I can still remember the party almost ten years ago at which I was first introduced to the visionary art work of Alex Grey. At the time, I was just getting my feet wet with psychedelics, as were a number of my friends, and we crowded around a copy of Sacred Mirrors, Grey’s first collection, and oooohed and ahhhhed at what appeared to all of us to be direct snapshots of states of consciousness for which we were barely scraping together rudimentary models for in our minds. It was a visceral connection; we didn’t doubt that this person was painting with a rare authority, and perhaps it gave us courage to continue our nascent explorations of the psychedelic realms. He acted as a kind of ontological cartographer, inspiring us to visit these regions that to us had previously been uncharted territory.
Transfigurationsis an eminently worthy follow-up to the Sacred Mirrors collection. The book opens with a tour of Grey’s history as an artist, following him through his days of existential, “transgressive” performance and installation art. These are his “pre-LSD” days, and his work is confrontational, searching, and political; indeed, some of his most interesting early work focuses on Cold War tensions and visions of nuclear holocaust. But soon, his eyes opened to the spiritual world via his encounters with psychedelics and the serendipitous meeting of his love, Allyson, he settles into exploring and elaborating the spiritual themes that will eventually come to dominate his work. The bulk of Transfigurations is a tour of the paintings and sculptures created in what has come to be recognized as his signature style.
I freely admit to feeling a distinct intimidation at having to review this book, for Grey’s knowledge and understanding of the world’s wisdom traditions is immense. But as art critic Donald Kuspit writes in an essay published in the book, “We need not know the meaning of each symbol in Grey’s encyclopedic array – we need not know the cultural source of any of them. We only have to experience the forceful luminosity and overwhelming rhythms of Grey’s images and surfaces to have a so-called mystical, oceanic experience, that is, to be transfigured.” That’s undoubtedly the reason Grey’s work has attained such popularity within the psychedelic movement, which seems to many observers to encompass a wildly disparate array of skeptical, nay-saying, syncretic buffet-style spirituality, and outright hostility toward anything that smacks of organized religion. Grey manages to incorporate the themes and imagery of the world’s wisdom traditions without demanding belief in any particular system; he is revealing the mysteries as experiential in nature, not something frozen, but something dynamic and filled with joy.
I won’t make the mistake of attempting to describe these paintings in words; you should visit his site if you need more of an actual introduction to Grey’s style. That said, Grey paints with such meticulous precision that it often takes a very close look at these glossy reproductions to reveal the actual brush strokes and texture of the works. This is not the crisp digital perfection of modern computer-generated psychedelic graphics, which makes these works all the more astonishing in a way. By the same token, seeing "Vision Crystal" the painting side by side with a still from the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors fly-through computer animation definitely suggests that Grey could take over the entire “trippy animation” genre if he set his mind to it. His painting, "The Soul Finds Its Way", is a depiction of what happens to the soul after the physical body dies – because his other paintings resonate with such authority in terms of actual experience, one feels as though this beautifully compelling work is actually a kind of journalism.
An interesting conversation between Grey and Ken Wilber punctuates the book, as they discuss notions of an integral art culture, a culture in which the primary focus of the art world is to deepen humanity’s connection with, and awareness of, the spiritual realities of our existence. Grey clearly elucidates the mission of his work, and it’s extremely admirable, although my own personal feeling is that Grey’s work succeeds against a backdrop in which we are also free to explore so-called “low art.” The one thing that seems entirely missing from Grey’s work, for better or worse, is a true sense of humor. I don’t think humor is necessary in his work at all, mind you, but I hesitate to imagine an integral art culture without humor, without parody, without trashy burlesque, and for that matter, without the weird joys of surrealism and absurdism. Then again, the world would be a lovelier place if Grey had more company in his chosen field, and because Grey writes with such clarity throughout the work, he avoids the trap of “preaching,” leaving us instead with a healthy amount of food for thought, as artists or simply as consumers of art.
It’s clear that the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors will be a mecca for the psychedelic movement, such as it is. Until it’s built, we are fortunate to have Transfigurations to tide us over. Grey’s work offers a unique alternative to even the most strident agnosticism, and reminds cynical bastids like me that there is indeed more to life than what meets the eye.Originally Published In : Trip
- Transfigurations, by Jon Hanna - 2006 Aug 01 publish
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