Alex GreyAlex Grey is a phenomenal illustrator whose work has been featured in Newsweek and The New York Times, on the cover of Juxtapoz Magazine and as album cover art for rock and hip hop bands like Tool, Nirvana and the Beastie Boys. You've probably seen his stuff. What is remarkable about Grey's work is his ability to merge the spiritual with the scientific, and his hard earned approach to find truths in the world's various traditions of belief -- without being enslaved to the divisive dogmas of the same. Grey sees creative activity as a spiritual path and sees his own progress in art as a migration from an egocentric perspective to social awareness, before finally arriving at what he terms is a 'theocentric' view of existence and being.
Long obsessed with mortality and decay Grey used to collect dead insects and animals as a child in his native Columbus, Ohio to bury in his back yard. In the early 1970's he dropped out of art school to work as a billboard illustrator. At about this time he began to do performances which included shaving half of his head (leaving the other side long) stamping '666' on people's foreheads while dressed as a soldier and running around naked at the earth's magnetic north pole -- all as an exploration of polarity!
In 1975 he enrolled at the Boston Museum School to study with conceptual artist Jay Jaroslav where he met his future wife Allyson Rymland Grey during his first acid trip. By his own admission Grey's artwork during this time was 'dark.' Working with corpses (Grey obtained a job as an assistant in the morgue at the Harvard Medical School) as well as preserved embryos Grey had some nightmarish visions which concluded with an authoritarian voice telling him to try and create more positive works. During this time Grey also participated in Mind/Body studies with Dr. Herbert Benson and Dr. Joan Borysenko.
The Sacred Mirror Series of paintings was commenced when Alex was employed at Harvard. This was a series of images portraying human beings in various pivotal moments: praying, dying, copulating, giving birth. Doctors were so impressed with the skill of Alex's rendering that he was able to begin work as a professional medical illustrator.
Alex Grey has been an instructor in artistic anatomy at New York University and teaches with Allyson at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado and at the Open Center in New York City. Together they are one of the great art couples with Alex's figurative art and Allyson's more abstract art complimenting one another in the Brooklyn apartment they share with their daughter Zena. They have also done numerous performances together.
Alex Grey's themes have advanced beyond obsession with mortality to an insight into transcendence and the nature of consciousness that is apparent in both his artwork and his writings. His first book Sacred Mirrors has sold over 75,000 copies internationally, which is very impressive for an art book. The Grey's have also built and maintained an artistic 'church': The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM) featuring the couple's art and that of their friends at 540 W. 27th Street, 4th Floor, New York City, NY 10001. The purpose of CoSM, says Alex, is to try and approach the "paucity of sacred art in the modern art world." The decline of religious art in the last 200 years is something that Grey believes has lead to a dearth of meaning in modern consciousness and existential malaise. I met Alex Grey at the Mind States IV Festival in the summer of 2005 in San Francisco and began a correspondence with Allyson and himself not long thereafter. What follows is the fruit of that correspondence.
S: What's behind the pun in CoSM?
S: In my art I try to emphasize that we are related to the stars. What the stars are made of we are also made of and that's an amazing potential. Artists today have means of observing the natural world, the cosmos and human physiology, in a manner that artists 100's of years ago couldn't have imagined. I'm speaking of the Hubble Space Telescope and the electron microscope to name just two instances. I've also been trying to establish a new system of iconography that refers to older spiritual traditions but is not completely dependent on them. My main spiritual direction, after art, is towards Buddhism, but I like to incorporate what is beautiful or true in say Christianity or Suffism, which is the meditative and esoteric practice of Islam, into my work. I also wish to draw on what we've learned from our tools of scientific observation. So yes there is a reverence here for the cosmos in the name 'CoSM.'
Species: I'm familiar with some of the practices and perceptions of Buddhism but what is the emphasis of Dzogchen, the school of Buddhism that you identify with?
AG: The view of Dzogchen is that we are already enlightened except that we don't realize it yet. The enlightened state is obscured by our karma and everyday distractions. The practices of Dzogchen awaken us to our Buddha nature through accessing the state of non-duality that incorporates the emptiness that is our primal ground of being and all realms of manifestation. Dzogchen is characterized as the highest teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. Garab Dorje and Padmasambhava are two important yogis of the Dzogchen lineage, Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to Tibet and is the author of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
S: If one of the principle themes of your art is consciousness what have you discovered, if anything, is true about human consciousness?
AG: Consciousness is multi-dimensional, simultaneously occurring on many levels from the gross physical to the super-conscious. It is my feeling that consciousness survives bodily death.
S: You have been candid about your own use of psychedelic drugs and hallucinogenic plants in the manifestation of your art, what kinds of resistance has this admission encountered? There is, for instance, a lot of fear concerning kids doing drugs in this society right now.
AG: I don't encourage anyone to do drugs. In my lectures I mention personal entheogenic (psychedelic) experiences that I have had such as becoming one with all beings and things in a network of love and light or dissolving into a universal mind lattice when under the influence of LSD or other substances. These mystical experiences have had a positive influence on my art. There are many dangers associated with the psychedelic spiritual path though. The legal ramifications are not the least of these. I don't think young kids should do drugs. They should be strengthening their egos and identity, not dissolving them prematurely.
My work scares some people because the Divine Imagination can be a frightening place as anyone who has tripped knows is true. The "legitimate" art world has problems with my work sometimes because a lot of critics still feel that only the deconstructionist postmodern worldview is worthy subject matter for modern artists. What I do also challenges a lot of the entrenched materialism around today. I regard height and depth and subjective states that determine meaning in life. I'm not painting flat surfaces. I attempt to integrate many areas of inquiry: art, science and religion: things that are seen as cause of much of the fragmentation in today's world. This is against pure nihilism and narcissism of which I think there is too much of in the art world currently.
S: Why are psychedelics lumped in with narcotic powders in the War on Drugs?
S: Your approach to human belief that you've described, and which is present in your art, is syncretist, like many of the art and culture movements of the Sixties, combining elements from different belief systems as you have described. Many religious believers are tribal and dogmatic. There are Christians and Moslems who see the other faith as evil while disparaging the more progressive or esoteric movements within their own belief systems (Catholic persecutions of Gnosticism, Islamic rejections of the Sufis). Having known many fundamentalist Christians as well as a few fundamentalist Moslems (through my taxi driving job), observing American culture wars and having visited Northern Ireland, it seems to me that a large portion of humanity prefers strict rule black and white beliefs to more nuanced interpretations. As a visionary how do you deal with this?
AG: I prefer to focus on the unity of human experience rather than our divisive differences.
S: What is a possible way to derail religious wars?
AG: Love everyone. Pray. Create centers and support public forums where tolerance and unity is the only imperative. Have friendly conversations with those whose views are most divergent from your own.
S: How did you meet like-minded individuals?
AG: They found me through my artwork.
S: Many of your works are oil based but what is your preferred medium for painting?
AG: I alternate between oil painting and acrylic painting. Painting while I travel, I can only carry water-based mediums. In the studio I prefer oil painting. To me, paint is like the skin of my psyche. It was Rembrandt that made me realize the correspondence between paint and human skin.
S: When did you discover the Gospel of Thomas and what does it offer that is not present in established Christianity?
AG: The Gnostic Gospels, and specifically the Gospel of Thomas offers a mystical Jesus whose pronouncements resonate with perennial wisdom. For instance, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "Cleave a piece of wood and I am there.," explaining how the Christ principle is everywhere. That sort of "unity consciousness" is not present in the other Gospels. Jesus also talks about being beyond birth and death, male and female. When one knows that state one knows Christ. The Gospel of Thomas resonates with the non-dual view of Dzogchen.
S: Having been an anatomical illustrator and morgue technician you've acquired a breathtakingly disciplined approach to the human body. Do you recommend scientific training to visual artists?
AG: I recommend studying what you need to know to create the art that you are moved to create. The study of consciousness and a meditation on mortality was important to my work. Anatomical study would be irrelevant to some artists, but is useful if an artist is going to incorporate the figure in their work. For my work, a detailed presentation of human anatomy was important groundwork for making art about the nature of consciousness because, while we are alive, consciousness resides in the body.
S: The painting series "Journey of a Wounded Healer" seems a note-perfect interpretation of Mircea Eliade's description of shamanic initiation where a candidate for shamanism becomes ill, "dies" and descends into the underworld where they are dismembered by demonic spirits and then put back together and resurrected with the ability to heal. Have you actually experienced this?
AG: The triptych "Journey of the Wounded Healer" does come out of my experience. I painted it soon after moving to New York City, that is an initiation of sorts. By the way, "Journey of the Wounded Healer" is now on view at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors.
S: In your book The Mission of Art you comment on the moral or ethical responsibility of an artist. How does this differ from the amoral approach?
AG: Well I think when Congress tries to mediate and censor the various art forms one way or another that most artists and most of the general public find that offensive. Both socialists and fascist societies have imposed on artists what sorts of subject matter are important in order to contribute to their respective ideas of what society should be like. As American independent thinkers and contemporary artists we don't like that. On the other hand I think a lot of contemporary art is enmeshed in a complete and utter moral chaos and decadent obsession with violence. This is reflected in much of the pop culture. I think it's a legitimate question for the individual artist to raise: is conscience an aspect of art making? Are there ethics involved? What does my art support? Does it support the long-term survival of the species? Does it have any hope to it? Artists certainly don't want to be preached at and I think we should have as much freedom as possible but I think there are responsibilities that go with freedom. At the same time some nihilistic work does have legitimacy in that we live in a world with much violence and sadism and to ignore that and paint only birds and flowers is to produce saccharine. I prefer to paint what I think are positive works but it's actually very difficult to do: paint something affirmative without being schmaltzy.
S: What led you to go to the Magnetic North Pole and how did you go about getting there?
AG: The study of polarities in my art led me to the desire to visit the North Magnetic Pole. It is the place where the geo-magnetic lines of force come into the earth. All compasses point to Magnetic North and this location is distinct from the geographic north pole.
The North Magnetic Pole is located in Resolute Bay, Canada, within the Arctic Circle. I obtained permission to visit there by writing to the Canadian government and telling them that I was a photo journalist working on a story about life in one of the most isolated communities in the world. I got there by flying in progressively smaller and smaller airplanes and then a snowmobile. The performance that I did there, entitled "Polar Wandering" refers to the curious phenomenon whereby the pole itself, an area of approximately 100 miles in circumference, is in motion, shifting a few degrees annually. Geo-magnetic cartographers continually revise the maps to reflect the "polar wandering" affect.
S: How did you deal with the climatic extremes in that location?
AG: My camera needed to have hot packs around it to keep the mechanism from freezing and I purchased special clothing and hand warmers for the trip. Noticing the sun going around in a circle in the sky and the compass spinning at the point of magnetic north, I decided to take my clothes off and run around in a circle in the snow. Since the temperature was 30 degree below zero, this was shocking to my body. It became life threatening when the snowmobile would not start and my feet lost all feeling. I quickly dressed and ran back to the camp, as feeling returned to my feet.
S: Both the Greys and Joe Coleman are noted as technically refined painters and performers and first began attracting attention in New York in the 70's. Was there something in the air then and there?
AG: Narrative painting was considered dead in the 70's. With the domination of color field painting, minimalism and abstraction in general, installation/performance was the only place where content and meaning was respected in art. There has always been a vital subculture of people who kept the fires of mysticism and subversion alive. The incredibly psychedelic filmmaker, Harry Smith, went virtually unnoticed throughout his life, living in the Chelsea hotel in the 70's.
S: What inspired you to perform as well as paint and were there antecedents?
AG: My father made a living as a graphic designer and inspired me to be an artist at an early age. I received notice and awards and was encouraged as a young artist in Columbus, Ohio. In an act of rebellion, I threw away a full scholarship to art college and all the accolades, to do performances in which I observed a rotting dog, used explosives, and lay in excrement.
The Sacred Mirrors Series came from a participatory performance Allyson and I did called "Life Energy" . For one part of the experience, I created life-sized ink drawings of the physical and esoteric systems of the body. Participants were invited to stand in front of these charts and mirror their own physiology and subtle energy. Allyson suggested that it might make a wonderfully developed series of paintings, and then she named them "Sacred Mirrors."
S: When did you get the idea to conceive CoSm?
AG: In 1985, we were approached by a collector who wanted to purchase the entire Sacred Mirrors series. This collector offered us our first MDMA (Xstacy). Using this substance, Allyson and I had a simultaneous vision of the Chapel, during which we realized that it was imperative to make this body of work available to everyone for the purpose of realizing higher states of awareness.
After nearly twenty years of talking to people about creating a Chapel, on our 25th wedding anniversary, we held a dinner meeting for inspired supporters of the project. At that meeting, our shaman, Alex Stark, initiating a prayer committee, started the full-moon prayer gatherings to focus energy on manifesting the Chapel. After four full-moon prayer circles we were offered the first temporary Chapel in New York City where the collection now resides.
S: Could you describe a little the transformation from angry existentialist to spiritual transcendentalist' Alex was creating death fixated art involving embryos and corpses and then a voice commanded him to start doing more positive art. What was that voice?
AG: I found it important to face my fears through the artwork which led to transgressive acts and images. There was no end to material in this realm that could have been explored for a lifetime, but the energy I would transmit into our culture would be overwhelmingly negative. After tripping and realizing that love was the ultimate foundation of reality, I felt that such nihilistic work would give a lopsided view of the world. I wanted to make a contribution rather than portray the veil of sorrows that is only a partial reality.
S: What was Allyson doing before she met Alex on the Kahlua/LSD trip?
AG: Allyson was doing some of the most incredible artwork, amazing installations, at the Museum School where I was going as well. She was and still is an extremely committed artist whose work deals with deep realms both personal and cosmic.
S: Could you elaborate a little on your involvement in rock and the pop culture. I like that you see that while much of the pop culture is junk food there are elements of quality here and there. What do you like about the Beastie Boys and Tool?
AG: There is quality music in every genre. We are eclectic listeners and enjoy all kinds of music. We are attracted to both the power and depth of the Beastie Boys and Tool. My closest relationship has been with Adam Jones, lead guitarist for Tool. I consider him an inspiring artist and friend.
S: How did you meet Mati Klarwein [visionary painter responsible for the cover of Miles Davis Bitches Brew album]?
AG: I was introduced to Mati's groundbreaking psychedelic art in 1974 when I saw his book "Milk and Honey". Twenty years later we got to hang out with Mati in New York, Italy, and Spain. He was a brilliant, charismatic visionary artist and friend and I miss him.
S: Do vital art movements need supportive subcultures and countercultures?
AG: Of course.
S: Is there one now: a millennial equivalent to the beats of the fifties, heads of the sixties, punks and rastas of the seventies, hip hoppers and indy rockers of the eighties and nineties?
AG: Vital art movements, those that serve life, arise from both the hunger of the times and an eternal gravitation toward community. Today there are many interpenetrating subcultures. Their roots form the trunk of the tree of postmodernity which is in the winter of its discontent. The vital subculture arising today that I advocate, promotes a sense of the higher possibility of what humanity can be, while recognizing the awful mess we're in and wanting to do something about it. Stoners, technos, oil warriors, sleeze merchants, club kids, mall rats... seeking to isolate and catagorize a zeitgeist murders the creative vitality of a movement soon after it's name has been applied.