Visions of Alex, interview by Thomas Lyttle
Alex Grey is one of the most widely recognized psychedelic artists of our time. His paintings -they've graced the cover of TOOL's grammy-winning Lateralus CD and the albums of Nirvana (In Utero) and the Beastie Boys (Ill Communications)) albums as well as the cover of HIGH TIMES -peel back reality, showing the human body in ways that are spiritual and startling. To see his work is to get a crash course in human anatomy, higher consciousness and mysticism. While Sacred Mirrors, an '80s collection of Grey's art, continues to be an international bestseller, he is celebrating the release of his most recent book, Transfigurations (Inner Traditions), which showcases his works from the '90s to the present. He took a break in his Brooklyn, NY apartment for this interview.
Thomas Lyttle: Tell me about your childhood. What led you to art?
Alex Grey: Most every child that's given the chance enjoys making pictures. My father was a graphic designer and artist. He encouraged my early drawing and guided my development until I became a rebellious teenager. He was probably my most important teacher; I can still remember the thrill I had while watching him draw. Now I get that same rush from doing it myself. The difference between me and most kids is that I just kept at it. A few years ago, my mother gave me a box of drawings and school materials that she had kept from my childhood. In it I found some surprising items. One was a fairly detailed drawing of a skeleton from when I was five years old. This amazed me because anatomy plays an important role in my art, which is about the subjects of identity, mortality and consciousness. Another memorable item from that box was a photograph and write-up from the hometown newspaper [Columbus, Ohio] showing me with my science project on LSD. I was 12 or 13 at the time. LSD wasn't illegal at that point, and the media presented a much more balanced view prior to 1967.
Thomas: You started your career as a medical illustrator, working with corpses, studying anatomy and the design of the body. What was that like?
Alex: My career started a long time before medical illustration. I knew I was an artist in first grade. After two years of art school, I dropped out in 1972 and painted billboards for a year. I called it Capitalist Realism and documented it as a conceptual art piece. After moving east and attending art school again for a year, I took a job in a medical school morgue where I prepared bodies for dissection. Working there provided an important understanding of our iridescent, fibrous physical anatomy and unforgettable assurance of death. I was working there in 1979, and in my studio I was painting the Sacred Mirrors, the detailed life-sized portraits of the systems of the body. Doctors saw the paintings and recommended me as a medical illustrator to a large pharmaceutical company. I worked as a medical illustrator for about 10 years. It was not my career ambition; it was a way to finance my addiction to art and support my family.
Thomas: Alex Grey isn't your birth name. Why did you change your name?
Alex: Around the age of 20, I was doing unusual performance pieces focused on the exploration of polarities. This was a somewhat naive and intuitive venture based on my dreams and visions. I hadn't yet encountered Taoism or other mystical teachings related to duality and the union of opposites. The paintings I had done as an 18 year-old focused on splitting heads and bodies; it was identity-crisis imagery. For instance, I painted a two-headed self-portrait, tearing myself in half, one side in the shadow, one side in the light. In later performance works, I kept half my head shaved for half a year. The other side of my hair was very long. I discovered that there was some scientific basis to the splitting of cerebral activity. The right hemisphere of the brain is primarily intuitive and the left hemisphere is primarily logical. Obviously, a well-functioning brain and mind will be a balance of both these forces.
One of my more dramatic polarity performances was to journey up to the North Magnetic Pole. After returning from the Pole, having spent all my money, two life-changing events occurred: At a party, I took LSD for the first time. Sitting with my physical eyes closed, my inner eye moved through a beautiful spiral tunnel. The walls of the tunnel seemed like living mother-of-pearl; it felt like a spiritual rebirth canal. I was in the darkness, spiraling toward the light. The curling space going from black to gray to white suggested to me the resolution of all polarities. My artistic rendering of this event was titled "The Polar Unity Spiral." Soon after this, I changed my name to Grey as a way of bringing the opposites together. The other life-changing event was meeting my wife, Allyson, that same evening. She was the only other person at the party who had taken LSD. We made a profound connection at that time, and have been together ever since. It's been 27 years.
Thomas: Are you left-handed or right-handed? What's your sign?
Alex: I am right-handed. I was born on November 29, 1953, which makes me a Sagittarius. I'm no astrologer, but I am interested in its symbols. The Sagittarian is a centaur archer aiming for the stars. You could say this is the sign of a philosophical idealist, someone who aims high. The horse/human hybrid aiming higher unites the animal body, the human mind and the flaming-arrow spirit. Sagittarius is also a fire sign; fire shows up strongly as a motif in my work.
Thomas: Your book The Mission of Art describes the visionary artist as spiritual seeker and his art as a spiritual tool. Do you see your art in this light, as part of a spiritual teaching?
Alex: Art can be a spiritual practice. Not all artists consider this to be true for them, but with the proper motivation and focus, it can be. A spiritual practice is an activity that enables you to develop the qualities of mental clarity, mindfulness of the moment, wisdom, compassion and access to revelations of higher mystic states of awareness. A contemplative method, such as yoga or meditation, will stabilize and assist in the progress of spiritual awareness. An artist's craft can become a contemplative method, and the creations may provide outward signs of an inner spiritual journey.
Thomas: So a tradition exists?
Alex: A complete historical account of the global visionary art tradition would fill volumes. The 16,000-year old cave paintings of human/animal hybrids, such as the "Sorcerer of Trois Freres," are a good starting point. Much ancient shamanic art, such as African ritual masks or Aboriginal rock and bark painting, clearly depict visionary dream-time wanderings and encounters in the lower and upper spirit worlds. A visionary art lesson would include representations of mythic deities and demons: the Mayan feathered serpent, Egyptian and Greek sphinxes, and Indian, Balinese and Thai portrayals of many-limbed, many-headed beings housed in complex mandalas.
Visionary art has existed and continues to exist in every culture from pre-historic to contemporary times. I write about the tradition of visionary art extensively in my book The Mission of Art and speak of it also on the audio cassette The Visionary Artist put out by Sounds True.
Thomas: What about Western mystical and visionary artists?
Alex: One of the earliest known Western mystic visionary artists was Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German nun. The icons created from her visions are direct gifts of spirit. The 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Delights" is one of the strangest paintings in the world-an encyclopedia of metamorphic plant/animal/human symbolism. Pieter Brueghel was touched with the same visionary madness. Renaissance artists like Grunewald, Durer and Michelangelo delineated the spirit of Christian mysticism and Gothic realism.
17th-century alchemical engravings detail complex philosophical mandalas pointing to union with the divine. William Blake, the 18th/19th-century mystic artist and poet, conversed with angels and received painting instructions from discarnate entities. Blake's work laid the foundations for the 19th-century symbolist and 20th century surrealist and fantastic realist movements in art.
Thomas: Is surrealist art spiritual?
Alex: The Surrealists operated in a territory without clear moral order: a dreamship adrift in the ocean of the unconscious. Artists like Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Remedios Varo and Frida Kahlo mixed images from childhood memories, adult desires and fears, sex and violence-wherever the creative currents led them. The visions of the Surrealists help to define a fantastic dream realm where any bizarre juxtaposition is possible. A profound truth resides in such strangeness, for these visions can shock us into remembering the Great Mystery.
Thomas: How did the psychedelic '60s fit into all this? Ideas of the "fantastic" and " visionary" certainly took new directions after LSD appeared.
Alex: The psychedelic '60s spawned a new kind of poster art, and led many painters in a visionary direction. Ernst Fuchs and Mati Klarwein are two of the greatest painters that came to prominence from that era and both were obviously influenced by psychedelics. In the 70's, dystopic visions of contemporary hell-worlds were stunningly portrayed in the works of H.R. Giger, famous for his work on the movie, Alien. Keith Haring, one of the most powerful artists of the 80's credited LSD as the inspiring source of his style. What unites all these various groups of artists is their unconventionally intense imaginations and their capacity to reveal "in minute particulars," as Blake would say, the full spectrum of the vast visionary dimensions of the mind.
Thomas: Where can one go to view such visionary art?
Alex: If you look with the right mindset, visionary art can be found within most museums of the world. Also, I encourage everyone to visit the American Visionary Art Museum in the Harbor area of Baltimore, Maryland. It's an incredible and unique place, well worth the trip. The most current of information regarding the field of visionary art can be found on the Internet. The most amazing and comprehensive resource for visionary artists and their admirers is Christian De Boeck's huge website (fantasticart.tripod.com) that hosts the largest, most up-to-date and historically accurate lists and links to artists. Several people are working on books on the subject of fantastic, surrealist or visionary art.
Thomas: Do you actually go into a mystical trance, see and experience the visions you show in your art?
Alex: Every artist who's really into their work disappears into the creative flow, which, I suppose can be likened to a light mystical trance. Yes, I see and experience the visions in the artwork, that is the inspirational catalyst necessary to paint them. Images come in all different ways. You can get visions when you're tripping on drugs, when you're dreaming or in a hypnogogic state before dropping off to sleep, while listening to music, or even waiting for the subway.
Thomas: Your art combines several maps of the body, mind and spirit seen from overlapping perspectives. It reminds us of psychedelics and tripping. Is this something you're comfortable with?
Alex: I've always acknowledged the importance of psychedelics regarding my work. Entheogens started me on my spiritual path and inspired a new approach to my artwork. The expanded entheogenic states of awareness allow you to see the integration of the infinite dimensions of Being, which most simply can be described as body, mind and spirit.
One of the most enjoyable things to do while stoned or tripping is to look at artwork. When you are tripping and looking at a work of art you are perceiving not only its external form, but also its context -- the invisible source, the mindset, the spiritual background -- from which it came. When the artist's source and subject is liberation and enlightenment, you access that in your contemplation of the art. Art is a charged battery of soul energy. With your viewing consciousness, you release the inherent healing and transformative potential that is embedded in the artwork.
People generally begin to understand my work after they've had some experience with the subtle visionary inner-worlds. These altered states can occur in many ways, from meditation to psychedelics to near-death experiences. A fellow in Japan came to my exhibit and showed me a five-inch elliptical scar over his heart where he had been struck nearly dead by lightning. He claimed that he had entered the "universal mind lattice," one of the Sacred Mirrors I've painted, during his near-death experience. What these various experiences or altered states have in common is the person who experiences them is profoundly transformed. They know there are dimensions beyond the physical that are deeply mysterious and equally infinite to the outer worlds.
Thomas: Most people have seen only small reproductions of your art and paintings. Can you describe the actual physical appearance of some of your works - the size, what sorts of paints, canvas and tools you like to use?
Alex: The paintings are often large in scale. Sometimes the figures are life-sized or larger, but I also do smaller paintings and drawings. I often use oil paint on linen or wood surfaces, but some of my works are also done with acrylic, occasionally using airbrush. I'm primarily a painter, but I have done sculpture cast in bronze as well.
I have a history of being a performance artist; Allyson and I have done many multimedia installations. I work in our loft, where we live with our daughter, and do not have a separate space. I like to have my family around me and my library nearby. I have giant piles of books and papers around my work area that form a kind of fortress of reference material and source of inspiration.
In The Mission of Art you mention that in the future artists will have the opportunity to create a "universal spiritual art." Can you describe this?
Alex: A universal spiritual art would be art that any person would recognize as having a spiritual intention. It would speak to the heart and soul of the individual and orient them toward the wiser and more compassionate aspect of their own being, their interconnectedness with all life and the cosmos. A universal spiritual art would return the viewer to their own ultimate identity, which lies beyond representation, but can be pointed to through our inspired visions. The challenge to artists today is to integrate the vast history of art from as many cultures as possible, to reach deep inside themselves for their own personal insights into the transcendental and allow this to coalesce into the most powerful imagery possible.
Thomas: Tell us a little about your new book, Transfigurations.
Alex: Transfigurations has over 200 color images and 90 b + w, and presents new works like "Nature of Mind", a seven-paneled Buddhist altar piece and " World Soul", a bronze sculpture of a four-faced hermaphroditic self-copulating dwarf with wings, claws and a fish's tail that took me over two years to complete. There's a foreword by Dr. Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, an essay by the eminent art critic Donald Kuspit, and a biographical portrait by transpersonal psychologist Stephen Larson. Also, there is my conversation with Ken Wilber about Art and the Integral Vision.
Thomas: What's your next project?
Alex: Many people have urged Allyson and I to build the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, where my entire "Sacred Mirrors" series and a number of related pieces could be permanently exhibited. The Chapel will be a 21st century sacred space welcoming people of all faiths and using art to encourage the spiritual transformation of each person. We are still in our early developmental stages and are reaching out to people who might have a heart connection to the work and might be willing to discuss the problems and possibilities of making this dream a reality. We are actively seeking a building site, and we have gotten several offers. Whether the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors will be under the auspices of an existing cultural organization, or be an entirely new structure, is still an open question.
The Sacred Mirrors speak to our highest aspirations as a species: universal compassion, respect for all life, a deep appreciation of all cultures and wisdom traditions, awakened consciousness and a full flowering of our human potential. In a "chapel of beauty," they could contribute to the radical raising of awareness we need if we are to successfully navigate our way to a saner, more loving and life-affirming civilization.