Section Three. April 13 , 1982
by Kenneth Baker
The human figure continues to be the most fecund subject in the history of Western painting , but original treatments of it have been increasingly rare in 20th century art. We might see in Alex Grey’s “Sacred Mirrors” ( at the Stux Gallery through April 24 ) an ambitious attempt to invent a new use for the human form in painting. I say “might” because I know that some poeple will find in Grey’s art little more than documentation of a personal obsession. At times I see it that way too.
Grey’s work is basically realistic in style but but extreme in other respects: extremely fastidious, programmatic in its consistency, disarmingly didactic. Six of the paintings in the present show look pretty conventional, for they are simply frontal nude figures of black , white and Oriental men and women. Two considerations make these pictures less straightforward than they appear at first. One is the show’s title “Sacred Mirrors” which tells us we are to understand the verisimilitude of Grey’s uses of black in Spanish art – that of Zurbaran and Goya for example. The reference is especially apparent in the picture that presents us with a full standing skeleton. This canvas seems to embody the grim focus on mortality that recurs in Spanish painting , whereas the other paintings in the series have more in common with medical textbook illustrations (a gifted draftsmen, Grey sometimes does freelance medical illustration).
The power of these images derives in part from the eyeballs that Grey has left in his figures, even in the one that shows us the nervous system, with nearly everything else removed. When you notice the eyeballs , you realize that the realism Grey ( and implicitly every other “realist”) adheres to ignores the difference between the living and the dead . Those staring eyeballs, which seem to gape with awe or horror where their lids and sockets have been removed, fool us for a moment into thinking we are looking at images of living persons, when in fact several of these figures have been subjected to dissections no human being could survive.
As if in compensation for his representations of the body flayed and laid open, Grey has done four canvases envisioning the body as represented by sacred and esoteric (Eastern) symbolism. The workmanship in these less than literal images is practically fanatical, for Grey has tried to render all the forces that define the living body’s field of energy. This group of works passes abruptly from the realistic to the visionary.Once we’ve gotten over our initial amazement at Grey’s technical control, his knowledge of anatomy and mysticism, and the sheer density of labor these canvases record, some philosophical problems emerge. Clearly, Grey’s paintings go beyond the limits of traditional pictorial, at least formally, but he does not seem to have resolved the problem of the materialism implicit in realistic representation. You sense this inasmuch as you find the images of the body’s physical systems so much more convincing than the evocations of its intangible essence. Representation is seductive as long as we don’t see it for what it is , and it becomes really conspicuos in the context of the images as signifying direct reflection. The other consideration is the presence of other paintings in the show, paintings that take the idea of the picture plane as mirror far beyond the limits of “realism.”
The “Sacred Mirrors” are mounted so that their bottom edges are at floor level. Each is about four by seven feet, so that the figure in each is about lifesize. Standing in front of each frontal figure, you can feel the parallel between your own posture and that of the picture’s subject. This sensation is not very significant until you come to the images in which Grey has torn away the figure’s skin or musculature or major organs, or the skeleton itslef. Your first glimpse of the more visceral images in the serie will be a shock, yet there is a kind of joke lurking in Grey’s ostensibly grotesque revelations of the body’s innards. We might see in these paintings a satire on the claims of realist art to depict clear vision: here we get realism pushed to the point of x-ray vision. Each of the “Sacred Mirrors” presents a full figure on an uninflected black ground of of indefinate visual depth. This use of black is the obvious framing solution, yet it also recalls the ” Sacred Mirrors” only when the artist tries to make it describe invisible life forces. In the more literal visceral images in the series, the credibility of what we see is our experience of morbidity. Now morbidity is a big issue in the human existence, and one that art usually tends to skirt, so Grey distinguishes himself in having taken it on at all. But he does not seem to realize that the style of his work inevitably renders the most morbid images in the series the most powerful.
This is so because pictorial representation is best suited to delineating a literal vision of reality, and the literal vision of embodiment is ineluctably morbid. Yet what other pictoral conventions could Grey have chosen to accomplish the purposes of the present series of works ? There is a strange quality of innocence to Grey’s art that adds to its interest, at least for a while. First of all, the didactic intention of the “Sacred Mirrors” is so far out of step with recent and current art fashions as to make you wonder whether the artist is serious. Your doubts about his earnestness dissipate once you perceive the amount of labor that’s gone into his canvases: nobody works that hard for irony’s sake. There is something admirable in Grey’s Intention to make representation affect directly and expansively our sense of our own and others reality. Yet can he really believe that these painting will accomplish, or even make possible such a broadening of spiritual awareness?
Part of the fascination of Grey’s paintings is that they are so close to the basic questions we all have about art. Can a painting actually affect someone’s attitudes toward anything besides painting? Does pictoral representation really cut through the prosaic monologue of mundane consciousness and acheive a communication more direct than words? Is representation dependant on the relationship of a picture to its title? ( Would we understand Grey’s images if we didn’t know they were called “Sacred Mirrors”?) Although you won’t arrive at the answers to these questions by looking at Grey’s paintings, you should see his work, because there’s nothing in contemporary art like it.