High Art: Alex Grey and the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors
[8 May 2002]
by Michael Stephens
PopMatters Music Columns Editor and Columnist
by Alex Grey
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"The stand I'd like to make is for the transformation of the art world. Art can take up the mission it always had –- to express both the individual and the collective soul."
Alex Grey wants to build a chapel. A chapel in the spirit of the cathedrals that medieval communities worked on for generations: a life-long devotional labor. Alex is a ways from laying the foundations, and the group-nature of the project is presently limited to fund-raising events like the Trance Party Benefit held at The Frying Pan in New York in April, but manifesting his crazy vision is, Alex says, "what I live for".
Visually, the chapel will not resemble any house of worship previously seen in this reality. A pearly, cosmic-blue pyramid, twisted by some giant hand into a spiral and topped with eyes, the design looks like an image transmitted from a future civilization, which it well may be, given Mr.Grey's psychic predilections. The chapel will not be dedicated to a specific religion. It will be a trans-religious sacred space to be used for meditation, healing and transformation, and it will house a series of Alex's paintings known as the "Sacred Mirrors".
The idea of building a third millennium chapel to house a personal vision of an integrated human-sacred reality may sound like the conception of a lunatic, saint, or megalomaniac. In person, Alex Grey is none of these. A slight, thin figure, dressed in black with long, straight hair tied back from sharp, bird-like features and piercing blue eyes, Alex is warm, gentle-mannered, soft spoken, funny and genuinely humble. He often speaks with his head bowed and looking up only to emphasize a point with his formidable gaze.
In the Brooklyn loft studio where he lives and works with his artist wife Allyson Grey and their daughter Zena, a talented actress who has already appeared in movies like The Bone Collector, we discussed his influences Bosch, Michelangelo, Blake, Tchelitchew, Fuchs and others from "the bastard visionary tradition" and the importance of resurrecting the sacred role of the artist.
Alex and Allyson first met at a party she threw in Boston in May 1975. Alex took LSD that night for the first time and Allyson was the only other person tripping at the party. A year later, the couple sacramentally ingested large doses of LSD. Alex has said that the vision they shared that night, of an infinite, unified field of energy that linked all beings in the universe painted by Alex as "Universal Mind Lattice" and by Allyson as "Net of Indra" "transformed our lives and gave us a subject that became the focus of our art and our mission".
When I spoke with Alex he had recently returned from Brazil, where he had been participating as an artist-mentor in ayahuasca ceremonies, helping participants to paint the visions they received from the hallucinogenic vine. Alex said his own experiences with this potent, DMT-based hallucinogen had run the gamut from "humiliating periods of lying helpless in my own vomit to bodhisattva-like visions". Since their life-changing acid experiences in 1976, Alex and Allyson have continued to explore altered states. Although he never uses the term "shaman" in reference to himself, Alex's sense of the artist's role is similar to the shaman's role in traditional cultures: the artist's purpose is to bring back visions from other realities, accessed in dreams, meditative states and on psychedelics; visions that can heal and resolve the diseases and conflicts of this reality.
Healing is the purpose of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. The twenty-one paintings include a series of life-size, anatomically accurate images of the body's physical systems, all represented at the peak of health, as well as images of the body's psychic and spiritual systems. Alex and Allyson believe that contemplation of these images can have physically and spiritually beneficial effects on the viewer. The Sacred Mirrors have been exhibited around the world to overwhelming responses, although often not from the traditional art audience. People who have had near-death and other types of psychic experiences regularly contact Alex, having seen in his work images that parallel their own visions.
Alex's paintings have a wide range of admirers. SUNY art historian Donald Kuspit has described the layered luminosity in his pictures as "the most important innovation in religious light since the Baroque". No less a culture-transformer than Albert Hoffmann (who discovered LSD in 1943) wrote the preface to Alex's new book Transfigurations. Alex is also a respected figure in underground music circles: he designed the cover art for Tool's Lateralus, and his paintings are widely pirated for rave flyers and LSD blotter art. Even Deepak Chopra is a fan, but Alex is no dream-catcher-dangling New-Ager. Nor was his art always so positive.
Between 1976 and 1980, Alex spent five-years working in a medical school morgue studying human anatomy and helping with dissections and autopsies. During this period, his art looked unsparingly at death. In "DeepFreeze", a performance piece, he locked himself in an unlit freezer with 15 frozen corpses. In "Life, Death and God", he hung upside down from a rope tied to his ankle; the other end of the rope was tied around the ankles of an eviscerated cadaver. Between the living and dead bodies hung a picture of the crucifixion.
While developing his dark, death-focused work, Alex experienced a vision that changed his direction. "I made a painting, entitled 'Necrophilia', of myself lying on top of a dead woman. Not long after that an unusual, and for me life-altering vision occurred: While sitting in my studio one night, an ominous courtroom appeared. Before a judge I could not see and an angry jury, I faced a woman who accused me of trespassing on her body in my morgue work. I tried to explain that I was making art, but there was absolutely no forgiveness. The judge told me that from now on I must do more positive work, putting me on lifetime probation. This vision was a turning point for me. It helped me realize that I could spend a lifetime in negativity and darkness or begin to uplift my focus".
The new focus can be seen in the 1986 self-portrait "Laughing Man", in Transfigurations. The painter's face, upturned and bathed in light, has become transparent, revealing the blue vascular and bright yellow nervous systems traversing the smiling, pink flesh, the white skull grinning beneath and the Spaghetti-O-colored brain beneath that. The outer facial perimeter gives way to a white aura and a golden halo divided by luminous spokes that converge on and emanate from the laughing man's head. The head is like a small sun radiating and saturated by light. The light-energy surrounding the man's head connects him to the threads of energy in the air around him; his laughter is a burst of energy rippling out of and into the electro-chemically-charged universe, of which he is a living reflection and microcosm, an energetic "fountain and drain".
The image is painted in a style that does not distort reality, but rather reveals layers of existence that normally lie, literally, beneath the surface of body and mind. By revealing the body's hidden circuitry in everyday activities like laughing, embracing and giving birth, Alex illustrates how much of physical existence is repressed by normal awareness. Alex talks about the experience of these paintings as "becoming transparent". Emanating out from the physical layers are the energetic and luminescent layers that connect us to one another and to the universe.
In the "Sacred Mirrors", Alex began mapping his integrated vision by combining the anatomical expertise he had gained in the morgue with the visions he and Allyson shared in 1976. The result was the "Sacred Mirrors", twenty-one 84" x 46" paintings in identical frames that present being as a series of layered systems, like skins of the onion. The series begins with "Material World" in which the elements of the periodic table are sandblasted on mirrors surrounding a human silhouette in lead imprinted with the elementary biochemical constituents of the body. Under the silhouette's feet is the word MATTER, by the right and left hands, SPACE and TIME, and above the head ENERGY.
Next come six anatomical paintings: "Skeletal System", "Nervous System", Cardiovascular System","Lymphatic System", "Viscera" and "Muscle System (Pregnant Woman)". The layers progress to three sets of female and male figures: "Caucasian Woman", "Caucasian Man", "African Woman", "African Man", "Asian Woman" and "Asian Man". These six layers economically imply the social, cultural and political layers configured in terms of gender, skin color, ethnicity and appearance. The series then moves through two immaterial layers: "Psychic Energy System" and "Spiritual Energy System", to an image of an infinite net of linked energy systems, "Universal Mind Lattice". The last five paintings are of male and female Buddhist, Christian and Gnostic images of the higher self, concluding with an iridescent circle at the heart of a net of light entitled "Spiritual World".
The works represent an enormous investment of faith and money, for Alex has never sold any of the Sacred Mirrors. As I waited for him to get off the phone with Tool, whose video he was working on at the time, Allyson joked about how they don't like to sell Alex's paintings. Although art collectors are literally lined up to buy his work, he only completes a few commissioned pictures, like the "Cosmic Christ", each year. Most of his best work, like the recent molten, blazing trinity of images: "One", "Transfiguration" and "White Light", he keeps with the Sacred Mirrors for inclusion in the Chapel.
Talking about his plans for the chapel, Alex admits he often surrenders to "my inner weenie". In a thin, piteous voice, he speaks as his weenie-self: "Oh it's all too much for me, I give up, I'm too weak, I'll never build the chapel, I can't, it's impossible, it's not worth it". He shakes his head. "That's the weenie. Then there's the primordial that flows through all of us. With it, everything is possible".