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Alex Grey

spirit on a two dimensional canvas. Take a multi-dimensional experience, and collapse it into a two-dimensional framework. I started painting because I was having strong visions that I wanted to represent. At first, I had no idea about spirituality. I was just showing my raw psyche.

At one time in my late teens, I was feeling miserable and depressed about the break-up of a relationship, and had not slept in a few days. I was tossing and turning, and had this vision of a two-headed person. The healthy side was trying to pull off the sick side, and the sick side was laughing, because attempting to remove the shadow was self-destructive and fruitless. The vision was about the tension of these forces within.

It was existentialist adolescent hubris, but it seemed significant enough to make a painting of it. It was a visionary self-portrait. The process of vision and working with the imagination started to interest me. I never wanted to do surrealism or fantasy art. My work had to directly relate to the nature of the self– who am I , what am I. The work gets lumped in with surrealist work because it’s not traditional representational art.

David: Right, that’s really a good point. There’s a big difference between surrealist and visionary art, and many people confuse them.

Alex: I think their intentions are different. Athough, there were artists who were motivated by surrealist and visionary intentions. Pavel Tchelitchev, for example.

David: And in fact, it should more aptly be termed as a form of realism.

Alex: Well, there were artists like Ivan Albright whose work was called magic realism.

David: Or spiritual realism.

Alex: Yeah, or metaphysical realism. I’ve struggled with words that would describe it. There’s never been an adequate term. Jean Delville was a great symbolist painter and he called his work idealist. He was an idealist in the German Romantic philosophical tradition of Schelling and Schopenhouer, the Neo-Platonic idealists. I’m not uncomfortable with the terms symbolism or idealism. My work is symbolic and projects ideal archetypes. The wounded healer has to project an image of health in order to heal, and has to fight on the side of good.

David: Who are some of the other artists who have influenced you?

Alex: There are two or three painters from this century who I relate to strongly. There’s the Belgian symbolist painter Jean Delville. His work addresses the dualisms of body and soul, spirit and matter. The second is Ernst Fuchs who is a much under-appreciated Viennese “fantastic realist” painter. The third artist is Pavel Tchelitchev, who’s most famous painting, “Hide and Seek” is in the Museum of Modern Art, and well-known to many psychedelic afficianados. It’s a magnificient piece done in 1940-41. He spent the remainder of his career, 1942-56 studying the human anatomy, the subtle anatomy and spiritual networks of energy.

David: I like that phrase subtle anatomy, because that’s what I really feel that you’re capturing. I’ve never seen anybody do what you’ve done. Was he doing something similar?

Alex: My work relates strongly to Tchelitchev. After acid trips, I started having visions of glowing bodies with the acupuncture meridians and points, chakras and auras all inter-relating. I started painting these images and a friend of mine told me that Tchelitchev was doing this kind of thing forty years ago. He was starting to do translucent bodies that I think were influenced by “The Visible Man” or “Visible Woman” seen at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Also, the use of X-rays must have influenced him to envision a translucent body. Tchelitchev sometimes painted a glow around the body, as well. He was well-versed in Pythagoreanism and alchemy and was deeply into the occult.

Whether he ever took mescaline, I don’t know. He was dead before much acid was available. He died in ’56, and yet he was embraced by psychedelic culture. His career has had its ups and downs in the legitimate art world. His work is currently gaining momentum after years of neglect. In the early Forties, he got a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. After that, his anatomical work went out of favor because it wasn’t related to “hot” artists like Jackson Pollock. Jack the dripper was big news in Life magazine, and there was a tidal wave of abstract expressionism that wiped out the magic realists. I think the 21st Century will look back and see the significance of the symbolists — work that is content-diven, sacred art that is idiosyncratic and personal. I think Tchelitchev’s career will be reassessed, and accorded more value. At any rate I see him as a forefather to my artwork.

David: How long does it take you on average to complete a painting? There’s so much incredible detail.

Alex: Sometimes just a few months or it can take a year or more.

David: Do you ever do several pieces simultaneously?

Alex: No, I focus on one piece at a time. Each piece absorbs me. Meanwhile, there are visions circling overhead a-mile-a-minute, wanting to land on the easel. My notebooks are filled with extensive little scribbles of potential pieces.

David: Your painting style demonstrates extensive knowledge of human anatomy. Have you ever given thought to the fact that you share the last name with the man who wrote and illustrated Gray’s Anatomy ?

Alex: I changed my name to Grey at a time when I was doing a lot of performance works about resolving and exploring polarities. It was prior to my name change that I went to the North Magnetic Pole, and I shaved half my head of hair, in alignment with the rational and intuitive hemispheres of the brain.

David: So Grey represents a merging of the light and dark.

Alex: Exactly, Grey is the middle way. I took the name not thinking about the relationship with the Grey’s Anatomy. But, it was fortuitous, and who knows what energies a name will draw into itself. My project has been to revision the human anatomy and include the non-material dimensions. Medical texts don’t address the soul level. Dissecting the body cannot reveal a soul.

David: I’m curious. What do you personally think happens to human consciousness after biological death?

Alex: I accept the near-death research and Tibetan bardo explanations. Soon after physical death, when the senses shut down, you enter into the realms of light and archetypal beings. You have the potential to realize the clear light, our deepest and truest identity, if you recognize it as the true nature of your mind and are not freaked out. If you don’t, you may contact other less appealing dimensions. No one can know, of course until they get there. Some people have had experiences which give them certainty, but consciousness is the ultimate mystery. I’d like to surrender to the process on it’s deepest level when death occurs, but I will probably fail, and be back to interview you in the next lifetime. (laughter)

David: What’s your concept of God?

Alex: My daughter said the other day, “God must think it smells down in the sewer.”. I thought that was an interesting statement. She said that because God is everywhere, and God is everything, God would be in the stinky places, too. God is the infinite oneness. Oneness, but also infinite. That is the meaning of non-dual. God is love. While we were tripping we thought, “Love is the part of the all that’s all of the all.” Divine love is infinite and omnipresent, but our experience of it is partial and incomplete from day-to-day. If you have a loved one you have access to the infinitude of divine love.

Even though Buddhists would not use the word God, the non-dual nature of mind, voidness, clarity, and infinite compassion, as described in the Buddhist teachings, is not different than the experience that I call God. Ken Wilber uses the ladder metaphor. There are different rungs, the material realm, the emotional, the mental, then the psychical, and progressively more spiritual hierarchies of states of consciousness and awareness. The highest rungs of the ladder give one the highest context, wherein the entire ladder is seen. The experience of God is the highest rung, and also the entire ladder. That’s the transcendent and the immanent aspects of God. God is the beyond and also the manifest world – “the entire field of events and meanings” as Manjushrimitra puts it. One without the other is not the full picture.

David: You’re describing God simply as a state of consciousness. Do you see there being an intelligent design in the universe.

Alex: Absolutely. Wilber says that the materialists can’t offer more than a “whoops!” theory for the universe manifesting. Whoops, it occurred by some chance. That’s an infantile orientation to the complexity and beauty of the evolutionary design of the earth and cosmos. I think we can come up with something deeper. Spirit, God, Primordial Nature of the Mind, whatever you call it, is the source and goal of it all.

David: How have your experiences with psychedelics influenced both your

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