THE JOURNAL OF PSYCHEDELIC CULTURE
TOWARD AN INTEGRAL ART
by Gilad Rosner
Trip talks to Alex Grey about art , spirituality and chemicals.
We caught up with him in his Brooklyn studio…
TRIP: Let’s begin with your book , The Mission of Art. It aapears that one of the purposes in writing the book is to redirect some thought away from the postmodern idea that authenticity in art is impossible. Some critics feel it is a laughable idea to really make a strong fusion of spirituality and art. The postmodern perspective, as you describe it, lacks any specific artistic mission and is simply the realm of titanic egos. It seems that with The Mission Of Art you are trying to suggest a redirection of artistic focus in the art world towards the transpersonal.
ALEX GREY: Spirituality seems to be taken more seriously today than even a few years ago when I wrote The Mission of Art. Maybe 9-11 has accelerated an interest in spirituality and maybe we are all facing our vulnerability , forcing us into a cauldron of searching questions: “Who am I? Where am I going? What’s life all about? “We realize that life is over all too soon and it’s time to drop bullshit mind games. This year, 2002, a legitimate art journal, Art Papers, had an article entitled ‘Beyond Postmodernism’ that featured my work on the cover. The article discussed the possibility of an “Integral Art” by artists that are incorporating the full span of being in their art as well as socio-political, scientific and aesthetic issues. Postmodernism has had the good qualities of valuing varied opinions, thereby allowing multicultural and formerly marginalized points of view to emerge. Outsider art, Native American art, and art of many cultures has grown in popularity and renown in the last ten years. The shamanic underpinnings of tribal artwork has been revealed. It’s becoming obvious that there has always been a spiritual basis to art making that expresses the values and meanings and collective soul of the culture.
TRIP: So there’s a hunger in contemporary art to keep things fresh and new. Shocking art is no longer so shocking, and as we try to stimulate ourselves and shock ourselves further, we keep accreting other types of art. We’ve delved now into a much more multicultural art world because of this hunger, and we’re pulling along other cultures’ spiritualism into our own art world through that search to keep the culture vibrant.
AG: Yes. This was brought out in the show that happened ten years ago called “Magicians Of The Earth,” which brought together artists that were doing minimalist works and conceptual artists with tribal artists from Australia and Africa. It recontextualized contemporary art in a broader multicultural framework, and helped allow the context of art to embrace a spirituality which had been anathema. This is a very encouraging signpointing beyond the fragmentation of the postmodern mind toward a more integrative world culture.
For me, psychedelics were the door opener into how everything weaves together. You can literally see how things integrate during an entheogenic mystical experience. There is an unwritten chapter in art history on how important artists have gained insight through their use of psychedelics. Keith Haring, a major artist of the Eighties, is one of them. He credits the invention of his style to LSD trips when he was 17 or 18. His work has had a major influence in the art world, and is celebrated in the highest bastions of culture. Albert Hofmann told me that Francesco Clemente came and thanked him for the visions. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to look at various artists’ work through the lens of the drugs that they used. Look at the sloshed abstract expressionists; you can practically see the drunken frenzy that was coming through De Kooning and Pollock. They were both alcoholics, and tremendous painters.
TRIP: Van Gogh and his interest in absinthe.
AG: Exactly. Rembrandt was also supposedly a famous drunk. Alcoholism is linked with expressionism. Francis Bacon was a great painter who liked to drink. Getting out of your rational state and into a loose, ‘oh fuck it’ mode that can promote spontaneous experimentalism with painting, and has been responsible for some of the real breakthroughs. We can credit drunken, deranged mind states for some of the great works through art history. Absinthe and hashish in the late nineteenth century fueled the Symbolists. Cocaine drove the artists of the 1980’s. In fact, it would be great to analyze all of art history in terms of drug use.
TRIP: One might suggest that prohibition and the war on drugs are almost counter to the art spirit of the nation.
AG: (laughs) Most definitely. Artists have always embraced unauthorized and unconventional states of mind, or as Glen Boire calls it “cognitive liberty.” The artist is, by necessity, a maverick sensibility operating on the sidelines of their community, bringing new insight. If they’re not bringing new insight, then they’re merely parroting the conventional mode, and not advancing the thinking or vision of the culture. We commonly associate art with that opening of possibility that leaves us momentarily awestruck until it seems obvious, and then we incorporate it. That’s the trajectory of art through the ages.
TRIP: One can see psychedelics as a type of lubrication to help an artist make the break from the mundane to a more liminal state, to a position between what they understand to be their normal circumstance and areas that could be closed off.
AG: We’ve all got our limited ways of thinking. We’ve got our own ‘mind-forged manacles’, as Blake would call them. I think that the catalyzing of the creative process is precisely that: it’s pushing yourself beyond your own limits. Sometimes it just comes gratuitously. You’re working or walking down the street and an insight like a lightning bolt comes and strikes you. I remember waiting on a subway platform, exhausted after a day teaching, and suddenly I had this vision of a World Soul Sculpture. It was this being that was hovering there in my mind’s eye on this subway platform, and I thought, “Wow, that’s an interesting idea for a painting.” Then it opened its wings and turned around on the lazy-susan of my mind, and I thought, “Oh my God, it’s a sculpture,” and that kept me occupied for two years. This visionary flash was under a minute. I was very excited after being completely exhausted, there it was, I wasn’t high, it was a normal state, and boom! Who can account for it? Then there are times my wife and I will get into a pickle with some particular art work that we’re doing, a painting that gets to a certain state of frustration, so we’ll get high, usually just smoke a joint, and look at it, and many times the solution is obvious in that state. We’re transcending our own conventional modes of thought by shifting gears.
TRIP: Have you ever had ideas or artistic concepts that you couldn’t reproduce on canvas?
AG: All the time. I think that when you smoke DMT and your entire body is involved in an emergence into another reality, certainly you wish you could sculpt the soul of the viewer or the audience member in such a way that you could reproduce an effect like that. The paintings are a pale reflection of these altered states or insights. I’m always amazed at the number of people who are able to recognize the multidimensional experience from a two dimensional surface. It’s only because it’s etched itself in their cells that any twinkling of a reminiscence or a resonance with those states alerts and excites the person who’s been there. Even if it’s not an exact ‘right on!’ to their previous experience, they’re able to recognize ‘It was something like this with the same infinitizing aspect, or an experience of ascending, or an expansiveness of the mental processes keyed to an infinitude of eyes, or a superabundance of light, or colors that were brilliant or iridescent’. There are people who say their experience “…was exactly like that, I don’t know how you could do that, this is what happened to me!” This fulfills my whole purpose in making these works , that they could evoke the flavor of these states of consciousness, and give people imagery or iconography of the psychedelic state so that they could say, “Look I’m not crazy. Other people have experienced it too. I’m not alone.”
TRIP: What you’re describing is a transcendence of relativism. It sounds like you managed to go beyond the postmodern art condition and posit more universalist ideals in art. Even though it’s a very personal experience for you to create these works, you have shown in your language something that is akin to a universal concept. You’re bringing forth these energies and visions that might truly be part of the human condition.
AG: Well, that’s my mission. It’s encouraging that a universalism to the transpersonal dimensions exists. Stan Grof verified those claims through thousands of documented LSD patients that he worked with, and time and time again established the same cartography. There were personal differences, but within a meta framework a perennial vision recurs throughout different world cultures, and is the origin of all the mystical traditions. Huxley and numerous authors have written intelligently about the perennial philosophy. Huston Smith has brilliantly teased out the threads of universalism that run through the world’s wisdom traditions. It’s a great task for a contemporary artist to educate oneself on these many threads.
The artist struggles with their demons, and the flights of messianic self-importance, the inflated possibilities that an artist can ‘CHANGE THE WORLD!’ with their vision or can ‘HEAL THEIR CULTURE’ or the collective soul. All these high-falutin’ and maybe preposterous ideas are necessary in order to get and artist off their ass and make a potentially stunning work of art. It might be fueled by outrageous enthusiasm and inflated claims, and the viewer may only get the slightest vibe. Even on that very subtle level, it may have a worthwhile affect on the viewer Whatever intention and energy is bound up in a work of art is like a battery, there to recharge whoever is in front of it. It’s why we look at sacred art and images of the Buddha, Christ and Krishna. We wonder, ‘What is this enlightened mind that the mysterious smile of the Buddha seems to project? How can I get that?’ That common peaceful vibe that comes through sacred art is restorative, is curative for people’s psyches.
I’ve been working on drawing of a meshwork of galactic consciousness that is visualized as endless pillars of heads, all interconnected in a flaming eye grid, through which you see the galactic swirls. You peer down into an infinite regress of these heads, and see an expanse to each side of these heads, each of them four faced and staring at each other giving the appearance of infinite expansiveness. It alludes to a dimension of total interconnectedness. I’m getting very excited about painting this thing, and I’m trying to contemplate, how big should I make it? How big is this idea? WHY IT’S HUGE! What are the works that have profoundly reflected the state of being of its culture? We have Guernica, Picasso’s greatest work of art. How big is it? That fucker is HUGE! It’s 12 x 26 feet! Oh my God, it’s huge! Then there’s Pollock’s works, like his breakthrough mural for Peggy Guggenheim. That’s like 20 feet long by about 8 feet high! It’s vastly huge! With Guernica, Picasso was reflecting the dehumanization of the twentieth century, the debased humanity, the fragmented, fractured nightmare of history. He was purposefully using the blacks, whites and grays of newsprint, and the kind of helplessness and victimization and terror that we all feel in relation to the news media and in relation to the magnitude of violence inherent in modern warfare. Guernica was a perfect reflection of that shattered hope. The shards of human sensibility and all the beings are either dying, dead, or in terror. The grief and horror and disbelief is a beautiful expression of the existential state of the twentieth century. The only light is an electric lamp that is the mute witness to the horror.
Pollock, reflected this kind of chaos in his soul, this abyss that he was facing. He and some of the other profound abstract expressionists, like Rothko, were epic painters. Pollock got the energy of the rhythms of nature and the cosmos, the galactic splatters that at his best were a giant breakthrough, but also had this angst-ridden stale cigarette smoke and ash kind of feeling of hopelessness and despair. He was a brilliant, amazing painter. Bacon never liked Pollock’s work and thought it was like wallpaper, but Pollock had a profound impact on the art world. He really took the ball from Picasso in terms of what was avant-garde, and established a touchdown for American post-war art. It set a new standard of scale for a whole generation of artists. James Rosenquist has probably outdone everyone as for humongous scales for works of art, and I don’t anticipate trying to compete with that. Rosenquist, Picasso, and Pollock, are messengers of fragmentation, postmodern reflections of a shattered psyche expressing the meta-narrative of the 20th century. Rosenquist is still painting.
Anselm Kiefer, a great German painter living in France, has advanced this meta-narrative, and is aimed toward an alchemical healing. He’s reflecting the despair of the history of his nation, and his work is also reflective of a search for spiritual meaning. The search is there, but the viewer is not sure what has been found. There’s an alchemical process of healing going on, so that’s an advancement over some of the earlier shattered sensibilities, like Picasso and Pollock. In my new work, I’m intending to advance the meta-narrative of painting, and point to a transcendental, already enlightened state of profound interconnectedness, beyond a normal conception of time and space, that is the source of healing and that many of us visit while we’re tripping. I’d like my art work to be like a bandage on the collective psyche or soul. We are all wounded from our journey through the 20th century and now the horrors of the 21st are dawning on us. Even as we read the headlines and we know the realities that are disheartening and dis-empowering, there are alternative realities that are empowering and that can help us see our lives in a universal context.
TRIP: I know that in the Eighties, some of your work really reflected the cold war tension – Nuclear Crucifixion for example. Have you started to create anything in relation to 9-11?
AG: Well, I did a number of very simple drawings immediately after 9-11 in my sketchbook that depict a conveyor of souls hovering over the World Trade towers after they were hit. There were little light emanations shooting up through this great being that was helping convey the souls to heaven. It’s an archetype I’ve seen in children’s art and art work by outsider artists, as well. A lot of people felt that there was some kind of angelic or spiritual presence that was above the towers that was helping to escort the souls of the unfortunate victims. These images may find their way into more developed work at some time as a commemoration. I also did drawings of the people who jumped and held hands as they were falling. I had images of body parts flying out of the sky and terrified onlookers as things started to fall. I did drawings of people in grief, and have been working on a grieving painting that’s based on the aftermath.
I think 9-11 profoundly impacted a number of artists. New York is the art capital of the world. There are probably more artists here than anywhere else in the world, so there will continue to manifest profound waves of impact from 9-11 that will be reflected in artists’ works. Confronting mortality causes everyone to reexamine their lives and essentialize things. There was a tremendous amount of hand-wringing in the intellectual press, in the New York Times, after 9-11: ‘So now where do we stand in our postmodern view? What has this done? How has this impacted things? If all points of views were honored, how can you honor Osama’s terrorist views when it kills your friends?’ It’s catalyzed a lot of rethinking, at deep levels, and I think that the outburst of art making that New York went through — the memorials and candlelight vigils and collages of loved ones on the walls — transformed the city into a giant installation of grief and commemoration. Just as a funeral is a ceremony to honor the dead for the living, these memorials that were spontaneously erupting on many street corners and around the fire departments in neighborhoods throughout New York were ways for us all to grieve and integrate the assault.
TRIP: I wonder how many people found themselves as unintentional artists, people who hadn’t made much collage art or photographic art and found themselves putting memorials together for people, and coming in touch with their natural creativity because of this.
AG: It’s the human creative response. You want to create in response to destruction. It’s just a natural thing, a response to the horror. Psychotherapists know that when you have monstrous feelings it’s best to express them through creative endeavors — making a painting, a drawing, a musical work, a dance, a theatrical production, or writing in a journal. It’s a way to creatively vent the negative powers that can eat away at us.
This is the healing function of art and creative therapies. Even though we may not imagine ourselves becoming Olympic athletes, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t exercise. Likewise, even if we’re not going to be Picasso, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t express ourselves creatively. In fact, it’s an important function of the mind and body to integrate feelings. Using art to describe visionary and psychedelic insights has profound and important implication. Grof recognized this early on, and various psychotherapists who have dealt with traumatized patients. When you go through a psychedelic experience, it may not necessarily be traumatic, but ontologically it can be apocalyptic. Just as when a loved one dies, a child is born, or one falls in love – life-altering, identity-shifting experiences, like a first trip, calls for a complete rewiring of their philosophical circuitry. Psychedelics are on par with the most profound experiences human beings go through. The creative response is called for, and in my case this is what I do naturally.
TRIP: I really liked the question you raised in The Mission Of Art regarding who legitimately can judge of what is art or what is good art. You tell the story of a man who was a janitor his whole life, had profound visions and worked in secret, showing no one what he was making. He then died and his wife found a temple that he had created in a rented garage.
AG: The artist was James Hampton and his creation is called “The Throne Of The Third Heaven Of The Nations Millennium General Assembly”. It’s an incredible piece on display at the National Gallery in Washington. It never fails to attract a crowd. It’s basically a bunch of chairs and objects and knick knacks and bric-a-brac covered with aluminum foil, but the assemblage of common objects are transformed into this holodeck of Star Trek where this guy would sit in his garage and converse with the Virgin Mary. We think, “tut tut, what an amusing psycho.” William Blake received that sort of response from the public, as well. People thought of him as a lunatic but he left behind a trail of incredibly beautiful art work and poetry. During his lifetime his work was reviled. He was a laughing stock in the critical press; they found him a pathetic character. I just wish those critics could read the kind of praise and following that Blake engendered through the following centuries. Now he’s a cause celebre among the literati and the illuminati. His idiosyncratic spirituality is an inspiration to thousands.
TRIP: Let’s switch gears for a second. How is the Chapel coming?
AG: The Chapel Of Sacred Mirrors project is coming really well. We intend to declare the site in 2002. There have been numerous offers by organizations who would consider the Chapel a jewel in their crown and also clear offers of land. We have had to decide whether the Chapel has a better chance joining an existing institution or going independent. The American Visionary Art Museum Museum in Baltimore has been interested in exhibiting the Sacred Mirrors, and we may work out an extended loan there while we are building the actual Chapel. We love the American Visionary Art Museum and strongly recommend visiting there if you find yourself in downtown Baltimore. I’m exhibited two major works there right now in a show entitled “War and Peace”. The “Cosmic Christ” is a 9 1/2 foot altarpiece, which I consider my most recent major work, and it will be there until September. Also the giant “Nuclear Crucifixion” is in the show. It hadn’t been exhibited since the anti-nuke years of the ’80’s.
I’m now in the process of creating the visionary architecture for the Chapel. It is our intention for the building itself to initiate people into universal spirituality. Sacred works of art need sacred architecture to view them in. We need to build architecture for a new state of being. It would also be a safe place to expand one’s consciousness and download the frequencies that are being transmitted through the works of art. Rather than being the “source” of this artwork, I feel like I’m an antenna, and the laborer who is channeling the works, trying to obey as best I can the edicts of the inner worlds. We’ve refused selling numerous works of art and bought works back from collectors that we want to be included in the Chapel. Other collectors have promised to donate works that they own if we’re able to build this Chapel. We hear from people everyday who want to know where they can go to see the work. It needs a permanent, publicly accessible space. They’re really tools for people to catalyze their own spiritual process.
TRIP: The traditional gallery space and the curatorial aesthetic might not fulfill that use that you’re trying to create.
AG: Definitely. That isn’t the mandate of galleries. They are committed to expressing the current fashions of the art world, not necessarily to respiritualize and resacralize the world. Sacred spaces have been built by cultures that feel moved and devoted to bringing their spirituality to an outer form. We are the inheritors of insights from all the world’s wisdom traditions and iconography of all world religions, as well as the psychedelic state. We can synthesize this knowledge and access archetypes from a multitude of world cultures. We can experience the profound patterning and ornamentalism of neighboring worlds and DMT worlds and translate what we see into real architecture that emanates from these insights. People know that Persian carpets, Maori tattoos, Celtic knotting, Gaudi’s non-rectilinear ornamentalism, art nouveau, have all come out of patterning seen in the collective unconscious by many people from many places, symbols and imagery that are emblematic in a particular culture. The psychedelic state and visionary state has evoked many patterns and images that can be woven into our new architecture. We have to acknowledge the reality of these spaces by building them. We need to provide a comfortable, stimulating environment to see these true visions expressed. This new sacred space would initiate some into an awareness of these visionary realities, and confirm the realities to others. Providing a visual resacralization of the every day could have a profound implications on our daily life. This is the intention of my work.
In my painting, “Kissing”, people are portrayed as translucent, and a flaming infinity band links together the hearts and minds of the lovers. It is pointing to a ground of being that is beyond the material realm, to a subtle spiritual essence, a truth that transcends the flesh. I chose to paint normal every day experiences to portray their life-enhancing quality, and to point to what makes life worthwhile. The work is also meant to see outside any particular religious framework. That’s why you see their bones and the palpable anatomical flesh that’s beneath the skin. The image points to what isn’t normally visible, but what we all know to be true. Seeing the anatomical body invites the psyche to accept as reality these realms of subtle energy and spiritual light that the artwork intends to transmit to the open minded, open hearted viewer. Each art work is like a battery of consciousness. Collecting many of these works together in one place, like the Chapel, each artwork having different insights and facets of this gem of awareness, influenced by the many wisdom traditions, could serve people in deepening their own spiritual life
TRIP: Your work is educational in that it shows people what they know to be anatomical truths, so to speak, but you also show them deeper truths that their culture may not have emphasized. You’re addressing the big questions, the really huge questions of spirituality, and I can imagine that in the Chapel, you’re really going to stir some people up. You have these very, very strong psychic events depicted in your paintings, and you have your own psychic event in viewing the art object itself, and then you have this educational aspect where people are actively learning beyond having the aesthetic event.
AG: That is my intention and why we are building the Chapel. We have gotten tremendous encouragement and support from many generous and enthusiastic people. The Sacred Mirrors web site, http://www.sacredmirrors.org, enables anyone to view the virtual Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. The paintings morph with one level of anatomy dissolving into another, one race and sex dissolving into another, the spiritual energy system and the Universal Mind Lattice and spiritual archetypes morphing into each other. It’s a way of viewing the Sacred Mirrors that I’d always hoped for. It can’t replace the value of standing in front of the paintings themselves in their lifesized scale, having them all assembled together and surrounded by the guardian pillars, but it’s a great way to inform about this possibility that we want to create. We’ve raised around $125,000 toward the building fund, and we need to raise several million. One average budget movie may easily cost $30 million dollars. We think we can come up with $5-10 million for a transformative Chapel.
TRIP: Are there any other artists that you want to engage on the Chapel project, either to include their work inside or to have them work on the building or design with you?
AG: Absolutely. We foresee a large collaboration with numerous artists. Many artists have already pledged their support and want to work with us on the Chapel. We will need the assitance of many artisans and artists, designers, engineers and architects. Keith Critchlow, a wonderful architect who is a world renowned authority on sacred geometry and has designed some of the world’s finest contemporary sacred spaces, has pledged his architectural support. Our friends Peter Terezakis, Brooks Cole, Jon Bell, and Cody Harrington have already contributed their expertise to design our websites and computer animated envisioning of the space. Peter Terezakis has offered to donate a version of his speaking flame sculpture, “All The Names Of God”. My wife Allyson’s art work is obviously going to be incorporated into the design and tile work. We’ll ask for input from many artists.
TRIP: I know sacramental drug use has been important to your work. What else would you recommend to artists to help them with the spiritual sojourn of their work?
AG: Intention is the most important ingredient to making the artist’s path a spiritual one. In Buddhism it is said that you can perform the various contemplative practices, but without having the intention to awaken to enlightenment for the benefit of all other beings your practice will come to nothing. Commitment to awakening is not an offhand or accidental thing. We can look at an artist’s spiritual life in terms of the three pillars of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, that is, enlightenment itself, the teachings about enlightenment, and the community that supports enlightenment.
The Buddha, for an artist, may be considering that enlightenment is a true human possibility, and allowing that possibility to empower one’s actions in life and art. We could think of enlightenment as the realization of human potential for wisdom and compassion. Growing in compassion means developing patience and generosity, gaining wisdom or spiritual insight can come through meditation and prayer, yoga, trance dancing, enduring pain, shamanic journeying, being sensitive to dreams, or by being aware during the flow of the creative process. To open the eye of the soul means recognizing, honoring and appreciating your relationship with the creative spirit inherent in your life and the cosmos. Artists are “mini-creator sparks” off the Great Creator. Our energy can be aligned with the power of universal creativity.
The Dharma, for an artist would be studying sacred art traditions and examining the relationship of creativity and transcendence throughout art history. To extend the philosophical reach and possibilities in your art making process, there are many books one can read. I once felt that the coordinates of art and spirituality were not well articulated in our culture. Since then I’ve gone on to collect a whole library of books aimed specifically at the convergence of art and the spirit, from Kandinsky’s concise work of the early 20th century, entitled, On The Spiritual In Art, to Roger Lipsey’s wonderful book called An Art Of Our Own, that looks at the transcendent themes in modern art. The catalogue for the L.A. exhibition “The Spiritual In Abstract Art” which happened about 15 years ago, has a wonderful collection of images and artists with spiritual intentions. A book by an artist named Phil Jacobson, Drinking Lightning, is a wonderful book about the quest of the visionary artist. The Julia Cameron books including The Artist‚s Way have been helpful to many people. One of the things I wrote about in The Mission Of Art was the way traditional sacred arts have used meditative awareness, and how contemporary, spiritually minded artists can tap into similar states without adopting the dogmas of a particular religion. There are many ways that artists can open themselves to a spiritual path even if they’re outside of a sacred tradition.
The Sangha for an artist is their art world family or community. Most artists are not working in total isolation. Try and find a community that supports your path of art and spirit. Search world cultural history for art that feeds and encourages your soul. Both figurative and abstract artists can look back through art history and find their ancestors, and collect their family around them through books and pictures. That’s very empowering. Many of us grew up in art schools where we were encouraged to reject our predecessors. The pop artists gained notoriety because they distinguished themselves from the abstract expressionists. If the artists previous to you were metaphysical, you had to be flat and ironic. These oppositions characterize art historical progress, from dadaism to expressionism to analytical cubism. Swinging the cultural pendulum burdens the artist with the necessity for originality. I’m not disparaging originality, it’s essential to contemporary art. Artists need to find their own way, their own voice. However, I felt very alone in my consciousness driven artwork, which was not motivated by the contemporary art world stylistic oppositions. It has been important for me to find my aesthetic family. William Blake had mental conversations with deceased philosophers and artists. He was taught painting by a discarnate entity. Even if you don’t seem to have friends or artistic peers who understand your work, it’s possible to have a psychic dialogue with artists who do. You can telepathically have an interaction with artists and artisans from all cultures and all eras of history, even with artists of the future or purely spiritual beings.
Sacred art expresses sacred ideas communicated through the art. In Islamic temples there are no graven images, reflecting their understanding that God is unportrayable. But God is everywhere present, suggested through mosaic and tile patterns of infinite interconnectness, a profound insight which is communicated in Jewish synagogues as well. Many wisdom traditions give us a variety of sacred teachings in a visual format. The glowing figurative iconography of Christianity and Buddhism puts forward the understanding that Spirit shines through enlightened masters. My art suggests the many complex interwoven levels of our being; a physical dimension, an emotional component, a mental dimension, a devotional or subtle energetic component, and a psychic and spiritual aspect to our being. My art works present a intentionally integrative unitive vision which is different from a more cubist, shattered collaged together understanding of humanity. I’m intentionally saying that we are coherent, harmonic beings, and if we’re in touch with the absolute presence, we can reflect the harmony that has made the stars, has created this immense and sacred art work in which we struggle and live, this universe. We are not only dust in the wind, we are also reflections of God’s infinite intelligence and transcendental mystery, That is the kind of insight that I want to transmit through my art work.
As far as practical advice for all artists, my daughter gave the best advice I’ve ever heard in her book entitled “How to Be a Great Artist” that she wrote at the age of 6. There are three illustrated pieces of advice in her book and I included the entire book in the appendix of my book, The Mission of Art. I placed it in the back of the book because after you read it you realize it is all the advice you need. It goes like this: “Be Yourself. Do Your Best. Never Give Up.” An artist has got to keep busy making their art work. For most of us it is difficult to set apart time every day to make art. We all have to work for a living, and most of us have responsibilities to our families and many obligations that whittle away at the hours of a day. The most important thing is to just keep working.
TRIP: In The Mission of Art you talk extensively about your original LSD experience, and you mention it in Transfigurations as well. Can you describe that for us?
AG: In May of 1975, I had just come back from the north magnetic pole. I was doing a lot of experiments in polarities, and this was the final one that kind of broke the bank. I spent all my money and went to the north magnetic pole where all the compasses point to. I did a variety of crazy things up there, but when I came back, I realized, “Wow, I am really searching for something. What am I searching for? Why am I putting myself through all this shit?” It occurred to me as sort of an existentialist, angst-ridden young performance artist, that perhaps I was searching for GOD, you know, but without much hope.
TRIP: Without much hope because you hadn’t seen good results so far?
AG: I hadn’t had any clue that God existed. My reference point was really that God was an invention of humanity to explain away what was unknowable. God just seemed like an invention by authorities to claiming some kind of superiority and connection with some almighty force that would make peasants cower, and give them more power. My sense of God was all wrapped in religion and how religions oppress people. I’d never experienced God and thought that Marx had appropriately called religion the opiate of the masses, and our job was really to wake up from this belief in a non-existent Santa Claus type deity. That was my pretty atheistic or at least agnostic orientation as a young artist. But then I also had this sense of quest or wondering, “Could there possibly be something that allowed our lives to take on meaning? Could God or spirituality provide a back drop that would make life less absurd?’ So on that day in May, I was finishing my one year at the Museum School, and I was hanging out with my professor on the street corner, and a girl drove by and stopped and said, “Will you come to my party tonight?” So the professor picked me up later that evening. He had a bottle of kahlua with LSD mixed in. I had never tripped before.
TRIP: It was kahlua mixed with LSD?
AG: (laughs) Yeah, it was a bottle of kahlua and he just put acid in it. So I felt like, “Well, hey, I’ve just come back from the north magnetic pole, I can do anything, why don’t I drink it?” So I drank about half of the bottle. We got to the party and the girl asked what was in the bottle, and she drank the rest of it. I was feeling kind of woozy and a little bit disoriented and I sat down on a couch in her apartment. After about an hour, I remember the first parts were all giggles, and I was just being a ridiculous ham, there on the couch playing with dolls, being stupid and silly and enjoying myself. And then the trip deepened and I didn’t really know what to expect. When I closed my eyes, I felt as though I was going through this spiral tunnel, like being inside a chambered nautilus, or some kind of shell-like shaft where I was in the dark going toward the light.
As this continually spiraling dynamic unfolding was going on, I felt the coming together of all opposites. In my artwork all year, the subtext or theme of my work had been that the world is made up of all these polarities, and so the struggle of life occurs within all these opposites. I was trapped in my mind, the mind that separates one thing from another. I wasn’t familiar with the great philosophies of nonduality or the Taoist unity of opposites. In this tunnel, I could see every shade of gray between me in total darkness, going toward the brightest light. The polarities merged and it resolved this conflict of opposites. Gray became a way to resolve and unite the opposites. It sounds not that important, but for me it was kind of a breakthrough realization, that there is a greater unity underlying things. Life and death, day and night, male and female, all of the various opposites that our mind creates through separating things and distinguishing one thing from another, there is a unity underlying them that holds it all together. This also became kind of a spiritual rebirth canal for me, just by passing through this tunnel.
Needless to say, I was profoundly moved, inspired, and confused. The day after, I felt a state of clarity and vivid aliveness that I hadn’t felt before. It also turned all of my existential emptiness on its head, and life suddenly had a symbolic importance as a manifestation of all these opposites. I had gotten a glimpse of an underlying unity to things. So I called up this girl who had shared the kahlua and LSD with me, and told her, “Wow, that was very powerful for me, what was going on with you?” She said,”Oh, I’ve tripped many times.” So I said, “Oh, well, can we get together? I’d really like to talk about this.” She agreed. That was Allyson twenty-seven years ago, and we never really separated after that. For me it was a confirming gesture by the universe saying, “You want God? Okay, here.” Within twenty-four hours, I had had a mystical spiritual rebirth experience, and met the person that is the physical representative of the divine in my life, Allyson. Because if God is love, God is more accessible through those that love us and those that we love.
It turned me from an angst-ridden existentialist to a giddy kind of hippie that believed that all you need is love. (laughs) Acid introduced me to my own spiritual potential, which Allyson and I continued to explore. We lie in bed together, wear blindfolds, and take massive doses of LSD, just like probably thousands of people still do. We keep a journal, a “Book of Trips” recording our experiences, very funny and stupid things, and also some profound things. It has been a source of our imagery for our art work. After a very profound trip in ’76, a vision of sacred interconnectedness became the real subject of our work, based on what we saw on our trip. We called it the “Universal Mind Lattice” where we dissolved into an endless grid of cell-like bodies of Light– the light was love energy–that seemed like our raw and radiant soul united with every other being in the cosmos. We continue to develop the iconography of the tripping state to the best of our ability.
TRIP: Let’s close with technology. Have you seen any great examples in new media, or interesting computer technology in art? Anything that comes close to some of the experiences you’ve tried to create through painting and performance art?
AG: I think most people agree that computer animation holds great promise for modeling the tripping state in a time based medium. This could be translated into video works, Flash animations, or cinematic spectacular events. I’m interested in bringing my work into those mediums, too. I just finished working with TOOL on a music video where an “Alex Grey, X-ray type figure” dissolves into a grid of light. Some cinema and light shows are evocative of highly organized visionary realms. The psychedelic subculture of the Sixties has blossomed into a digitally reconfigured trance culture of the Nineties and the 21st century. As the technology grows more complex we’re going to see more and more inventive translations from the tripping state into our media.
Advertising incorporates tripping imagery already. Fruitopia ads are clearly psychedelic. Psychedelia has been revived as an advertising approach over the last ten years, because it represents the lost hope of redemption for boomers. We’re awash in psychedelicized ad media, as well as through the trance dance culture and various other subcultures. In a way tripping has become mainstream, even without making a dent in the political regime of the USA that’s as repressive as ever. It’s a bizarre thing. We’ve already won the consciousness battle, the discovery of alternative dimensions is already apparent, and continues to influence our culture. The psychedelic state will continue to be incorporated into cinematic moments. 2001 is one of the most amazing and still great examples. Eventually, there will be a history of psychedelic art written and acknowledged as people are censured for their psychedelic influences. Sgt. Pepper’s would have never happened without acid. The Beatles were the premiere band of the Sixties and if they had just said no, we’d never have some of the greatest music that was ever composed. The culture wants its novelty, and wants its beauty from the arts, but many people are still unwilling to accept the reality that psychedelics have played such a crucial role.
Obviously what’s coming is a more integrated kind of media. Light shows and mythic journey rock events happened in the Sixties. Now there are groups like Tool using huge projections and computer animation and driving music. It’s a shamanic kind of phenomenon, a magic rite where the energy of the audience is focused in a mind-expanding power of light and sound for a transformative effect. Even if they’re not on a drug, people are getting a high from the phenomenon of being surrounded by such intense sound and light. These immersive and integral environments are growing more and more. As bandwidth and download speeds increase, the web holds greater and greater potential for interactive psychedelic interfaces.
Cinema and television integrate all the other media and make them excellent vehicles for communicating visionary worlds. Photography, paintings, exotic locations, sculptural props, a sound score, the theatrical narrative, so many mediums can be integrated. When all these art mediums are working together they have the potential to create powerful transformative effects. Of course, let’s not forget transcendence can also be found in a sweet little song, drawing or a haiku poem.