By James Curcio.
I’m lying on my back on a mat in the middle of a long hall surrounded at both ends by singing bowls and thrumming gongs. To my left is a girl, curled in a ball, who has been rocking back and forth for what seems like an hour. She is sobbing, repeating the mantra, “I want my mommy, I want my mommy.” To my right is another girl, lying in corpse pose as I am, who periodically sighs, “this is amazing,” dragging out the syllables in ecstasy. And here I am in the middle, eyes closed, clear-headed, and more or less invisible. Where am I? The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors.
Though it would strike me as no surprise if hallucinogenic drugs were involved in the creation of this scene, there is no doubt in my mind that some of this reaction is the result of psychological amplification. The art, the space, the vibe, it has a synergistic effect. In other words, the Greys have really built a sacred space here.
I first noticed it during my initial visit to the space. I was one of the speakers for the Generation Hex launch party last November. About halfway through the presentation I realized that many people were behaving as if they were on LSD, and they were individuals who, I knew for a fact, had taken none. This was later confirmed by comments from a number of the audience members, though of course they may have been terrorizing their dendrites chemically. As with a church when it is really serving its cultural function, the Chapel is a space which, if you’re open to it, unhinges you from your everyday experience and expectations and allows you to perceive everything, including yourself, from a new vantage point. Also, like any church, you only get out of it what you bring to it. You can remain distant, and find yourself jadedly wondering what everyone else is on about.
If you are familiar with the religious and mystical experience, his paintings, though open to interpretation, are also very clear statements of certain common, experiential truths. In one of the rooms, chairs were provided so people could sit, meditate, and really get inside the paintings.
Like many others, I spent an hour or more doing just that.
I want to demonstrate what I mean by this statement with an example.
Like any mandala, the images serve as a meditative guide, something to bring you back to an encoded realization, personal yet generally common to human experience. This isn’t easily apparent when you’re looking at a small image on a computer screen. They are much more impressive, together, and full-sized.
In this painting, the first thing you’ll likely notice is that the vanishing point of the horizon is the same location as the Ajna chakra (“third eye”) of the meditating aspirant. It also struck me that if you are sitting in front of the painting and meditating, you are in the same relationship with it.
Having done my fair share of meditation in the past, I’ve discovered a key element of standing meditation involves setting your eyes and intent upon the vanishing point of the horizon directly in front of you. I believe this picture represents a depiction of what you will eventually find to be a fact through such practice.
Also common to the mystical experience is the idea of an “ascension upon the mountain.” This can also be rendered as a time of tribulation in the desert, and the long hard spiritual “dryness,” oftentimes depicted as 40 days and 40 nights. People will render the symbol based on their environment, but the experience remains similar.
Beneath the meditating figure in this image is a desert floor. And behind him, flames. None of this requires analytical explanation. Part of the genius of it is that the picture makes clear certain ideas and experiences which can take years to uncover in books and Chi Gung. This isn’t to say that those things should be spurned for the visual image, but there is something really reassuring about seeing it put so plainly.
Now, I’m not trying to tell you what “Alex is trying to tell you”; aside from being just a little bit creepy, this seems to miss the point of all painting. The painter can say a whole lot more than he even recognizes himself saying, on a conscious level. The artist, like the audience, may not recognize the full extent of what they’ve done until they’ve already done it. It is as much a process of self realization for an artist as it is for a participant viewer.
This calls to mind a conversation I had with him. I had somewhat awkwardly re-introduced myself, and after a moment I pointed out that the painting he was working on at that moment was very reminiscent of the (New) Aeon card in the Thoth Deck. Seemingly genuinely surprised, he peered at the picture, which had a child in the center, surrounded by sun yellow flames, and his two parents, looking on pensively, expectantly, their hopes and faith for the future invested in this new life. The child held aloft a single finger. Granted, in the Aeon card, the finger is held to his lips, in Alex’s painting, it is held aloft, as if to proclaim something. He nodded, and said, “Wow, I think you’re right.”
The statement of the work as a whole is universal, almost Pantheistic, depicting every possible level of human experience, as a physical and energetic body, and as many cultural modalities of the Divine as is possible. I witnessed a certified thug strolling up to one of the paintings in the hall of mirrors, baggy pants and jacket, 40 oz in tow. He looked the image up and down for almost a minute before letting out a grunt. “Yeah, I dig that,” I heard him say, before turning around and flossing out of the room. Obviously, they speak on many levels.
Towards the end of the night, covered in sweat from hours of dancing to Gaian Mind‘s Psytrance, I couldn’t resist approaching Alex again, saying something along the lines of, “you just channel it effortlessly at this point, don’t you?” I didn’t mean the act of painting but rather the content of the paintings… however, I wasn’t clear in that, as I often tend not to be when I’m conversing in the moment, especially when out of breath at five in the morning.
Somehow, despite the loud music and what I can only imagine was an unclear question, probably mumbled and slurred as I dripped sweat from hours of dancing, he seemed to understand me. He looked a little bashful and flustered for a moment, and said that though he may look that way sometimes, it really isn’t so. I didn’t bother to further explain what I meant, but having watched him paint over the course of the evening, I can’t say I’m entirely convinced. My theory that artists are more mediums and channels for something in themselves they don’t even fully grasp remains unshaken. And in terms of the strength of that inner dialogue, and the ability to externalize it for others, Mr. Grey seems to be one of a small group in his generation.
Let’s return to the scene of the crime. As I was lying in the middle of the chapel between heaven and hell, (“This Is Amazing” / “I Want My Mommy”), I had to wonder, ‘what’s going on here, really?’ What have they created?
Of course, on a practical or even cynical level, it’s simply a smart branding and business move to create a space like this — hold events in your gallery, sell your merch, have thousands of people out of their minds on God knows what stare at your paintings for hours and find themselves in it. But, for once, this doesn’t seem to be the modus operandi. It is a means, but not the end.
What is the end? All I can provide is a short conversation I had with him. Somehow we got on the topic of Kali, and the consumption of Capitalistic culture, and he pointed out that we’re in a chrysalis stage. Eating, eating, eating, but we don’t really know what’s coming out of this, what’s next. CoSM, he said, gives a hint of that thing.
I think he’s right.
Check out Alex Grey‘s work for yourself.