Excerpts from A Spiraling, Eye-Encrusted Overview of the Art of Alex Grey
by Jonathan Zap
On the morning I started writing this, a five-year-old named Caleb happened to be visiting the house and interrupted my writing session to tell me (and this is an exact quote):
“Jonathan, I see ghosty things other people don’t see.”
I was tempted to reply: “That’s interesting because I just started writing about a grown-up named Alex Grey who also sees ghosty things other people don’t see.” Instead, I asked Caleb to describe one of the ghosty things, and he said he saw a cupcake with a “skeleton head” in it. There were more details I couldn’t quite follow due to the limits of his five-year-old vocabulary and his unfortunate inability to paint like Alex Grey. This synchronistic incident was a timely, and somewhat eerie, reminder of why we need Alex Grey—he sees ghosty things other people don’t see and he does paint like Alex Grey.
In fact, Alex Grey can paint unseen, ghosty things to a degree of potency that can only be compared to a Thor-hammer blow to the head while your body is being strafed by DMT-coated diamond bullets. Scientific testing indicates that some of Alex’s paintings generate phased bursts of nuclear magnetic resonance. This type of scalar wave NMR has been linked to high-lumen retro-chronal causation effects (sometimes called “balefire“), which are capable of matrix deletion of toxic patriarchal structures extending into the past. For example, ever since Alex began painting Net of Being, I can no longer find any record online, or anywhere, of Rasputin‘s two decade reign over Oceania. At their best, Alex’s paintings seem like unauthorized glimpses through the interstices of the matrix, the fever dreams of third-stage, space-folding Guild Navigators living in giant tanks of pure spice gas causing illegal ruptures in the space-time continuum. (Note to literalists: The above are what are called “jokes,” so stop asking me to clarify or document.)
For less than seventy dollars you can own all three of Alex’s monographs—Sacred Mirrors, Transfigurations and the just published Net of Being. Holding these three books in my hands, I feel like I have paid the least price possible to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, or at least the glossy paper version of an alchemical portal of some kind. I feel like I am holding a spiraling, eye-encrusted atlas of the hidden realms. No home would ever be complete without this trilogy on the shelf available for spiritual cartography, easy reference to the unseen and bottomless rabbit holes on demand.
When Terence McKenna was asked what we should do given the dire state of the world, he replied: “Push the art pedal to the metal.” Alex has pushed the art pedal past the heavy metal darkness of H.R. Giger, past the existential despair of post-modernism and trendy nihilism, past the heat ripple distortions of the collective asphalt and into the forbidden realms under-glowing the meat puppet antics of the Babylon Matrix. Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce’s literary alter ego, summed up an aeon when he said, “History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” Alex follows trails of red pills down rabbit holes, waking up repeatedly from the nightmare of history to see through the world that’s been pulled over our eyes. Quite a number of people have had parallel voyages of discovery, but the difference is that Alex brought back to us high-resolution images from across the threshold. For this reason, I see Alex as belonging to humanity, in much the same way as I see the Mars Curiosity Rover with its seventeen cameras, the best optics we’ve ever had roving across the surface of another world, to be public property.
The presumption I make in writing this essay, a presumption that some may find arrogant, is that in return for the two Alex Grey calendars I have purchased, plus up to a dozen of the postcards, perhaps as many as a half dozen of the much more expensive lenticular postcards, and a couple of his books, I am entitled to view myself as a majority shareholder in the Alex Grey enterprise with the right to offer all kinds of evaluations and suggestions about how the enterprise should go forward. Part of this presumption comes with the character flaws of being a demanding and egocentric mutant, but part of it is because Alex belongs to humanity, our high-definition, eye-encrusted Curiosity Rover exploring forbidden, unseen realms. We all have a vested interest in seeing that his high-stakes artistic mission succeeds.
Much of Alex’s work is intended to be an illustration of classic phases of spiritual transformation. But, as Alex and his work recognize, there are spaces where spiritual transformation and evolutionary metamorphosis overlap and coalesce like the multi-Janus-faced entities of Net of Being. Much has already been written, including by Alex, of the classic spiritual face of his work. In part two of this essay I will focus my gaze on the evolutionary metamorphic face of his work, and point out the myriad ways it manifests what I call the Singularity Archetype.
In addition to the enormous value of his work, Alex also has great value to us as what I call a “talismanic personality.” In a review of the movie, Lincoln, I describe a talismanic personality as follows:
A talismanic personality is one that is numinous and inspiring, an exemplar of wholeness that reminds us of what Lincoln called the ‘better angels’ of human nature. In the presence of a talismanic personality, all that is superficially glamorous is revealed as the shoddy, mediocre product of false personality and inflated ego.
Alex personifies a person who is in touch with and coming from what Alistair Crowley called “True Will.” He is someone who recognized his mission in life very early on and has been faithfully pursuing it. By the time he was five years old, Alex had already completed a number of drawings of skulls and skeletons and other visual motifs reflecting his creative preoccupation with death.
Alex’s self-portrait entitled Life Cycle, drawn at age 17, is a brilliant revelation of his essence and life mission. His eyes are obsessively focused, and he is an image of alchemical tension, with one hand touching the boundary between a fetus and a corpse and the other hand raised in prayer. He seems to be surrounded by ancestral spirits.
Alex recognizes and fulfills the foundational core of most True Will: commitment to consciousness and service to others. Also, unlike many of the folks that Alex finds to be talismanic personalities (highly talented people with enormous, unintegrated shadows—more about this later), Alex seems to be consistently benign, gentle and generous with the people who encounter him. He is not the sort of genius, like Picasso, who is best appreciated from a safe distance.
Alex, An Invisible Giant in the Realm of Art Worldlings.
As far as I can tell, Alex Grey is invisible in the world of “serious art.” First, according to the postmodern world, spirituality is an incorrect subject for art, literature, film or any sort of culture. The only correct subject for “serious literature,” as Robert McKee has pointed out, are downbeat stories about failed relationships. Spirituality is considered the domain of evangelicals and the hoi polloi, and is far too unsophisticated a subject for art of any kind. Also, the use of skill in artwork, and accurately rendered representational images, indicates an amateurish rube whose art could never be taken seriously.
Net of Being excerpts what is probably the only time the New York Times condescended to notice Alex Grey’s existence. Reporting on the closing of The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, the Times informs us that the chapel was “…a curious, over-the-top combination of art gallery, New Age temple and Coney Island sideshow.” The tone of the article suggests that it is generously restraining the devastating sarcasm it might otherwise unleash if it weren’t showing good natured, bemused tolerance for any readers who might have fond memories of this quaint and colorful little New Age theme park that was closing anyway. The chapel, the Times continues, was a “theatrical environment…designed to transport paying visitors into states of ecstatic reverence for life, love and universal interconnectedness.” The sophisticated reader is meant to admire the tasteful restraint with which the Times implies that here was a place where suckers actually paid money to see a bunch of New Age clichés. I wonder how many Times reviews of exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art specified “paying visitors”?
The sophisticated person is supposed to have thoroughly demystified sex into a series of hydraulic transactions that high art should view cynically, emphasizing the lurid and grotesque aspects. Alex, in paintings like Kissing, Copulating, Embracing, and Tantra, violates this taboo by revealing the as above, so below interconnection of sexuality and spirituality. Promiscuity, the current patriarchal norm, is often just as toxic as the old patriarchal norm of harsh taboos. (see my essay: Born under a Blood Red Moon—Metamorphosis of the Feminine in the Dreams of Young Women) Contemporary promiscuity and harsh taboos are opposite sides of the same patriarchal and unerotic coin. (Eros is defined in many different ways in psychology, philosophy and popular culture. Here it is used to refer to the capacity for oceanic merger with other beings.) What are sometimes called erotic images are often depictions of unerotic sex on the level of the genitalia. Alex’s erotic images transcend both sides of the patriarchal view of sex. In a way, his images are more explicit than pornography, which exposes the topography of naked bodies. Alex’s images make the skin transparent so we see the internal organs. At the same time he reveals the interpenetration and merger of bioenergetic and spiritual energy fields. Professor Emeritus of Physiological Science at UCLA, Valerie V. Hunt, has done experiments that demonstrate that in many cases strangers sitting near each other (in laboratory conditions where they can’t hear, see, or smell if another person is nearby) will have potent effects on each other’s bioenergetic fields, which will tend to become mutually entrained. Imagine how much greater these effects are if, instead of proximal strangers that can’t be detected by ordinary senses, we have two people having sex. This is why there can be no such thing as “casual sex.” Sex is not casual on the microbiological plane—it can begin a new life and it can sometimes end a life through STDs like AIDS. As below, so above. It is also not casual on the bioenergetic and spiritual energetic planes. Many of the people who admire Alex’s artwork (Burning Man folk, etc.) don’t seem to get this aspect of what it reveals, and are still naively promiscuous, or even fall for the pre/trans fallacy and believe that sexual antics are daring, avant-garde and transcendent of the conventional. (see Incendiary Person in the Desert Carnival Realm for a critique of Burning Man eros) If you’ve looked at Alex’s paintings and you still believe in “casual sex,” you have not really seen them.
Growing up in New York City and taking the subway on a daily basis I was always fascinated by the forbidden third rail, crackling with 625 volts of lethal electricity. It was both dangerous and fascinating, and a powerful taboo forbade ever going near it. But there was always, and is still, some counterphobic desire to draw near to it, to see what it would be like close up. I feel my hand wanting to reach for it. I, I can’t stop myself, I am going to touch it right now: ABORTION.
Alex’s artwork has profound implications concerning abortion. Many people who look at it don’t see this, just as they don’t see its implications for casual sex. Alex’s painting Pregnancy and his series of paintings in Transfigurations that begin with Attraction, and continue through Penetration, Fertilization, and Buddha Zygote, illustrate phases in the development of embryo and fetus with medical illustrator exactitude.
They also address an issue that many would prefer to skirt around: When is a soul associated with a developing human body? In Alex’s paintings, the answer seems to be conception. Alex paints soul mandalas even at the moment just before conception. He is illustrating a Buddhist teaching that souls choose to enter the organic world at the moment of conception. Valerie Hunt, on the other hand, based not on science but on what she claims is a near consensus of intuitives, says that it is after the first trimester. Perhaps there is a necessary degree of tissue complexity, and especially neural complexity, before a body can house a psyche. Here’s my position on the subject: I don’t know. What I do know is that this is the essential question that needs to be addressed before I can know what to think of abortion. Abortion is not merely a political third rail; it is also an ontological third rail. How and when do psyche and physiology associate and how and when do they disassociate? (see: The Glorified Body—Metamorphosis of the Body and the Crisis Phase of Human Evolution). I don’t know if the association in Alex’s paintings is correct, but his images are powerful reminders to me that I don’t know, and that this crucial, unanswered question crackles with dangerous electricity.
Darkness, the shadow, and death haunted Alex from the youngest age. As mentioned earlier, Alex was drawing skulls and skeletons by age five. By age ten, he created two powerful images: Grim Reaper and Graveyard Study and by the time he was seventeen, when he created his self-portrait, Life Cycle, his connection to the charged boundary between life and death was self-aware and profound. In Life Cycle, his hand, already the hand of an accomplished artist, touches the boundary between a fetus and a corpse. In a 1996 interview, Alex traces his awareness of darkness and light back to the crib, and his earliest memories:
My very first memories are of lying in my crib and seeing textures in my mind. I felt immersed in a pure, blissful, milky white light—an ecstatic peaceful space. Then I remember a gnarly snaggle-branched, brownish black shadow moving into that space from the periphery of my perception, coming in clumps, and then taking over. This ugly swarming texture would engulf and terrify me, obliterating all the light. Then little islands of bright purity would appear. These pools of milky luminescence would clear away the gnarly texture and I’d have a white-light ocean again. The visions of psychic texture were like yin-yang energies, a constant flux of the universal energies of clarity and chaos, peace and panic, light and darkness, hope and despair. My entire life has been conditioned by the oscillation of those opposing abstract fields.
Alex was born “Alex Velzy.” At age twenty, he changed his name to Grey as a gesture toward his struggle to harmonize the dark and light principles battling within him. By keeping Velzy as his middle name his initials became “AVG,” the abbreviation of “average.”
Especially in his twenties, Alex became creatively obsessed with death and darkness. He worked in morgues and did art projects with corpses. Much of this dark creativity took the form of performance art that Alex now considers “transgressive.” All of this is well documented in his books, so I’m not going to rehash his transgressive phase here. Obsession with darkness is not uncommon in both creative and uncreative people and, in the postmodern world, is considered a much more acceptable subject for art than spirituality. Alex, however, brought his profound originality and penetrating vision to the shadow realms and dark aspects. My first conversations with Alex relate to an area of dark, paranormal investigation that I call “mind parasites.” I wrote about some of Alex’s related experiences and art in Alex Grey and the Mind Parasites In 2006 I brought him on to Coast-to-Coast AM where George Noory and I interviewed Alex on the subject of mind parasites.
Alex has a great deal to contribute to our understanding of dark forces and shadow realms. I also think that his transforming relationship to light and dark needs to keep transforming. There may even be an area or two where the transformation has gotten stuck, and where his understandable preference for light over dark has led to certain areas of idealization and shadow denial. In his latest book, Net of Being, there is a small photo, almost lost in a large collection of small photos, showing Alex with a variety of well-known persons, which seems to unintentionally illustrate a polarization that has occurred in Alex’s relationship to darkness.
H.R. Giger, whom Alex appropriately describes as a “morbid genius,” is on one side of the photo, Alex on the other, and standing between them is transpersonal psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof. Giger, Groff, Grey. I feel that this photo should be entitled: Stanislav Grof Standing Protectively between the Wizard of Darkness and the Wizard of Light so as to Prevent an Anti-matter Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Implosion that could Irreversibly Damage the Space-Time Continuum. The crackling, plasmic fields of boundary tension and cognitive dissonance as Giger and Grey were briefly in the same room together almost certainly created a profound disturbance in the Force. One shudders to think of the light saber battle that could have ensued if Grof weren’t there to stand between them. This photo could be the subject of a collaborative painting that might actually seal the breech between the light and dark sides of the Force. Giger would paint the left side of the canvas, which would include him and would no doubt be teeming with intricate, extraterrestrial, parasitic/heavy metal forms. The left side of Groff would be illustrated as infected with a burst-from-the-abdomen-type extraterrestrial parasite (as seen in the movie, Alien). Alex would paint the right side of the canvass filling it with a shimmering lattice of eyes and spiral galaxies. The right side of Groff would obviously have glowing transparent anatomy.
The Giger-Groff-Grey photo seems to illustrate the polarization problem that characterizes Alex’s current relationship to darkness. Giger’s identification with darkness is so absolute that it would be easier to imagine Megadeth performing a Dorris Day cover than it would be to imagine a ray of light entering a Giger image. Alex’s relationship to light and dark has been much more dynamic, and yet we can sense that Giger is now his unintegrated doppelgänger, the two of them able to appear together only with a powerful psychiatrist like Stanislav Grof standing between them. Giger might also be the only person that I’ve heard Alex tell a negative anecdote about. Alex asked Giger if he ever tried LSD and he responded with German mad scientist paranoia: “No! It is forbidden!”
Competing with Alex’s sometimes-extraordinary ability to integrate shadow, is his tendency to idealize spiritual traditions, spiritual practitioners and certain other people. While Alex is often vivid in depicting the shadow side of the West, of exploitative capitalism, etc. he is not so uninhibited in depicting the shadow sides of spiritual traditions. I wouldn’t comment on this, except that shadow integration is a major theme of his artwork. Alex, who knows I’m writing this and will be critical of his shadow integration wrote:
“Jonathan, just wanted you to know that there is a special structure planned at CoSM for engagement with the shadow. It goes with a mythic tale I’m spinning about the current darkness humanity is facing. The land will host pavilions for engaging different levels of the dismemberment of Mother Nature.”
In some ways, Alex’s generous view of others is a product of his spiritual maturity and lack of competitive egocentrism. His attitude toward people, like that of my friend Rob Brezsny, sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable because it highlights my more sarcastic view of a lot of people. I can experience myself as more spiritually immature, and competitively egocentric by contrast. I heard Alex’s wife, Allyson Grey say, “I’m a Russian Jew, and Russian Jews are angry.” That’s my background, and I’m from the Bronx, so perhaps that explains part of the difference. I’m more likely to be confrontational than tolerant of others who are doing things I find objectionable.
I could feel this difference in temperament and attitude toward others’ failings in my last face-to-face conversation with Alex, which was at Area 51/ Burning Man 2012. Mostly we talked about the Singularity Archetype, and seemed to be on a common wavelength, but when I asked Alex what he thought about the somewhat disillusioning revelations about Terence McKenna that had come out recently from his brother Dennis, (See: On the Disillusioning Revelations about Terence McKenna) Alex vehemently dismissed them and launched into a spirited defense of Terence. As an admirer of Terence, I could see where Alex was coming from, but I was interested in discussing these newly revealed character flaws for the depth they would add to our picture of him. Alex seemed to regard them as distractions from the need to idealize Terence.
I felt Alex’s tendency to idealize was an unconscious reflex, but in an interview with Joe Rogan on October 10, 2012, Alex brings his feelings to the surface as a conscious policy:
“What we like to do is trash all of our heroes, make them as low as possible, so that you have no hope about human character, and I think that is a shame.”
This is a legitimate point. We do live in an anti-heroic age, and age where we like to trash talk the high and mighty and are fascinated with celebrity scandals. On the other hand, there are self-promoting charlatans who enforce their own idealization and whose unintegrated shadows make them a hazard to others. (For a recent example, see: American Cyclopath.)
Alex, who is a genuinely talismanic personality and worthy of some idealization, is unfortunately a promoter of certain influential persons who could be hazardous to idealize. In Net of Being there is a photo of Alex standing next to the abusive guru Andrew Cohen. Alex has also invited Andrew to speak at CoSM and has had some public dialogues with him. (For more on Andrew Cohen’s abusive history see the book, American Guru, the website Whatenlightenment? and the sarcastically entitled The Mother of God—a book by Andrew’s own mother denouncing the abusive cult tactics she witnessed.)
Public Alex / Studio Alex
The creative cycle demands an audience, yet there are many cultural obstacles and negative reactions with which the artist must cope. Many artists seek the perpetual shelter of the studio, yet feel the internal ache of incompletion of their creative cycle and yearn to have their voice join the cultural choir. The difficulties encountered with galleries, museums, and collectors leave some artists feeling bitter and rejected.
—Alex Grey, The Mission of Art
For many creative artists there is a difficult discernment to make about how much time and energy to spend in solitary creation, public performance, interacting with the public and being involved in various marketing/promotional activities. I struggle with this discernment myself, but I usually prioritize the development of original content over the more extroverted choices. If there is no original content, then there is nothing of value to promote, market, perform or interact with the public about. A stance I try to follow is expressed in Zap Oracle card #169, “Do the Work Only You Can Do” which includes the following words:
It is humbling and appropriate that a lot of the work we do can easily be done by others. Somebody has to do it, and it is only fair that we do our share of some of the maintenance work necessary to keep the whole human experience going. But if you incarnated to fulfill a unique mission, then you must give that mission priority. If the creative muse wants to work through you, then you must do what is necessary to allow that to happen. On a more personal level, we may be here to work with particular people, to have particular relationships. In such cases only you can be the father or mother to your children, only you can be the particular friend, spiritual ally, parent, teacher, etc. to some other particular person. There is also unique work you have to do for yourself — only you can work on your relationship to yourself, only you can write in your journal, only you are fully responsible for your health, and so forth. Prioritize doing the work only you can do.
Based on this stance, an artist like Alex Grey, who has a mission to bring an original vision to the world, cannot compromise that goal. If he neglected being a father to his daughter, or taking care of his health, those would be mission failures too, because those are also works that only he can do. Only Alex can interact with the public as the direct personification of his art mission. However, even amongst the works that only you can do there is a hierarchy of value and priority. It is more important for Alex to create the art that only he can do, than for him to be the public personification of it, since the former is prerequisite to the later. More extrinsic work, such as building maintenance and keeping the books at CoSM are not work that only Alex can do, and if he is able to outsource those jobs, which he probably does, he should. And then there are grey areas, promotional and marketing activities, teaching, public performance painting and so forth that are sometimes work only he can do, but which may also distract or take energy from the most intrinsic work, the development of the most powerful original content which probably occurs during solitary studio time. Relating to the creative muse involves a complexity of layers and forces— some more intrinsic, some more extrinsic. There are some nearly universal principles, but no one-size-fits-all formula for navigating this highly individualized relationship.
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