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Transfigurations
by Alex Grey
Publisher:
0892818514 
Year:
2001 
ISBN:
0892818514 
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 8/1/2006

(This review was originally accompanied by scanned art images from the book; these have not been included with this posting on Erowid.)

After much anticipation, I am quite happy to say that the new art book from Alex Grey will finally be available in November of this year—just in time to make a wonderful holiday gift for your favorite art-loving psychonaut. Transfigurations is a beautiful companion to Grey’s first art book, Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey (1990, Inner Traditions). I was impressed with the art featured on the cover of this book, Over-soul (1998–1999, left), when I first saw it in 1999 on a print at the AllChemical Arts conference. It seemed to be a perfect complement to Praying (1984, lower right), the piece used on his first book’s cover. While Praying focuses on an inward journey, Over-soul is an explosion into the collective consciousness of all of humanity. Both the style and the content of this piece exemplify a new approach that Grey appears to be taking in his art. Most earlier works by Grey utilized his “spiritual X-ray” approach, and dealt with aspects of the perennial philosophy that Ken Wilber has described as different modes of knowing: “the eye of the flesh, which discloses the material, concrete, and sensual world; the eye of the mind, which discloses the symbolic, conceptual, and linguistic world; and the eye of contemplation, which discloses the spiritual, transcendental, and transpersonal world.” Grey’s early paintings predominantly dealt with the spiritual anatomy and quest of the individual, with works like the Sacred Mirrors (1979–1989), Journey of the Wounded Healer (1984–1985), Holy Fire (1986–1987), Theologue (1986), Dying (1990), and of course Praying. Also during this period, Grey depicted the spiritual/sexual life-giving relationship between man and woman, in works such as Kissing (1983), Copulating (1984), Pregnancy (1988–89), and Nursing (1985). These paintings were featured in his first book, and his recent release continues this exploration into sexual spirituality, with works such as Tantra (1991), Promise (1997), and Newborn (1995, lower left). Grey’s work has also conveyed specific religious/spiritual iconography, in pieces such as Avalokitesvara (1982–1983), Christ (1982–1985), and Sophia (1989).

This focus is also presented in his new book. In Adam and Eve (1988, detail right), we see Neanderthal-like humans perhaps displaying a slightly worried “shit, we’ve done it now” look, after biting from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Along with the traditionally-depicted apples, Grey has thrown in a some Amanita muscaria and psilocybian mushrooms for good measure.) In The Visionary Origin of Language (1991–1998, lower left), we find what could be an advertisement for Terence McKenna’s theory of the development of language in humans. An early hominoid, with psilocybian mushrooms in tow, taps into the universal visual language, while a tryptamine-elf whispers secrets in his ear. His eyes too appear to be drinking in new knowledge, but of a more enlightened sort. Nature of Mind (1995–1996, not shown) is a seven-panel narrative in a gorgeous sculpted gilded frame, which presents an individual’s spiritual quest within a Buddhist perspective. Donald Kuspit, an art critic who wrote a chapter titled “Alex Grey’s Mysticism” for the book, calls this piece the “grand climax of Grey’s art.” And while I agree that the piece superbly exemplifies Grey’s style and thematic presentations, I wouldn’t call this piece the “grand climax,” as Grey is clearly still forging ahead in new directions. (Should I be cornered into describing the “grand climax ” of his art I would have to say that his still-theoretical Chapel of Sacred Mirrors will probably be a shoe-in, should this materialize. Nevertheless, since Grey no-doubt has much more to offer, even this might be a drop in the bucket of future works to come.) With regard to one new direction that Grey’s art has taken, I return to my discussion of his piece Over-soul. Although this work still contains familiar iconography, such as the flames and disembodied eyes that have appeared in earlier works, it has moved away from depicting the individual via spiritual X-ray, and moved into a new transhuman style—a fiery grid-like exoskeleton that invokes the “larger picture.”

The most powerful example of this style and these “Universal Beings,” which Grey says he first began working with in 1998, is his Cosmic Christ (1999–2000, detail below right). This painting has two distinct layers; the flaming grid-work that composes the Über-Christ, and numerous “background” scenes depicted within the gaps of the grid, that represent mankind’s struggles and triumphs throughout our existence. Of all of Grey’s work, this piece might be seen as the most complex narrative (and this aspect of it reminds me of much of the “low-brow” art that has become more popular, due to magazines such as Juxtapoz). Horrible acts, such as slavery, the Holocaust, alien abduction experimentation, wars, killing whales, and capitalist greed are portrayed right along with the saints of humanity—Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and even Dr. Albert Hofmann. Peaceful nature scenes, technological advances, the cosmos and beyond, are all depicted. When a logger clear-cuts a forest, he seems a bit surprised to see a ghostly shroud of the face of Jesus looking back at him from within the rings of a tree. There is so much going on in this large painting (about 4’ wide by 8.5’ tall), that one can enjoy looking at the myriad details for some time. To get a good overall sense of this piece, visit www.alexgrey.com and check out the beautiful photo by Dean Chamberlain (whose R.E. Schultes photo graced the cover of the last ER). Chamberlain’s photo, of Grey in his studio with the Cosmic Christ and other works, also appears at the front of Transfigurations.

The transhuman grids of fire have allowed Grey to showcase much of his unique symbolism and take it to a new level. In some cases, he seems to be revisiting old ground with this new approach, such as with the painting White Light (1999, lower right), which may be a disembodied (or more advanced) version of a similar state of consciousness depicted in Collective Vision (1992, above left). It is heartening to see Grey’s recent stylistic development being applied in both new and familiar ways; the mark of a good artist is one who isn’t afraid to reinvent himself from time to time. Clearly Grey has his chops down, and I am pleased to see the new directions that he is taking, while retaining the spiritual focus that causes his art to rise above the nihilist, post-modern abstractions that litter the art community like so many disturbing—yet dull—abortions.

Transfigurations has an excellent foreword by Dr. Albert Hofmann, who eloquently intones his timeless refrain that material science need not be the bane of spiritual questioning, and indeed it can be a great instigation for such. Stephen Larsen presents a detailed biographical discussion of Grey and his work, complete with images of Grey’s art and projects as a youth (including a 1967 newspaper photo clipping of Alex as a 12-year-old boy presenting his Science Fair research report on the “LSD Phenomena”). As mentioned earlier, Donald Kuspit opines on the meaning of Grey’s work, and the book also includes a chapter of conversation between Grey and Ken Wilber.

I always prefer to purchase my books directly from the author whenever possible, and Transfigurations is no exception. Indeed, autographed hardcover copies [are] available directly from Grey via the web at www.alexgrey.com. As the only Alex Grey images that I have bought recently appeared on the cover of the new Tool CD, I am glad to be able to obtain a copy of this book by an artist who has been a great inspiration to me in recent years.

Originally Published In : the Autumnal Equinox 2001 issue of The Entheogen Review
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