I’ve never been all that into art, or at least I’ve never been all that into paintings. Maybe it’s because I suck so much at drawing. It’s kind of a bummer, too, because I’m often totally dumbfounded by the exquisite beauty of my interior fantasia. I sometimes feel that I could sit and watch my mental screensaver forever and never tire of its sublimely magnificent unfolding. Unfortunately for all of you, it seems that I spent so many character points on my snazzy internal imaging software that I didn’t have enough left over to outfit myself with the practical skills needed to transmit my vision to others. To wit: I still draw like a fourth grader. Okay, more like a talented kindergartener. I’ve tried. I took a class, even. Don’t volunteer to be my Pictionary partner unless you happen to be a natural telepath. (My little brother and I are a hard team to beat; he once correctly identified a wavy line as “Bruce Lee” on the first guess.) Like any nominally civilized person, I’ve been exposed to a lot of art. I’ve wandered through a bunch of the big famous museums in America and Europe, occasionally under the influence of various aesthetic enhancers. I’ve been impressed, and now and then even deeply moved, by the works of the great masters of antiquity and their more modern counterparts. I’ve also been bored to tears at times, or mystified by the apparent success of a work, style, or artist that entirely eludes me. I’ve seen paintings supposedly worth millions of dollars that I wouldn’t buy for 50 cents at a yard sale and wondered if I was just dense or if it was some kind of Emperor’s New Clothes scam wherein people who wanted to seem sophisticated blindly raved about whatever happened to be in vogue. At one point I was worried that maybe I simply didn’t have the art gene like I don’t have the sports gene. Then I started going to Burning Man and discovered that there is indeed a great deal of art that can transport me into exalted states of aesthetic arrest, but most of it can’t be hung on a wall. I decided that I could live with that.
There have always been a few exceptions, like the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (http://www.cosm.org) and related pieces by Alex and Allyson Grey, which I stared at for hours and gushed about for months. Like many people, I’ve pulled cool images off of the Internet from time to time, and I’ve wondered vaguely who the artists were without ever quite getting up the motivation to research the matter (probably because I’m such a stoner). But I just spent a week in Hawaii with the Greys plus almost all of the other artists whose work has ever graced my desktop background, and now I’m having some kind of a crazy art awakening or something. Really.
It all started at the Temple of Visions, which is an absolutely stunning Visionary Art gallery in downtown Los Angeles. It was there that I had my first artgasm, though I wasn’t to hear the word spoken for several weeks. And it was also there that Seuss Dean and I met Rio Gordon, producer of the Alchemeyez Visionary Arts Congress on the Big Island of Hawaii. He recognized us from a special about LSD in which we took acid on camera and talked about how psychedelics complement and enhance our Flow Arts practice. He said that he had had been impressed with our courage and our candor, and that he had actively tried to magnetize us into his life. Furthermore, he asked us if we wanted to come present some kind of a Flow thing at Alchemeyez. All we had to do was get there and we’d be fed, feted, and put up in a fat pad. We decided to roll with the dreamlogic, and bought airplane tickets. What followed was a crash course in awesome that I still haven’t quite fully recovered from.
So what, imprecisely, do I mean when I say Visionary Art? Visionary Art is often characterized as a category of Outsider Art. But that’s not the kind of thing that was showing at Alchemeyez, which featured artists who seemed solidly grounded in both tradition and technique, many of whom have had extensive formal art educations or intensive apprenticeships with acknowledged grand masters in the field. I think my personal understanding of Visionary Art, at least in this context, resonates more with the definition suggested by Alexander Beiner, who hosts the Visionary Artists Podcast. He says:
Visionary Art is any art that seeks to represent or explore mystical experience. As such, it lies at the nexus between the sublime and the existential. Visionary art must contain an element of metaphysical Otherness and often references qualities associated with altered states of consciousness, including but not limited to ego-death, entoptic imagery, mythic archetypes and spiritual symbolism. [Wikipedia]
In other words, it’s psychedelic art, at least in the sense of being mind-manifesting. It might, in some cases, even be fairly said to be entheogenic. But it’s not just any old trippy or “drug related” art–it’s not obscene or cartoony, not just candyland, not kitsch. It’s not enough for a piece to merely reference the visionary state, it must also bring it through, somehow. Its creation is a shamanic act of transmission, delivering gestalts of specialized consciousness in such a way that they can be apprehended and integrated by other members of the tribe. The Visionary Artist functions as an alchemist, forging with base materials a thing that is truly transcendent, irrational, potent, and pure. He or she distills the fruits of the spirit into a material form that can be shared with others. It’s sacred work, and it’s real magic. I don’t know how many thousands of words I’ve wasted trying in vain to communicate verbally intractable concepts that some of these magnificent canvases immediately make plain.
I was surprised and gratified by how many of the presenters spoke openly about their relationship with psychedelics and the profound influence that they’ve had on their lives and work. Not everybody paints while they’re high, of course. At least not all the time. I mean, some of these pieces take like 500 hours to make, and if it all had to be done in a medicine trance that would be a costly practice in a number of ways. One cool thing about the emerging digital branch of the Visionary Arts tree is that, due to the efficiency of the medium, it’s possible to make beautiful and intricate primary records without taxing the system for too long. I’ll never forget one artist talking about licking dried LSD droplets off of his laptop while making live art onstage at a festival. Jimi Hendrix would have been amused. Yet some Visionary Artists never touch the stuff. And some get material via endogenous means. Xavi (whose output is trippy in the extreme: http://r6xx.com/independent-artists/xavi/cat_74.html), for instance, claims to get most of his material from dreams. Apparently he’s been on the receiving end of the visionary fire hose since early childhood, and he’s not inclined to fiddle with the nozzle. Others are still processing material from that one good hit in the ’60s or whatever. I wouldn’t want to tattle on anyone or speculate about the personal habits of any particular artist. What happens at Alchemeyez stays at Alchemeyz. Overall I was pretty impressed with everybody’s willingness to go there, though, especially on Saturday night when the live painting took place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The resonance with inner vision is, of course, a big part of why Visionary Art is so appealing to me. I just picked up Tryptamine Palace by James Oroc the other day, and I was delighted to find the following quote from Aldous Huxley’s Heaven and Hell preceding the preface:
Along with the preternatural lights and colors, the gems and ever-changing patterns, visitors to the mind’s antipodes discover a world of sublimely beautiful landscapes, of living architecture and of heroic figures. The transporting power of many works of art is attributable to the fact that their creators have painted scenes, persons and objects which remind the beholder of what, consciously or unconsciously, he knows about the Other World at the back of his mind.
It’s a powerful experience to see something in the external world that resonates with such an intensely personal, interior, and indescribable phenomenon as one’s own closed-eye visuals. It’s comforting, somehow, to confirm that the experience of another person is probably at least roughly if tangentially isomorphic to your own. It’s not just about the faithful replication of beheld “visions”, though. Rather, the best Visionary Art transmits vision itself; the ability to see in a certain way. It lends a measure of the artist’s broad scope and unique worldview, while at the same time affirming the commonality of the transpersonal imagination, the magnificent yearning of the human spirit and the paradoxical participation of the observer in the existence of the thing observed. Art is like a rainbow in the sense that it doesn’t do its thing unless there’s someone standing there looking at it, and that person’s point of view will inevitably color, distort, compound, clarify, trivialize and redeem the original vision. Good Visionary Art speaks to each observer in his or her own mode, as well as in the common language of our shared skein of meaningful symbols, iconic tropes, and mathematical abstractions. My friend Kevin doesn’t get any visuals at all (it’s weird, just nothing; it doesn’t matter how much he takes; he gets good and high, but when he closes his eyes he just sees empty blackness), and yet he still absolutely loves Visionary Art. Maybe he appreciates it even more than the rest of us do, because it provides him with symbols on which he can anchor complex epiphanies that are hard to hold onto without some kind of a placeholder.
We did our Flow class on Friday, which was a lot of fun. Flow Arts, especially fire dancing, is kind of the dance branch of Visionary Art (or at least it’s a contender), and it was refreshing to get to discuss our practice openly. We talked about how we sometimes download or intuit new moves whilst under the influence, and then videotape ourselves in the act so that we can later learn how to perform the novel and amazing patterns that automatically bubble up out of the trance state. We talked about balance, concentration, meditation, discipline, danger, inspiration, energy, grace, physics, focus, and flow. Plus we taught a bunch of people how to spin poi. We also brought FlowVision, which is an interactive night time installation made by our friends at Flowtoys that brings out the magic in fire or glow spinning by extrapolating a dancer’s movements into beautiful ever-evolving fractaline mandalas of living light. We billed it as a live visionary painting experience, where the dancer is the painter and her gestures are the paintbrush. I admit that it seemed like a bit of a stretch when we wrote the proposal copy, but watching the enhanced tracers kaleidoscoping into illuminated geometries up on the 30-foot screen, I found myself satisfied with our status as passable poseurs.
Big name DJs kept the jungle thumping while attendees wandered around in an Eden of awesome, flitting like butterflies between the warm swimming pools, fancifully lit pleasure gardens, and ecstatically writhing dance floors. Everywhere neo-tribal space elves nibbled dainties, cruised the vendors’ stalls, and lounged about in various states of illumination. It had been important to Rio to get pono with Pele and invoke the protection and blessing of the local Hawaiian deities during the elaborate and moving opening ceremony, which I came to understand more thoroughly as the week went on and I familiarized myself with a bit of Hawaiian tradition. For sure, it felt like the gathering was blessed by some special magic. The serendipitous conversations and game-changing connections that took place around the dinner table were as tinged with the numinous as the performances, lectures and works of art.
But the art was the main attraction, and by the time Seuss Dean and I made our way into the inner sanctum of the gallery/temple, we were in about the most receptive state we could manage to attain whilst still remaining dialed in to the social niceties attendant upon honored guests at a public event. And by clever design we had thus far managed to avert our eyes from big tasty banks of art, with the intention of saving them for our future selves to enjoy when we were most susceptible. Boy, was that the right move! After a few minutes of blissing out in rapt amazement, we suddenly realized several things at once: that we were standing at the epicenter of the Visionary Art movement, that the type of paintings that we would dig the most out of everything ever made in all of art history are being produced right now in our lifetimes by people that we could know, and that squiggles of goo on canvas can save the world. Everywhere we turned, natural forms blended with the sacred geometries from which they are derived, transdimensional entities emerged from intricately tessellated backgrounds as order emerges from chaos, and the answers to unsolved riddles glimmered playfully in the corners of the mind’s eye, hovering just on the edge of logical apprehension. I was struck by how beautiful all of the paintings were. I’ve seen a lot of “psychedelic art” that I wouldn’t actually want to look at on psychedelics. But the works that I saw at Alchemeyez were seductive and inviting to the eye, even when (as was sometimes the case) they carried dire warnings as well as fervent hopes for the human endeavor.
All of the artists were approachable, and everybody seemed to be making new friends. Adam Scott Miller (http://www.corpuscallosum.cc), for instance, whose images I’ve been misappropriating for years to make little psychedelic greeting cards and suchlike, was even nice enough to explain one of my favorite paintings to us; a complex masterpiece about the UFO mystery featuring tiny samples of other relevant paintings from throughout history and around the world. It was so very inspiring to watch everybody working and playing together, creating primary records of our communion, sparking off of one another, sharing their process and sometimes even their canvases while the masters took turns onstage talking about their histories, visions, inspirations and techniques. If we were blessed with Alex Grey’s vision–if we could see people’s energetic bodies instead of their skin–we would have witnessed an ever-shifting web of light connecting all of our hearts, minds, and spirits on that night. One wide-eyed girl fell to her knees in the middle of the room, overwhelmed by the visionary banquet that assaulted her senses. “I’m totally having an artgasm right now!” she screamed, and everyone there knew exactly what she meant.
Terence McKenna said that he always set his compass by the beautiful because out of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful only one is easy to identify. Images are magic; they can liberate and they can bind. They can communicate the unsayable, they can evoke epiphanies, and they can heal. At Alchemeyez I saw good translations of direct transmissions from the artist previously known as God. Call it the Alien, call it Gaia, the Collective Unconscious, or whatever you want. Perhaps it’s all of these things, or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it really seems quite eager to contact us. But most of us don’t come from one of those cultures where everybody participates directly in the Mystery. Modern cultures deputize shamans like artists, physicists, and philosophers to explore the edges, and we’re supposed to bring back all of the big news to the tribe. In other words we take drugs so the straights don’t have to. Unfortunately, most of those who get the message can’t transmit it. They can’t catch the genie in the bottle. That’s part of what separates the explorers from the shamans. Shamans can serve as a conduit to the Mystery for others.
If you would like to know more about Visionary Art, why not check out the Visionary Art Vaults* right here on Erowid? I have to admit that up until recently the Art Vault has gotten short shrift of my attention, probably because I’m so damned textual. I’ve been busily remedying my omission, though, much to my amusement and edification. It turns out that some of the most eloquent trip reports can be found in the art section. Maybe you knew this already. Maybe you even make Visionary art yourself. And hey, if you like what you see a whole lot, you can always track down the artists and purchase a print or two. You can donate money to the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors project or to a Visionary Arts collective. I can’t afford to buy much art myself, but I picked up a few Luke Brown (http://www.spectraleyes.com/gallery/artworx) stickers for my laptop because they make me really happy and because if everybody who loved this stuff enough to gank it off of the Internet supported their favorite artists just a little tiny bit, these guys would be living large and they could make even more cool art for us.
I don’t know art, but I know what I’m like inside, and I can recognize our commonality when I see myself in the works of others. I think Visionary Art is going to get increasingly popular as culture becomes more psychedelic. At least I hope that it will. I want to see more digital stuff and more immersive environments. Certain elements in the video game industry already show reliable signs of moving in the right direction and new technologies are making it easier for lay people to produce intricate and well-rendered images without all too much formal training. If you extrapolate that curve to suggest that eventually any idiot will be able to render a beautiful image using only the power of her mind, maybe I’ll someday be able to back up my extravagant claims about the sublime quality of my imagination. If the concept of money is still in play when direct brain-to brain image transfer becomes possible, I will be a very rich woman indeed. Until then, you’re just going to have to take my word for it.
* Erowid Note: New submissions to the Visionary Art Vaults have been on hold since Mar 2008, when the curator dedicated to that project took a leave of absence.