importance of psychedelics to our society, and of having hope for our future, has made them both the psychedelic community’s most popular speakers, and its most important voice. 
To learn more about the construction of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in upstate New York visit COSM.org.