Turning On, Tuning In, and Painting the Results By Ken Johnson
The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in Chelsea will close at the end of this month. That may not mean much to most of the art world’s hipper denizens, but it will to visionary and psychedelic-art fans for whom the chapel has been a mecca since it opened in 2004.
Founded by the psychedelic painter Alex Grey, and his wife, the painter Allyson Grey, the chapel is a curious, over-the-top combination of art gallery, New Age temple and Coney Island sideshow. The main attraction is an installation of allegorical neo-Surrealist paintings by Mr. Grey that, in the context of a carefully orchestrated theatrical environment, is designed to transport paying visitors into states of ecstatic reverence for life, love and universal interconnectedness. (Parts of the chapel, at 542 West 27th Street, are also decorated in Ms. Grey’s rainbow-hued, grid-patterned wallpaper.)
Mr. Grey is an illustrator in the best and, frequently, lesser sense of the word. (The nonprofit chapel derives much of its income from the sale of posters and books reproducing his paintings.) In his signature imagery he depicts people with transparent skin revealing underlying muscle, bone, organs and circulatory systems; they are surrounded and penetrated by fields of cosmic energy represented by glowing linear patterns.
One of his most striking pictures shows a life-size semitransparent couple making love as incandescent wave patterns swirl around and through them. It is at once sexy, repulsive and hair-raising.
The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors proper is a long hall with red walls hung with a series of 20 life-size paintings of standing human figures that Mr. Grey made in the early ’80s. (They were exhibited at the New Museum in 1986.) They include pictures of naked racial types; images of people with skin peeled off to reveal underlying anatomical structures; and figures that have almost completely dissolved into patterns of circulating light. At one end of the hall, a radiant Jesus hangs next to a glowing Sophia, the wisdom deity, whose ample body is covered by hundreds of staring eyes.
Each painting has a faux-bronze frame carved with small symbols representing different stages of enlightenment and punctuated at the top by a round, electrically illuminated stained-glass image of an eye in the tip of a pyramid. Five golden arches in the hall are anchored by 10 “archangels”: gold-painted, cast-resin figures resembling ancient Assyrian sculptures, each with three faces, a convex mirror in its chest and wings wrapped around its columnar body.
“The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is a womb for the gestation of the awakening human spirit,” notes a guidebook available in the book and gift shop. And a core element of the chapel’s consciousness-expanding mission is belief in the power of certain ingestible substances — or, as aficionados prefer to call them, entheogens — to foster a mystically transformative experience. Mr. Grey’s 2006 portrait of the discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann, is displayed on an easel in the middle of one of the chapel’s other rooms. It’s called “St. Albert and the LSD Revelation Revolution.”
The guidebook describes a small painting titled “Seraphic Transport Docking on the Third Eye” thus: “In 2004, while journeying on Ayahuasca” (a hallucinogenic brew used by South American Indians), “Alex saw multicolored angelic beings, and alternated between witnessing the visionary realms in his head and painting them. During this series of visionary experiences, he received instructions about the appearance of and statements on the soon to-be-built walls of the Chapel.”
A well-kept secret of the mainstream art world is the role that psychedelic drugs have played in shaping and altering the course of art since the 1960s.
Visionary art is not new — see Bosch, Blake, Redon and others — but in Western society before the 1960s, it was the province of isolated individuals. Then LSD became widely available, and anyone could have mystic revelations for the small price of a little pill.
Two recent, disappointingly flawed exhibitions inadequately addressed the subject: “Summer of Love” at the Whitney Museum of American Art last year, and “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005. For the most part, mainstream discourse about art goes on as if the psychedelic revolution were just a minor, tangential distraction.
Yet evidence of psychedelic experience is everywhere in art these days, from the paintings of Takashi Murakami, Steve DiBenedetto and Philip Taaffe to the perceptually confounding sculptures of Charles Ray and the baroque films, sculptures and performances of Matthew Barney. The rapturous video installation by Pipilotti Rist now on view at the Museum of Modern Art is nothing if not psychedelic. The story of contemporary art and the psychedelic revolution remains to be told.
What’s unusual about the Greys’ project is not only that they openly acknowledge their pharmacological sources of inspiration but that they are also dedicating their psychedelic vision to the service of a kind of neo-pagan church. A sweetly charismatic couple in their mid-50s who could be mistaken for ministers of a Unitarian church, they have hosted full-moon gatherings every month where they and others sermonize, tell stories, sing and play music, recite poetry and otherwise try to promote spiritual enlightenment.
And hundreds have attended their regularly sponsored Entheocentric Salon, an all-night party involving, according to the guidebook, “live painting, video projections, local and international DJs and musicians, live performances, lectures and visionary conversations.”
A natural anxiety about all this is that it might turn into an electric Kool-Aid-drinking, snake-oil-selling cult. The Greys said in an interview that they want to promote only the most responsible and carefully structured use of entheogens in contexts that promote psychological and spiritual well-being and positive illumination for individuals and communities. Equally important, they added, are other techniques of “accessing the divine,” like meditation and yoga.
While the chapel in Chelsea will close with a New Year’s Eve party, the Greys’ project will not come to an end. Through the chapel’s corporation and with help from donors, they have bought a 40-acre plot of land in the upstate town of Wappinger, where they plan to rebuild the chapel and develop an interfaith retreat center. There, eventually, they intend to construct a great four-story, domed temple to house the Sacred Mirror paintings and provide a place for rites of cosmic consciousness.
Art world sophisticates may call the Greys’ project goofy, but in this scary time of economic implosion, their investment in spiritual expansion might just be the smartest of all.