LAPIS MAGAZINE Summer 2001
LAPIS Joel: Alex, this interview is not going to be easy! This is a telephone conversation for an email publication, so it’s very far from visual imagery. Please start by telling me a little bit about your work.
Alex Grey: My work examines the nature of consciousness, life, human identity and relationships through various mediums and imagery.
I paint representations of the physical body and interlace the subtle vital and psychical energy systems from both eastern and western occult mystical and medical traditions, the acupuncture meridians and points, the chakra systems, haloes, etc. I take a multicultural and multidimensional perspective in order to get as many truths as possible into my vision of what a human being is.
With consciousness as the subject of one’s artwork, there are a lot of problems because it is difficult to define consciousness, and because we are challenged to visualize something that’s invisible and has no inherent form. Yet consciousness is the basis from which everything emerges — our understanding of reality, of ourselves, and of our world.
I’ve always been interested in anatomy, mostly because it’s the box that consciousness comes in. It’s so beautiful in all of its intricate detail that it’s been a source of endless fascination for artists through the millennia. I’m a contemporary explorer of the relationship between human beings, the world and the cosmos. I think this has always been the function of art.
Art, prehistoric cave art, is tens of thousands of years old. Art is one of the most ancient reminders that humans existed and had an inner life, so we see, art is an innate aspect of the human story and has an important function. One can look at the history of art and read the evolution of consciousness and developing worldviews.
In writing the book The Mission of Art, I detailed this evolution of culture. The trajectory of consciousness basically moves from a kind of magical, mythical sensibility, to the more rational sensibility of contemporary culture. We now look toward the super-conscious and trans-rational states showing up in our art work as consciousness continues to evolve.
Sacred art traditions portray holy people glowing with halos and auras. I’m incorporating those motifs, as well as the theosophical, clairvoyant, psychic, and subtle analysis of the human form in order to reveal thought forms and layers of energy bodies that interpenetrate and surround us like atmospheres. These bioplasmic and psychic fields have more influence than we give them credit for. Then I look beyond the subtle energetic aspects to find the spiritual archetypes that influence the way we think about ourselves and what we may become.
We’re all familiar with the icons of Buddha and Christ figures. They are symbolic of our individual spiritual potential. Buddha Nature and Christ Consciousness are the realizations of super-consciousness or non-dual awareness — awareness no longer stuck in the dualities of self and other, he and she, good and evil, etc. Throughout history, numerous sages have spoken from a non-dual perspective. These are complicated issues to bring into a work of art. My painting exists on a two dimensional plane surface yet points toward multi-dimensional and trans-rational subjects. So I use a lot of symbolism.
Rather than using symbolism that is only part of an existing sacred art tradition, a contemporary spiritual artist must find personal ways of translating their transpersonal experiences. We can’t just think our way into this. We have to have actual experiences of transpersonal reality in order to make convincing spiritual or transpersonal art.
It’s not part of the curriculum in art schools, but work on our own souls and our own spiritual practice has to be a component of the art-making process. We need to sensitize and refine our own spiritual sensibility, have mystical experiences, and go on a spiritual journey in order to encounter the states of being that will translate into authentic works of spiritual art.
LAPIS Joel: So, the point of our spiritual development is to progress spiritually, not to paint art. The work of the artist is to bring the viewer into his or her experience — to portray the experience the artist is having.
Alex Grey: Yes, exactly. I think of art as a covenant relationship between spirit, the art and the viewer. The artist, if he or she has an inspiring spiritual experience, has a responsibility to translate and transmit it as closely as possible so as to evoke a similar experience in the viewer.
The artist wants to translate their experience clearly enough so if the viewers can trust the work, they are able to let go of their own ego identity and merge with the inspiring moment that the artist was able to capture. The viewer will then stand in the same relationship to the transcendental as the artist recieving the initial gift. The artist becomes a transparent medium through which a person is able to recLAPISect with his or her own deeper nature.
LAPIS Joel: Wonderful answers, Alex! Your training and your beginnings were with representational and anatomical art. How did you come to go beyond that into spiritual physical art?
Alex Grey: My training and beginnings were actually as a performance artist. It was creating experiences of physical challenge, changing my appearance, performing fire and meditation rituals, treking to the North Magnetic Pole to experience the lines of force on the earth, doing performance “sculptures” in the morgue, dissecting and holding dead flesh that brought my art to a spiritual place.
In 1976 my wife and I had a mystical experience that I could not understand in any reasonable way. We were sort of intrepid psychonauts. We did a lot of psychedelic exploration and had experiences that completely changed our orientation toward making art by calling into question all we’d thought was real. These experiences became the mystical basis by which we live our lives. We both had an experience of what we refer to as “the Universal Mind Lattice.” We would wear blindfolds and lie in bed after taking strong hits of LSD and one day we dissolved into this lattice realm.
Our bodies each became a torroidal fountain of light that was intercLAPISected with an omni-directional and infinite number of similar fountains of light. It felt more real than sitting here talking. It had a sense of bedrock reality, and the energy that was flowing through all these different toruses, these cells, was love energy. It was intense and ecstatic. There was a sense of participating in a network of love energy, of becoming all beings and all things. It seemed that this was the true reality, that we are all intercLAPISected on some very fundamental, primordial level, and that this intercLAPISectedness is the subtle body of the cosmos — and we are each an important node in that infinite network.
Having had these experiences and others that were equally befuddling to a materialist with an existential orientation to art, I began to study about the nature of consciousness. I found that throughout the ages mystics have spoken of similar kinds of unitive consciousness and of transcending time and space. This body of evidence supported my own transpersonal experience, and I came to feel that it was the most important thing to make artwork about. It is not something that we encounter in our daily walks around the block! The consciousness of our unity was such a revolutionary insight to me, showing me that we are each infinities. Our true self is manifested in these ‘little tips of the iceberg’ called our body and our ego, but is so much more. It turned me away from being so concerned with the issues of the contemporary art world and led me in my own direction.
Since I was in a body when I had this ‘out of body’ Universal Mind Lattice experience, I tried to point to the entire span of being from the physical to the spiritual in my artwork. That was the inception of Sacred Mirrors. Portraying biological and technological evolution is one way to symbolize consciousness evolution, so these subjects were sculpted into the complex frames surrounding each of the Sacred Mirrors, and thus become a philosophical “framework,” a context in which to view the work.
We’re all aware that we have bones and veins and guts and things — we frequently even have problems with those systems. Sacred Mirrors could become a healing environment, by reflecting on healthy, whole systems and a person could incline their own body/mind toward optimal health.
The trans-rational and spiritual archetypes are the potential that each of us can experience.
LAPIS Joel: While you’re talking, questions are popping into my head, but I don’t want to interrupt you because you’re saying such good things. What I’m hearing, though, is you feel in communion with the whole span of sacred artistry through the ages.
Alex Grey: I think that that’s been, as I would call it, the mission of art, for people to enter into a communion with the their own soul, their environment and with each other. In Paleolithic art we have power animals, and dawn humanity had a magical relationship with them. I think that the early mythic deity archetypes portray visionary encounters — the images were ways for people to try to make sense of the multidimensional reality that surrounded them.
LAPIS Joel: What about art as a self-expression versus art as communion with our own mythic aspect?
Alex Grey: I think that the mythic and magical archetypes are earlier forms of art — self-expression tended to emerge with more rational mind frames. People started to question if the reason the crops failed necessarily had to do with the Gods being angry. The more rationally minded last few centuries, especially the twentieth century, have resulted in the feeling that the artist is no longer responsible for translating the myths of their religions. In fact religious art, in general, has kind of dried up except for a few vital sacred art traditions in various indigenous cultures, but these traditional sacred arts have virtually no presence in the fine art world as defined by contemporary art magazines, and museum exhibitions.
The main topic for the modernists, as you were saying, became art as self- expression. And so this is another reflection of the evolution of consciousness in art. We’re now at the extreme ego phase in western art. We’ve moved away from the pre-personal tribal self, where you’re only in relationship with the myths and taboos. If you went against the taboos of that type of culture, then the tribe or gods would strike you down; so quite often these mythic sculptures and things, are a little bit scarey. As much as we now appreciate the beauty of them, they functioned as a way to keep people in line with the myths of cultures that we, perhaps, would interpret as oppressive.
As modern rational people, we really can’t accept them on that level. We can admire their beauty, but we don’t believe in the myth that brought them into being. So now we have the self-expressive modality of the artist. Artists are a world unto themselves. And this is necessary. We can look at it in terms of child development. You can see how the mind goes through these progressive magical and mythical understandings of the world and then, in early adolescence, it rises to a more rational or reasonable understanding of the world. I would say that the twentieth century modern art movement is a lot like an egotistical adolescent in terms of its righteous idealism and also its willingness to take risks and be transgressive. Yet, it’s also completely focused on itself, or it’s “defiance” of the parent culture that gave birth to it. So in a lot of ways, the public has become disenchanted with the artist archetype, or artists are seen as crazy self-absorbed characters. Thus, the archetype of the artist-mystic who serves the community — the old role of the shaman and such — is a little bit missing, although I do think it’s starting to re-emerge.
LAPIS Joel: And what you’re doing is part of that re-emergence.
Alex Grey: Well, at least I’m trying to encourage the moral and spiritual aspects of art that may not have been a primary component in the vision of modern art, which was more about getting your own personal vision together. You see, all these states and stages in the evolution of art are really important. You can’t have a trans-egoic art without having first gone through an egoic art. You really need to understand the need for a personal vision, and that is what modernism was all about. However, Art sort of forgot about the soul — and it’s responsibility to feed hungry souls in the community. That’s why an important role for the artist is to contribute to a more integral understanding of what art can be.
LAPIS Joel: Tell me more directly how your art fits into the lineage, the history of sacred art.
Alex Grey: Contemporary artists are faced with problems if they want to make personalized sacred art. They are attempting to find forms that have the power of previous sacred archetypes, such as the realized being in the form of Jesus, or Buddha, but we want to find universal archetypes of spiritual realization that are not culture bound. Obviously we’re always going to be temporally and culturally bound in some way, but we’ve got the entire span of art history now to inform us. So it’s part of our job to look at all world cultures, to look at every art and understand how spirit has been represented or transmitted. Then we need to look deeply within and find what resonates with our own understanding, and make the art work with as much devotion and beauty as we can muster. This leads to a natural inclination to introduce the art to our community — to find a way we can serve the community with our art. The intention is to make art bring benefit to our community, to as many beings as look at it. The Buddhists say if we don’t dedicate our actions to the benefit of all beings, there’s no spiritual growth. So an artist who wants to make his art a spiritual practice has to consider the intentions that go into the work.
Now we are able to look back over millennia of cross-cultural sacred art, just by looking in museums, books and web sites. The essentials that emerge through our analysis of art impresses and impacts our personal work, and we realize that the creative act carries within it the spirit of all creative acts. We can think of Sheldrake’s morphic resonance as we lift our brush, and see that the ghost of all creative acts accompanies us and compels us toward finding the true, the good, and the beautiful.
LAPIS Joel: How can the artist be a catalyst for individual and collective change? You just answered that it is simply by the act of lifting the brush.
Alex Grey: If we accept the morphic resonance theory as true, accept that monks meditating in a monastery can be acting for the benefit of all beings, then we are accepting that there is a subtle influence in a collective field, a dynamic that engages the evolution of consciousness. We’re accepting that whenever these good intentions are brought in, they can inform our works and our actions and can spread a field of positive benefit into our environment. It acts on a subtle basis, and then the physical works can themselves bring beauty and joy to people. The floating of these images into our culture can happen via any means — a note card or a CD cover, a picture on the web, or a magazine or a book or a painting in a gallery, a museum or in a chapel. Any of these encounters with imagery that relates to our higher-self can bring us into resonance with our own divine nature. Some artworks are catalysts for transformation. They can then be taken in by other artists and reflected in their work, which sets off another chain of relationships. So you’re right that just picking up a brush with good intentions and bringing your own creative dynamic to the equation can help.
LAPIS Joel: Where do you see transformational art headed in the next century?
Alex Grey: I think that there’s a lot of work to do. Obviously the visioning of our planet and fellow creatures as a sacred family and the counteracting of the environmental devastation that’s a backdrop to our daily lives are important areas that artists can begin to address. To me it’s very important to re-sacralize our understanding of our relationship with the planet, and then to make peace between the various religious archetypes — to find the commonalties, the underlying truths of the different world religions, and to point to them with as many universal archetypes as we can. Perhaps we need to incorporate the symbols of different world religions into one picture so as to cancel out the supremacy of one over another. To acknowledge our interfaith perspective. As the Dalai Lama was saying, along side of our traditional religions, we need a new spirituality that any one of good will would find acceptable. The imagery of the contemporary sacred artist would be in alignment with that.
Yet, there’s no one way of doing any of this stuff. We can each find our own way. There’s no medium that it’s limited to. You’ve got web sites and videotapes, you’ve got audio works, songs, orchestras, and dance pieces. There are all sorts of ways that you can praise spirit through art, with no limit. I think there is an integral art that can emerge from our post-modern perspective that honors all these different points of view. I’d like to think that multi-cultural, all gender, all racial kinds of truths can be brought into the equation. I think the artist of today can help to midwife this new integral spirit — the new world spirit.
LAPIS Joel: That’s an excellent place to end. Thank you for this time, Alex, and thanks for offering to respond to email from LAPIS and IONS members.