Because I find some of the most striking visual art when prowling through people’s Instagram posts.
This is the second installment in a series of more brief articles I’m doing revolving around one image by a living artist, taken from an Instagram post. This time I reproduced the whole post, and I’ll also share the image by itself.
Alex Grey doesn’t need any introduction, and it’s always good to see a work from him in his classic style. Put these two things together and you get something interesting about this artist, which is that most people who know contemporary painting (or Burning Man, or Tool, etc.) recognize his work, but he is persona non grata in the official museum/gallery art world. And by that I mean I never even heard of this guy in art school.
I chose this work to discuss partly because of his comment, where I expected to find the title of the image (because as soon as I saw it I wanted to share it):
The value in art as in spirituality is whether it points to a better way of Being.~ Alex Grey.
Let’s just get out of the way that I don’t agree, and I’m cool with that. That’s the difference between me and the blue-chip art world in which just one of Damien Hirst’s thousands of spot paintings produced by assistants, and indistinguishable from uninspired wrapping paper, is considered more valuable than Grey’s best work — I don’t need to share someone’s world view in order to value their art.
If Alex makes art in order to point to a better way of Being, I’m fine with that. However, there could be quite a debate about what constitutes a better way of Being, and not everyone is going to agree that it involves the 8-fold path of the Buddha (from what I’ve read, Alex takes his Buddhism very seriously). But the larger issue is that I have my own idea of what the purpose of art is, which really only applies to me, otherwise everyone would be doing the same sort of art.
My interest is more in exploring new vistas of the visual imagination, and deepening aspects of self-awareness. It doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to (spiritual) evolution or other self-improvement. I once read a statement from a philosopher, I don’t remember who, but I can’t forget the quote: Truth is indifferent to the seeker of truth. This means that a scientist, philosopher, artist, or explorer can’t expect to find what they like, but rather should like what they find.
The truth, or knowledge, is its own reward. And so I don’t attach a notion of the necessarily expected good to something like unraveling the far edges of the visual unconscious.
You can’t miss the third eye (normal eyes closed) and all the flaming eyes in this painting. His technique here is almost mathematical. We have near perfect symmetry, and some sort of elaborate grid system Alex uses to project the eyes over the rounded planes of the face. I imagine there’s a schematic drawing somewhere.
A quick Google search reveals that in a tweet he described this work when it was in progress: Third eye tears of joy, a taste of enlightened mind, launching inward to creative source. (work in progress).
That’s the kind of (straight up Buddhist) stance that’s going to appeal to a lot of people and annoy a lot of others. I’ve gone to a couple of Alex’s lectures — yes, including one at Burning Man (I didn’t introduce myself) — and also bought and read two of his books. While I’m a big fan, I don’t, as he does, conflate the psychedelic experience with the spiritual experience with textbook Buddhism. That doesn’t account for Terence McKenna’s machine elves; and Aldous Huxley, in his The Doors of Perception, manages to discuss the phenomenon of seeing things as if for the first time, without connecting the experience to an extent body of thought. My own more psychedelic art doesn’t fit the picture, either.
That said, however Alex interprets his visions, the proof is in the painting, and his image has a wonderfully trippy, clear, bright, spiritual vibe to it. It seeks to convey what it depicts, and delivers. I’m quite sure a lot of people buy Alex Grey’s paintings to put on their walls as reminders of a spiritual dimension, and to contemplate at intervals.
The symmetry isn’t just laziness when it comes to developing a composition, but intended to represent stillness, and in that stillness ecstatic radiance. OK, I’ve gotta’ share one more of my pieces here, because it’s titled Ecstatic Communion, and there’s some overlap.
My favorite part of Third Eye Tears Of Joy is, oddly enough, the close eyes. Not because of the content, but because of the subtle shading and scintillating lines (I’m an artist’s artist). The electric blue of the linear pattern that overlays the face has to change in the shadow areas, and so you have a light blue on an orange and a darker blue on a red. The way those colors vibrate next to each other while traversing the soft slopes of the eyelids gives the figure both physical form and the immaterial quality of light simultaneously. That’s quite a painterly achievement.
The face takes up the full canvas, and is composed entirely of light. You are already removed from any connection with consensual reality, and are thus enveloped in the psychic realm of this personage. The focus of the painting is, of course, the open eye in the forehead. Notice Grey uses an optical illusion to suggest the shape of a forehead above the brows, but also a funneling outward so that above the horizon of the brows is an open field of gleaming consciousness — illumination!
Many will just see an illustration of an idea they don’t believe in. Others will instantly recognize what the painting presents. Some will say this represents this and that represents that, and others will say, Holy Shit, or, Oh My Freaking God!
I may not agree with Alex’s convictions about art or conclusions about the nature of the cosmos as necessarily applying to anyone besides himself — for me it’s all open-ended and unknown — but I don’t need to any more than I need to be a Sufi to enjoy Qawwali music. Alex invented a style that was necessary to convey a new kind of meaning in the West, and he has done so with such success and so many paintings that I consider him one of the greatest living artists. The art world has its head too far up its own posterior aperture to see the brilliant light of Alex’s painting.
If you found this article interesting, you may enjoy a more in-depth exploration of The “Spiritual” in Art for the Intellectually Rigorous.
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4 replies on “Instagram Gem O’ Th’day #2: Alex Grey”
I’ve seen his work in one of your earlier blogs. It made me think of Pavel Tchelitchew. Are you familiar with his work? He was a neo-romantic/surrealist if you want to put a label on him. If not I think you might want to give him a look. His work might be up your alley. As far as Grey goes, it looks to me like he must use a computer to draw the pictures before hand then paint them, no? I don’t have an issue with that, they are still original ideas he had and not appropriated. Which I don’t really like, a little is ok in my book but not to the extent of Koons. I wonder if one day in the future we’ll have a moment denouncing all appropriation artists as thieves. Like Weinstein they think they are getting away with it, but finally someone says, hey all your doing is stealing and finally everyone says ya WTF. And they are all relagated to the realm with milli vanilli.
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I looked up Pavel Tchelitchew. Of course I know his most famous paintings, but I didn’t know the ones that look like Alex Grey, and you are right.
A cursory exploration reveals Tchelitchew is severely underrated because he’s just too good, too versatile, and too prescient (ex., prefigured a lot of Grey’s work).
The art world likes one-hit wonders to repeat the same hit ad nauseum. It likes sound bites and easily digestible bits. An artist is supposed to be a brand, a product on a shelf, easily recognizable and easily digestible.
Your career should be able to be summed up in a paragraph in a survey of art history, because, well, people prefer to think about art rather than look at it.
Grey may use a computer. Honestly, this is one of his more formulaic productions, but I’m trying to keep these short pieces wholly positive, er, mostly.
Obviously I have no problem with using technology. Anyway, in his early days I’m sure he did it the old fashioned way, because he’s older than I am and has been making art longer.
Like all the best artists, he churns out some dreck and, y’know, did a painting of Obama, for example. So, you have to take his best dozen or two dozen images, and then you can make a real case for him. He has a unique vision and style, and he’s worked really hard and consistently over decades. He’s currently working on some sort of cosmic chapel with sculpture and housing his best paintings, or the ones in a particular series. It looks to be a really amazing achievement.
Indeed. I have discovered some of the most remarkable work on instagram Eric.
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Yeah, and the thing about that for me is that I just see the images, and not the text, and not authority is presenting them to me. In other words, I’m judging what I see on purely intrinsic merit, or as close to that as I can get.
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