Art that looks beneath surface appearances by Jolene Thym
Human figures with translucent skin are shown praying, meditating, kissing and giving birth. Their poses seem natural enough, but their veins, bones, muscles and teeth are disconcertingly visible.
The paintings, which look much like illustrations from a science museum or medical text, are sometimes called X-ray art. But artist Alex Grey likes to think of his works as spiritual revelations. "My work is about those moments when you can see beyond the veil, when you see that you are connected with everything," Grey said. "By making the body transparent, people are able to see the flow, to see how I am pictorializing a feeling."
A collection of Grey's large, brilliant works depicting the human body, "Numinous Flesh: Paintings by Alex Grey," is on display through May 20 at the John F. Kennedy University Arts and Consciousness Gallery in Berkeley.
Grey, 43, has work in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, where he lives, and in the San Diego Art Museum. His paintings have been used on album art for groups such as Nirvana and the Beastie Boys, and to illustrate a book of songs for Talking Heads. But the general public has not always found his art to be palatable. Grey started out painting billboards but spent his early years as an artist creating controversial performance pieces, including two that involved dog corpses and one that used a human brain. For yet another performance, called "Apex," in 1976, Grey suspended himself with chains and a harness inside a triangular structure, where he remained for two hours.
But he says that after an epiphany brought on by a particularly heavy dose of LSD, he refocused his artistic energy and began painting representational, spiritual narratives. He says that those works, which almost always include anatomically perfect, skinless bodies, are a reflection of his research of Eastern religions and practices, particularly Buddhism.
His first works depicting transparent-skinned body parts illustrated male and female sex organs, which he painted in 1985. Those works, both included in the Berkeley exhibition, were followed by a series of figurative works that depict people experiencing everything from birth to death. That series, " Sacred Mirrors," was published in a book by the same name ($29.95 Inner Traditions International), which has been translated into five languages.
Grey's X-ray-style figures are the result of years of informal research, including several years at the Harvard Medical School, where he prepared cadavers for the medical museum and the anatomy lab.
"I took the job in order to have the opportunity to explore," he explained. "It was like opening a book. Once you see the complexity of the interwoven systems of the human body, you realize that it is a million times more complex that you could have imagined. I have a tremendous sense of awe for the unfathomability of the human tissue."
His figures typically incorporate the skeletal system as well as a mass of veins and capillaries. Other organs, such as the intestine, liver, brain, esophagus and genitals, are only added if they enhance the theme of the work, he says.
In "Adam and Eve" (1988), the esophagus, stomach and intestine are visible in this depiction of the first man and woman. In "Dieties and Demons Drinking from the Milky Pool" (1987), the brain is highlighted. In the largest work, the 60-by-180-inch "Theologue" (1986), the spine become the focus.
Although Grey is obsessive about the accuracy of his illustrations of the skeletal, muscular and cardiovascular systems, his depiction of the spiritual energy focuses on less tangible evidence. "These paintings are really about my own experience, about the balance of energies and the resolving of dualities," he said. Many of the works reflect his interest in what he calls the "subtle" forces, such as acupressure and acupuncture points, chakras and other non-allopathic healing systems.
Grey admits that not all of the people who see his work will detect his references to Tibetan teachings, Hinduism, Buddhism and various metaphysical healing theories, but he maintains that most people will be drawn to the work.
"My sense is that art should correspond to people, that all people should be able to connect with it, at least in the most basic way. Here, you have the human form. You have the act of birth. There is familiarity there," he said.
He said that although they share the strangeness found in surrealist paintings, his works are thematically incongruous with surrealism. "Most surrealists are pointing up the absurdity of reality, but my work is about ideal states, which is more in line with what religious art has sought to do since the beginning," he said.
Most of Grey's canvasses are not for sale, he added, because he and his wife hope to one day display them in a religious setting to underscore their spiritual elements. Grey has designed a chapel, and he and his wife are currently researching property on Staten Island for its construction. They have set up a foundation to help finance the project, but still have a lot of fund-raising to do before they begin the project, Grey says.
Featured Art 'Adam & Eve' by Alex Grey