“…Most people who do ‘visionary art’ approach it from the lighter side of things, and I approach it from the darker side of things…” ~ Bryan Kent Ward.
Bryan Kent Ward‘s new paintings of violent death amidst lush flora and fauna are profound incarnations of a transcendent state of consciousness, dark and disturbing, yet life affirming and optimistic.
“Breaking Open the Head” shows a person lying on the forest floor with his head split open. Bits of brain, glistening tissue, and viscous fluids are scattered about and interspersed with erupting verdant vegetation. But this doesn’t appear to be a murder or horrific accident. Even if you don’t recognize the small flowering cactus as Peyote, or the mushrooms as probably Psilocybin, there’s a palpable psychedelic feel [some prefer the word entheogen, but I’ll just stick to psychedelic for convenience].
The person lying inert and seemingly lifeless has tripped into another state of incandescent awareness, and we aren’t just looking at him, it’s also as if we are the person looking at himself in that state. I don’t know if Ward used source imagery, or primarily his imagination, and he could have superimposed a psychedelic phenomenon upon a picture of a corpse, but the result is the same: a conscious perspective escaping death, or more likely the “death of the ego” and the psychological/linguistic structure that supports it. This isn’t just “visionary art” – a genre which may alienate a lot of viewers (because it IS a genre) – it also has a hard and inescapable existential element to it. Just imagine yourself traveling to a rainforest in Brazil and imbibing a potent concoction of vines, leaves, and bark brewed by a Shaman, and then embarking on a life transforming journey outside of consensual reality. Documenting what transpired could easily be an existential process that’s anything but frivolous. Painting a picture of it that successfully conveys some of the experience, to those who are open to it, is taking it a step further.
This isn’t the kind of “psychedelic art” that can be pigeonholed and written off as trippy, kaleidoscopic treacle. Most psychedelic art follows a formula that makes me wonder why everyone seems to have had the same positive trip in the same spiritual oasis, and to have come to the same interpretation of it. You can easily recognize art belonging to the psychedelic/spiritual genre it by its neon sherbet colors, mirror symmetry, kaleidoscopic and fractal effects, third eyes, people sitting in meditation, glowing chakras, sacred geometry, grids, lattices, galaxies, goddesses, mandalas, and Tibetan symbols… Below are ten examples of what I’m talking about, and from different artists.
Some of that art is amazing, and I’m a big fan of Alex Grey, who is the best known and most accomplished of these artists (I bought a couple of his books, went to a few of his shows and events, and even joined a lecture he gave at Burning Man). I also think the art community has wrongly ignored him because his obvious spiritual bent and use of Buddhist iconography is completely at odds with cerebral, ironic, Postmodernism. Nevertheless, when dozens of artist’s visionary paintings and digital art all look remarkably like his, it’s as if every rock band sounded like Pink Floyd. Some must be derivative. Here’s yet another one. OK, I did the one above in Photoshop a decade ago as an experiment in flipping, rotating, and stacking layers. The reason I share this is that a lot of spiritual art is done with the same techniques I used, and I tend to think of “flip and rotate” as a rather cheap and easy trick, which conveniently eliminates the problem of dealing with a light source, a vanishing point, composition, or more than half of an image. And I dislike and distrust symmetry in general because it creates a false impression of perfection, in that both sides match precisely, and thus all manner of mistakes are masked. On top of that it’s an effect that can be achieved in a few seconds in Photoshop. Many artists search for just the right gimmick or niche for themselves, but a gimmick can never transmit anything meaningful. Ward doesn’t rely on any easy tricks or gimmicks.
When so much psychedelic/spiritual art looks like it came out of the same mold, Ward’s work stands out as unique and genuine. One day while browsing through endless unicorns, dragons, faeries, fan art, boob art, and other predictably popular images on DeviantArt, I happened upon the really odd painting below:
This is NOT a popular image on DeviantArt at all (which is a good sign). He uploaded it over 7 years ago, and it has less likes or favorites than something I uploaded several days ago. There are only two comments, and one is mine, from 2012: “I don’t care what anyone else doesn’t have to say about this one. It’s great…” I imagine many people would prefer any of the more standard psychedelic works, but this one was completely different. It wasn’t blissful, pleasant, or infinitely blissful and infinitely pleasant. It wasn’t necessarily a comforting message at all. You couldn’t use it to peddle legal psychoactives over the internet, or as an illustration for an article on dharma. Nobody wants to experience that trip, or at least not recreationally. However, it struck me as capturing and conveying something from a deep-end cross over. The painting is a snapshot and artifact from another dimension of awareness. Some will see that, and others will just see a peculiar, awkward, and weird interpretation of the crucifixion.
The painting above was created “after a night of drinking Ayahuasca (a vision inducing brew from the Amazon jungle)”. Most art I’ve seen about Ayahuasca journeys looks indistinguishable from LSD art, but Ward focused here on vomiting, which is an expected consequence of imbibing the brew.
But the figure isn’t just puking, there’s a more encompassing purging that is both physical and mental, beautiful and awful. And by “awful” I mean “full of awe”. A light sheen of awe can be magical – a plashing of the mystical-dappled veneer of the spiritual plane. But awe may be layered and infinite, and a deep immersion could get overwhelming. As someone once metaphorically put it, “If you are not trembling at the foot of God, that is not God that you are at the foot of”.
And a point that needs to be made here is that the psychedelic experience is not like meditation .. it’s not like anything else. Meditation is pretty … you know, nobody goes to the ashram in the morning with their knees beating together in terror over what’s about to overcome them … on the other hand, DMT test pilots are dry-mouthed and white-knuckled. This is the real thing. ~ Terence McKenna.
While many artists depict the psychedelic experience as someone meditating, and blissing out, Ward’s vision is more in line with McKenna’s descriptions. What we see is an inverted head with bloodshot eyes violently expelling his interiority. This is not the same thing that Jerry Seinfield experiences in his daily 20 minute transcendental meditation sessions.
Ward portrays (psychedelic) death. Not so much the prospect of death, the fear of it, the concept of it, or the physical pain of it, but rather the subjective conscious experience of it. True, we can’t be sure what, if anything, transpires after death – not scientifically anyway – but it is possible to have a subjective experience, on psychedelics, analogous to death (in terms of the extinguishing of the egoic mind and self-image). Consider that the author of “The World’s Religions“, Huston Smith, also wrote a book about the psychedelic experience, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants… in which he compared the psychedelic experiencde to the mystical experience, concluding they are perhaps identical. With the right plants, and under the right circumstances, it is possible in this lifetime to have a full blown mystical experience that will knock your socks off. Such experiences can revolve around death and its aftermath, and Ward’s paintings are a testament to the existence of out-of-bounds, perceptual realms.
The standard clinical view of psychedelics is that they are a poison that muddy and confuse the brain. That, however, is the conclusion of scientists and who haven’t had the subjective experience themselves. Those who have had breakthrough experiences frequently describe them as more clear, and more real than our daily experience of consensual reality. Ward’s paintings convey first-hand experience, while also depicting his convictions about certain plants having “sacred” properties and purpose. He wrote about the painting on the left, above:
“At the moment of death’s release, our energy transforms into the universe, and thus we live eternally in the heavens. And the energy transfers to the earth and the sacred plants for the living to feed on.”
See what I mean about “optimism”? However violent, grotesque, or bleak his portrayal of death is at first, there’s another layer in which all energy is transmuted into one, cumulative, eternal awareness. This view makes more sense if you are familiar with the ritual use of these plants in traditional cultures spanning thousands of years, and with Terence McKenna’s theory that humans developed self-awareness after eating psychoactive mushrooms. The argument is that humans and our consciousness evolved together with these plants, and tripping on mushrooms kickstarted a new level of consciousness.
Personally, I haven’t seen enough evidence to agree with McKenna’s theory – though I’m certainly willing to entertain it – or Ward’s argument about what happens to human energy after death. But that’s not the most important element of the art. The thing I find unique and priceless in Ward’s paintings is that he captures a profound, subjective, out-of-bounds vantage point and state of consciousness that most of us will never experience directly in our workaday lives. The anatomies are not always accurate, but what he succeeds at conveying far outweighs minor anatomical or perspectival flaws (which even the best of the old masters often made).
Continuing with his theme of death and regeneration, Ward made a couple ambitious paintings of bloated, floating corpses. In these works the people’s heads aren’t broken open, and they appear to be long dead, soggy, and distorted beyond recognition.
Wow! It’s hideously beautiful. The dead man is morbid in a way that makes me uncomfortable, like photos of murder victims. But the similarly hued blossoming flowers, the radiant dart frog, and the reflections on the little shrooms and his teeth make the whole image luminous. I can’t think of another image like this. It combines a hard realist portrayal of a decomposing body with a glimmering spiritual transcendence.
Whoever thought painting was washed up and could say nothing new or substantive never imagined this washed up corpse, floating in moonlight. Bryan Kent Ward’s artwork is deadly serious, attempting to grapple with the content of the deep-end of human experience and purpose. I don’t know where his art can go from here, but neither was I able to anticipate his latest batch of paintings from his earlier work. He’s already made original paintings that couldn’t exist without his individual presence. I can only hope for more.
[Note: These are my views, so don’t blame the artist if you don’t agree with them. He may not himself.]
Below is an additional Q&A with Bryan.
“Entheogenic Garden of Eden”, by Bryan Kent Ward
Recently I wrote an article about the remarkable art of Bryan Kent ward, and subsequently he’s answered some of the questions I raised via email. He was very candid and his answers were more interesting and revelatory than I’d anticipated. His input substantiates what should already be apparent from his art: he’s the real deal. Below is our dialogue, which will be more transparent if you look at my prior article first.
Those latest paintings of floating corpses and people with their heads broken open are, at least on the surface, depictions of death. The people with their heads burst open seem different from the floating corpses. The first seem like a metaphor for powerful psychedelic journeys, but the bloated, floating corpses in the jungle look like murder victims. Though I get the same feeling from them. Are these images saying the same thing, or something different? Can you elaborate on what you intended to convey about death? Are those guys murder victims? What was the source for your imagery?
The broken open heads definitely represent a psychedelic/entheogenic (deosogenic*) experience, a metaphor for transcendence and or ego death. The floating corpses to me are just another variant of the same ideas but the source imagery are indeed murder victims, also the child image is perhaps a victim of some kind of imposed violence.
For me the source material is less of an issue than what the finished image evokes in the viewer. But I suppose it could be sensed on another level, like your question that those images may come from a violence imposed on them by others rather than the broken open heads which invoke a more symbolic image. One of the interesting things about being an imaginative studio artist, is that your source material the majority of the time is out of your head, found stock images or images you’ve taken as sources of inspiration. I personally, as morbid as this sounds would love to set up still lives with real decaying corpses and flora and fauna, but this is very problematic and difficult to achieve considering the varying places the flora and fauna is from, as well as human corpses, obviously.
The “Breaking Open the Head” piece which is from a suicide is the inspiration for the series. It all started with me coming across the photograph on the internet, it was such a striking image that I knew I wanted to create something from it. And the idea of that image, which would typically construed as “negative”, was something that was inspiring me to create art is an interesting concept to engage in. Out of something negative, a positive. Out of death, creation. And then it went further with me thinking about what drove this woman to jump off a balcony on the inside of a hotel, me wrestling with my own ideas of mortality and even my own suicidal issues I’ve struggled with in my life. At around the same time I had read Daniel Pinchbeck’s book by the same title, and had been starting what became a series of trips to the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon to work with the brew known as Ayahuasca (the painting came from the same source that he named the book, from the Bitwi tribes description of an initiate’s experience with Iboga, I acknowledge his book as that source).
All of these ideas coalesced into the painting that you see, which in turn inspired more paintings. I wanted something beautiful to come out of the darkness, a rebirth so to speak. In all these pieces if one looks closely and they know their flora and fauna they’d notice that most of the plants and animals are either, extinct, endangered or my favorite, thought to be extinct at one time but found to be still among the living. And as you’ve observed, many of the other plants are plants that induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. There are also types of corpse flowers or plants that either are carnivorous or reek of carrion to attract pollinators. So I’m using nature’s cycles of life, death, rebirth to reflect what happens naturally to man’s condition, without imposing any strict religious or spiritual dogma or belief. Its almost a scientific, zoological, and botanical observation of new life, plants, flowers growing out of and feeding off of dead bodies. But of course anyone whose spent time with these plants and psychedelics can recognize that these images purposely evoke those experiences.
What kind of reaction have you received to these images? Do you think people understand your message, or rather the reality you conjure? Have people been put off by their graphic nature, which could appear sensationalist? Do you notice a difference between reactions from people who have used psychedelics to some degree, and those who haven’t?
As with all provocative art you are instigating some kind of reaction. I most definitely am not and do not make art to be sensationalist. I have always been inspired by art that makes you think and even more so to feel something, whether it’s obvious or not. I have always tried to make art, whether its visual or audio or whatever, that I myself would get something out of. So ultimately I obviously know I have an audience but I don’t make art to be sensationalist, but sometimes to provoke. I know that many people don’t get most of what I do, but the ones that do are usually people that have had at least some experience with altered states. I’m also starting to realize by conversations I’ve had with friends and peers that it may help me to start explaining aspects of my work to at least give context to it. I remember one weekend in Seattle, I showed art at two places simultaneously, one was a visionary art/burner party and the other was a horror convention. Both were greeted with a general acceptance, with a few at both events that absolutely got what I was doing and most kind of shrugging and moving along. I make my art for those who get it, with the hope of expanding that understanding and audience.
[Below are the 6 images in the series. Apparently most people, when confronted with them, just shrug and move on. But some people get them.]
I think you are right on in seeing something life affirming and optimistic in these works. That makes me feel like I am doing the right thing and that my humanity is seeping through my morbid curiosity and proclivities. It’s nice to know that many aspects and dynamics of my interests come through my work, and that if one has the patience and critical eye they can glean these differences and see them reflect and work with each other.
Who are your favorite artists? First I mean classic sorts of artists many will have heard of, and then I mean living artists that we might not know of.
I feel I read interviews with artist where often there are lists of their favorite artists, which seems a bit simple for this often asked question. I think something like this really takes an essay or discussion. Once you start down a road of likes, influences and inspirations these things can spiral into tangents that can inform the reader for future delving into new artists to be exposed to, which I’m all for.
That being said, here are some historic masters: Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Brugel (The Younger and Older), Matthias Grunewald, Gustave Dore, Gustave Moreau, William Blake, Francisco Goya, John Martin, Jean Delville, Gustav Klimt etc.
Not so distant inspirations: Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Hans Bellmer, James Gleeson, Francis Bacon. And there are always others who are lesser known to varying degrees, Ernst Fuchs, Stanislav Szukalski, Mati Klarwein, Eric Brauer, De Es Swertberger, Robert Venosa, Alex Grey, Sibylle Ruppert, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Dado, Johfra Bosschart, Jorgen Boberg, Samuel Bak, Joe Coleman, Martina Hoffman and some famous but not considered visionary like Clive Barker, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Odd Nerdrum etc.
Women are traditionally looked over and there are many worth mentioning: Frida Kahlo, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo etc.
Current contemporaries: Peter Gric, Amanda Sage, Andrew Gonzales, Aloria Weaver, David Heskin, Andrew Jones, Maura Holden, Kris Kuksi, Martin Wittfooth, Christopher Ulrich, Victor Safonkin etc check out (http://beinart.org) to see many great contemporary visionary/surreal/fantastic artists.
Do we include fantasy art, modern tattooists, digital artists, how far does one go? Not to mention other art from different cultures/countries that is definitely visionary. I could keep naming names and could create lists for days, haha!
How do you feel about visionary/psychedelic art in general? Are there artists you admire within the general “genre”?
This question in a way connects to the previous one, what is visionary art? I know many like to have it tied to psychedelic art and the love and light aspect is pushed heavily, which I feel is simplistic and don’t adhere to at all. I usually consider psychedelic art more of the 60’s poster movement, which I can’t say I’ve followed that greatly although it obviously has its merits and influences on modern visionary art. I have had numerous conversations about what visionary art is with some of the respected visionary artists of this time and from those conversations I feel it goes all the way back from some of the first cave drawings, to Bosch, Blake, the symbolists, surrealist and fantastic realists, and many in between that cannot be pinned to a movement. Dark visionary artist’s cannot be put in the closet and shunned either.
All artists that are historically, and even modern contemporary visionary artist have at least a few dark themes, if not periods in their work. I would love to point these out to some adherents of love and light visionary artists and share some of these darker elements. But then you have HR Giger who is probably the most known and successful visionary artist of the time. For me it was Dali who really blew my mind at a young age and opened the doors of my perception of what art was capable of being.
But I’d say I really came into the modern visionary art movement through the trifecta of artists that started to come into their own in the 80’s; Giger, Alex Grey and Robert Venosa. I would say the biggest inspiration was Mr Giger, his dark visionary art was seminal inspiration to my expression through visual art. Of course the main inspiration for at least two of these artists was the great master Ernst Fuchs. I have had the privilege of studying and spending a week with Ernst Fuchs in his place in the hills outside of Monaco, which led me to visit Giger at his home in Zurich. And later I got to spend some time with Alex Grey and became friends with Robert Venosa, so I have been lucky in that respect of meeting and spending time with several of my inspirations.
As with all art “movements” there is a lineage behind these artists and there are many that follow them who are too derivative and not that interesting that come in their wake. On the concept of being derivative, so many artists are not pushing their own boundaries and seem like regurgitation. But that being said many “masters” have inspirations before them and they wouldn’t exist in the way they do if they didn’t exist. Alex Grey has Pavel Tchelitchew, Giger has Fuchs, Bellmer and Alfred Kubin, Venosa has Ernst. For an interesting read on what is visionary art, you should read Laurence Caruana’s Manifesto of Visionary Art. (http://visionaryrevue.com/webtext/manifesto.contents.html) which I’m briefly named in.
Do you have a strong opinion about “painting” as an art form. Painting is often considered passé and conservative. Obviously I don’t agree, but I’m curious about how you justify making painting as legitimate art in 2015.
I still love to paint myself and to see what others come up with. I love seeing paintings in person, there is nothing like seeing an original compared to a reproduction. I think if anything modern art (especially instillation and video art, which can have their place as a valid interesting expression) just makes the case for keeping tradition alive. I studied the mische painting technique with Professor Phil Jacobson in Austria before studying with Fuchs, there is an entire lineage in visionary art whose entire basis is learning these old traditional methods and keeping them alive. I think its great to embrace new technologies as a path to creative expression but to absolutely negate the importance of tradition and history is to be shallow and ignorant. That goes with all art and craft, from clothing to moving images, study the past and bring it into the now.
What have you learned from your psychedelic forays? Are there any big insights that have changed your worldview…?
This is a big and personal question, but I will try to answer it in a timely fashion.
Absolutely, I have learned and grown in ways that its difficult for someone who has never partaken in these experiences to understand. I could probably write a book on my thoughts on my visionary experiences and the influence on my art. I started taking psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Mushrooms, Marijuana, MDA etc) on a semi regular basis when I was fourteen, and I was occasionally doing it for fun but even at that age I had a small affinity group of like minded individuals who would take these drugs/plants/potions and contemplate spirituality, religion, nature, philosophy, politics and generally expand out minds. I know that in retrospect it may have been a bit young to start. For one of the biggest influence of this time was the concept of negation (anti-authority, anti-state, anti religion, anti-western medicine, anti-consumerism, anti-capitalism anti-culture, anti-everything, haha!) it was a period where I was also discovering radical politics through anarchism and anti authoritarianism. When you already are not sure of your place in a society, especially one that has eradicated meaningful ritual and replaced it was some crass consumerism, is it the best to start separating yourself from everything even more? In my case I think so. But I don’t think it’s a great idea for many teenagers, first you need the strength and will to negate everything and then you need the strength and will to recreate what you believe and ultimately what is important to you. So for me that was what happened early on and I could go into much more detail about specifics but it would take too much time in this already long email.
Since 2003 I have been regularly partaking in Ayahuasca (and more recently Peyote) this particular time has been transformative in many ways. If nothing else having those deosogenic experiences in the Amazon jungle where the plants grow and working with indigenous folks who’s tradition it is, this is mind blowing enough. But then you start a relationship with the medicine, with the plants, a non-verbal communication that science cannot explain. The whole concept that everything on this planet and universe is connected like roots and neurons, these revelations can change a person. And I am a skeptic at heart, I still hold onto practical materialist scientific methods, so I try to keep a balance on some of the weirder experiences I’ve had. I think some people can take these experiences too far and find it hard to reintegrate back into our regular western world. I think the true challenge to these experiences are to be able to hold onto them and not loose them amidst the sparkling shinning things that lure us in and distract us from more basic principles; like love, a healthy environment, food that isn’t poison, not hurting others, not feeding into war and exploitation.
One of the most interesting things I’ve experienced in these states has been confronting within myself those who’ve hurt me and those I’ve been hurt by and being able to emotionally sit on these things, process them, own up to our responsibilities in them and then let them go. Also contemplating our corporal mortality, having visionary interactions with those loved ones who have passed on during these non ordinary states of reality can be a blessing in dealing with loss. There is no plant or drug that is a magic elixir to make anything 100% better, we deal with failing bodies, loss, pain and suffering on a daily basis but we also can learn to deal with these things and try and focus on the blessings and be grateful with what we have for this short time we are given. I think the experiences with these plant medicines can greatly contribute to this.
My personality is drawn to some darker things and I am someone who has been able to go to very dark places in my being while in these non ordinary states of reality and tap into basic fears, personal fears, confront them and bring back tastes of this darkness to share with others. My fascination with dying, death, decay and ultimately rebirth is directly influenced from these altered states. Obviously this is not for everybody, both as an experiencer and for those looking at my work. But as I’ve mentioned before there are some who will get where I’m coming from and appreciate these darker states I’m sharing and many others who will scoff and write it off. I really do appreciate that you have shown interest, since I do tend to keep these ideas more to myself.
Other articles on painters which may interest you:
Do you think independent artists should be able to survive outside of the institution of art, by selling their art cheaply, directly to the public, and getting sponsorship?
If you like my art and art criticism, would like it to see it continue, and you have disposable income, a small donation would be wonderful ($5 would make my day). I’m running out of time, money, and freedom.