BODY OF LIGHT THE VISIONARY PAINTINGS OF ALEX GREY

By Karen Ellis

Historically, art and the sacred have always been intertwined. In early Shamanic societies the artist/healer/priest/shaman was the creative source of culture. From East to West up to the Industrial Revolution the creation of art and the work of art itself has been understood as occurring at a juncture between the spiritual and physical worlds. Alex Grey has stated that the purpose of his art is to examine the relationship of mind and body and to awaken the spirit. It is a rare occurance for an artist to explore directly and explicitly the cycle of the transformation of human consciousness as Grey has done in such works as his Sacred Mirrors.

Grey’s visionary approach to integrating the physical and metaphysical worlds has labeled him as an Outsider in relation to the concerns of much contemporary art, but the sacred light and content of Grey’s work shares affinities with such diverse artists as Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Blake, Van Gogh and Rothko.

Grey’s earliest memories predict the course that his life will follow.  While lying in his crib, he remembers watching textures unfold, first, a boundless blissful white light.  Then a gnarley snaggle-branched, ugly dark force moved into that space, coming in clumps, and taking over.  This terrifying shadowy swarm would obliterate the white light.  Little islands of luminosity would crop up and clear away the gnarly texture until the pure white light reappeared. Grey interprets these early “texture” visions as perceptions of primordial universal energies, the ongoing flux of repose and motion, yin and yang, darkness and light, good and evil, life and death. (1) Grey’s artworks point to this early vision by their constant reference to the theme of polarities and their visionary perception of subtle light.

When questioned further about his childhood Grey identifies two more specific memories. One was his sadness over the sickness and eventual death of his grandmother. The second was his preoccupation with dead animals. As the neighborhood mortician at age ten, Grey was bitten by a rabid bat which he mistook for dead. He was forced to endure a cycle of painful rabies vaccinations before he abandoned his animal graveyard activities. As a young artist, Grey’s interest in mortality was not limited to metaphysical speculations, but his near obsession launched him into an investigation of the physical properties of death. He secured a job in a medical school morgue and did his earliest performances with dead animals and human corpses.

Grey’s anatomical studies follow the precedent set by Michelangelo, who risked excommunication to secretly study anatomy in a morgue. Psychologically we might look on the morgue environment as an underworld or “land of the dead.” In the life of a shaman, there is an initiatory period where the shaman’s soul descends (while his body is near death or gravely ill) into a demonic lower realm where he is physically dismembered and then reconstructed by spirits. Grey’s years in the morgue parallel a descent into the shamanic underworld.

In one piece, Inner Ear, Grey cut the head off of a dead woman, then poured hot lead into her ear to make a model of the delicate spiral labyrinth. It was a violent way to make contact with her spirit, and she spoke to his inner ear later when her spirit angrily confronted him in a vision. In another piece, entitled Life, Death and God, Grey tied a rope around his ankle, tied the other end of the rope around a cadaver’s ankle and hung suspended on a wall, with a drawing of a crucifix pinned up in between.

For his photo essay, Monsters, Grey found thirty malformed babies preserved and tucked away in corners of locked rooms at the museum of anatomy. Each specimen seemed to express unique insights about human nature. There was a brainless wise one, a double-headed messiah, a wrinkled siren, a cyclops. He photographed them, and a few weeks later, he was awakened in the middle of the night, drenched in anxious sweat. A translucent hallucination of a malformed fetus hovered in front of him. Demonic voices spoke from it threatening to take possession of his soul. A presence of evil emanated from the ghostly monster.

Trembling in fear, I saw myself on the edge of an abyss, which appeared to fall endlessly into darkness and insanity. From my depths, my voice repeated, ‘I know that Divine Love is the strongest power’. A blue light disspelled the apparition of the monster, and the voice of an angel told me his name was Mr. Lewis and that he would watch over me for a while.  With his reassuring protection, I went back to sleep…

Around this time in 1976, while sitting in my studio one night, a vision of an ominously menacing courtroom appeared. Before a judge I could not see and an angry jury, I faced a woman who accused me of trespassing her body in my morgue work. I tried to explain that I was making art, but there was absolutely no forgiveness. The judge told me that from now on I must do more positive work, putting me on lifetime probation. (2)

Grey’s visions were a turning point which shattered his negativity and darkness and began to uplift his artistic focus. In 1979, Grey began his seminal paintings — the Sacred Mirrors. Grey charted the spiritual transformation of the soul by creating a series of life-size paintings of human figures. The canvases were painted as if they were mirrors reflecting the viewer’s body. The mirror is a symbol of human consciousness because it reflects that which is before it. By choosing the mirror as a metaphor, Grey examines two lines of inquiry at the heart of every mystical tradition – the sacred nature of light and the phenomenon of consciousness. Light makes visible the image in a mirror and cross-culturally throughout history, light has been a symbol of the Divine. Spiritual consciousness and light are the subjects of Grey’s art.

To understand the scope of Grey’s message, it is necessary to journey through the Sacred Mirrors sequentially. The paintings adopt an understanding of the transformation of the human soul as described in the perennial philosophy, which is a systematic view that has been observed to underlie, in one form or another, every world mystical tradition. The perennial philosophy states that the soul progresses through ascending levels of awareness, the great Chain of Being, focused first upon the body and material world, then the emotional, mental and psychological/existential worlds, followed by the intuitive, visionary and spiritual worlds. After awakening to spiritual consciousness, the soul turns toward compassionate activity for the benefit of others.

In the first seven Sacred Mirrors, Grey draws from his years in the morgue, portraying the wonder of the natural world by painting the human anatomy. Because they are called “mirrors”, the viewer is invited to stand before them and reflect on their own internal structures. Using the brush with the precision of a scalpel, Grey paints the various systems of the body (Nervous, Cardiovascular, Skeletal, etc.) with the detail of medical charts. Conciousness of our own anatomy, as reflected in these paintings, is sensitized to the delicate networks and interwoven fabrics of our physical vehicle.

Grey clothes the next six figures in the earthbound colors of human flesh and invites the viewer to consider life seen through the eyes of another ethnic race and gender. This is the level of the mind where we discriminate and draw socio-political distinctions. These pairs of gleaming male and female bodies invite us to stand in each other’s psyches and see ourselves reflected in each other. The figures stand vulnerably palms out — ready for contact with the viewer.

While the anatomical and socio-political Sacred Mirrors contain fleshly bodies upon dense black backgrounds, in the next phase of the mirrors, the darkness is illumined by a fragile net of light. Now the flesh becomes transparent and the luminescent net in the background reveals a continuity with the anatomical networks, like the cardiovascular system. The boundary between the individual soul and the rest of the universe is dissolving. This is the third transformation of consciousness, as the soul, formerly identified with body and mind, surrenders to an ecstatic union with the vastness of Spirit — the Alpha and Omega of Being.