Discussing Transpersonal Art with Alex Grey
by Joel Metzger/ Online Noetic Network
This interview was the first in a series with artists, created in
association with the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), for the Noetic
Arts Program (NAP). These interviews present professional artists who are
visionaries speaking about the growth of human consciousness though their art.
In all NAP articles, we hear from these artists in interviews and essays.
The artists respond to email from members of Online Noetic Network (ONN) and
IONS and a followup article with their responses is published later. NAP
interviews and more information about each artist is presented on both the
ONN and IONS websites.
Our first interview is with visionary artist Alex Grey. Please visit Alex's
website -- www.alexgrey.com -- to see some reproductions of his work. A
book of Alex Grey's paintings, Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex
Grey, is available from the ONN website bookstore. The paragraph below is
taken from the book cover and the next ONN email will have more information
about Alex and his work.
"This unique series of paintings takes the viewer on a graphic, visionary
journey through the physical and metaphysical anatomy of the self. In his
exploration into the nature of man/woman, Alex Grey portrays the nervous,
vascular, skeletal, and other bodily systems with a disarming, anatomically
exact realism. He then passes to spiritual/energetic systems with images
such as "Universal Mind Lattice," envisioning the sacred and esoteric
symbolism of the body and the forces that define its living field of energy."
** ONN Joel: Alex, this interview is not going to be easy! This is a
telephone conversation for an email publication, so it's very far from
visual imagery. Please start by telling me a little bit about your work.
** Alex Grey: Well, my work is primarily examining the nature of
consciousness, and it uses various mediums to explore that question. The
work's main subject is the question of human identity and life, so I examine
the human body on the physical level and interlace the subtle energies and
systems of understanding from both eastern and western occult mystical
traditions. I take a multicultural perspective because I want to get as
many truths as I can into the vision of what a human being is.
I've always been interested in anatomy, mostly because it's the box that
consciousness comes in. It's so beautiful in all of its intricate detail
that it's been a source of endless fascination for artists through the
millennia. I'm continuing that as a contemporary explorer of the
relationship of the human being with the world and the cosmos. I think this
is the function that art has had from its inception.
Art, as we know from the prehistoric cave art, is tens of thousands of years
old. It's one of the most ancient reminders that humans existed, so it
seems to be an innate and an important aspect of the human story as it has
evolved. One can look at the history of art and read the evolution of
consciousness. That was one of the points that I made in writing the book
*The Mission of Art*, where I looked at the immersion of the human mind in
its natural surroundings in very early cultures. This trajectory in
consciousness can be seen as emerging from a kind of magical, mythical
sensibility and moving to the more rational sensibility of contemporary
culture. We're now looking toward the super-conscious and trans-rational
states showing up in our art work as a reflection of the evolution of
If your subject is consciousness in your artwork, however, you've got a lot
of problems because not only is it difficult to define consciousness, but
then we are challenged to visualize something that's invisible and has no
inherent form. Yet consciousness is the basis from which everything emerges
-- our understanding of reality, of ourselves, and of our world. It becomes
an interesting puzzle to try and come up with art works that have something
intelligent to say about the span of being. I try to do this by looking at
the physical body and then interweaving these subtle energy systems that
we've become familiar with in the west -- the acupuncture meridians and
points and the chakra systems.
We all know from western art that holy people glow and that they have halos
and auras and things like that. These have been seen throughout western
art. I'm incorporating those things, as well as the theosophical,
clairvoyant, psychic, and subtle analyses of the human form in order to
reveal the thought forms and the energy bodies that are interpenetrating and
surrounding us like atmospheres. I tend to think these have more influence
than we tend to give them credit for. Then I go further, and try to look
out beyond just the subtle energetic aspects to find the spiritual
archetypes that influence our thinking about ourselves and what we may become.
I think that the Buddha and Christ figures are examples of icons that we're
all familiar with. I think they are symbolic of each of our potentials.
The Buddha nature or the Christ consciousness are the realizations of super
consciousness or non-dual awareness -- awareness no longer stuck in the
dualities of self and other, he and she, good and evil, etc. It's possible.
We've seen numerous sages realize their true natures and speak from the
non-dual perspective. But these are complicated issues to try to bring into
a work of art, which is, essentially, working with a two dimensional plane
and then trying to point toward multi-dimensional and trans-rational kinds
of subjects. So I wind up using a lot of symbolism.
The trick with symbolism is that in order to make work as contemporary
spirituality, rather than something that is only part of a sacred art
tradition, you need to find personal ways of translating these transpersonal
I think that that's the other important element. We can't just think our
way into this. We have to have actual experiences of transpersonal reality
in order to make any kind of convincing spiritual or transpersonal art. And
so although it's not part of the curriculum in art schools, I think work on
our own souls and our own spiritual practice has to be a component of the
art-making process. We need to sensitize and refine our own spiritual
sensibility, have mystical experiences, and go on a spiritual journey in
order to encounter the states of being that will then translate into
authentic works of spiritual art.
** ONN Joel: So, the point of our spiritual development is to progress
spiritually, not to paint art. The work of the artist is to bring the
viewer into his or her experience -- to portray the experience the artist is
** Alex Grey: Yes, exactly. I tend to think of art as a covenant
relationship between spirit, the art, and the viewer. And so the artist--
if he or she gets lucky and has some kind of inspiring spiritual experience
-- has a responsibility to translate and transmit it as closely as possible
so as to evoke a similar experience in the viewer. They want to translate
their experience clearly enough so that if the viewers can trust the work
they are able to let go of their own ego identity and merge with the
inspiring moment that the artist was able to capture. At that point, they
will stand in the same relationship to the transcendental that was the
initial gift given to the artist. So the artist becomes a transparent
medium through which a person is able to reconnect with his or her own
** ONN Joel: Wonderful answers, Alex! Your training and your beginnings
were with representational and anatomical art. How did you come to go
beyond that into spiritual physical art?
** Alex Grey: It sort of started out with a mystical experience that I
could not understand in any reasonable way. My wife and I were sort of
intrepid psychonauts. I guess it was about twenty-five years ago. We did a
lot of psychedelic exploration and had some experiences that completely
changed our orientation toward making art by calling into question all we'd
thought was real. These experiences then became the basis on which we
proceeded to live our lives. We both had an experience of what we refer to
as "the universal mind lattice." We would wear blindfolds and lie in bed
after taking strong hits of LSD and sort of dissolve into wherever we were
going. We wound up in this lattice realm. It seemed that our identity and
our body had become a torroidal fountain of light that was interconnected
with an omni-directional and infinite number of similar fountains of light.
It felt more real than sitting here talking. It had a sense of bedrock
reality, and the energy that was flowing through all these different
toruses, these cells, was love energy. It was intense and ecstatic. There
was a sense of participating in a network of love energy -- of becoming --
all beings and all things. It seemed that this was the true reality, that
we are all interconnected on some very fundamental, primordial level, and
that this interconnectedness is the body of spirit that we participate in.
We're an important node in that network.
Having had experiences like that and others that were equally befuddling to
a materialist with an existential orientation to art, I began to study about
the nature of consciousness. I found that throughout the ages mystics have
spoken of similar kinds of unitive consciousness and of transcending time
and space. This body of evidence supported my own transpersonal experience,
and I came to feel that it was the most important thing to make artwork
about. It is not something that we encounter in our daily walks around the
block! The consciousness of our unity was such a revolutionary insight to
me, showing me that there is infinite a possibility -- that, in fact, our
true identity is manifested in these 'little tips of the iceberg' called our
body and our ego, but is so much more. It turned me away from being so
concerned with the issues of the contemporary art world and led me in my own
I felt that since I was in a body when I had this 'out of body' experience
that it was important to ground it in the physical realm, that this sort of
biological and technological evolution is part of the backdrop of our lives
and that the trans-rational and spiritual archetypes are the potential that
each of us can experience. That was the inception of Sacred Mirrors. I
recognized that I needed to ground the transpersonal in physical reality.
We're all aware that we have bones and veins and guts and things -- we
frequently even have problems with those systems. So to my mind the
universalizing context for the physical body provided in Sacred Mirrors
could become a healing environment that a person to use as a kind of tool to
reformat their psychic hard drive.
** ONN Joel: While you're talking, questions are popping into my head, but
I don't want to interrupt you because you're saying such good things. What
I'm hearing, though, is you feel in communion with the whole span of sacred
artistry through the ages.
** Alex Grey: I think that that's been, as I would call it, the mission of
art, for people to enter into a communion with the their own spiritual
understanding of their relationship with their environment and with each
other. I think that the magical and mythic archetypes were sort of
visionary encounters -- they were ways for people to try to make sense of
the reality that surrounded them. In the Paleolithic art we have the
animals that were relied on for sustenance, and the early people had a kind
of a magical relationship with them.
** ONN Joel: What about art as a self-expression versus art as communion
with our own mythic aspect?
** Alex Grey: I think that the communion with the mythic and magical
archetypes is an earlier form -- that then self-expression tended to emerge
with more rational mind frames. People started to question if the reason
the crops failed necessarily had to do with the Gods being angry. The more
rationally minded last few centuries, especially the twentieth century, have
resulted in the feeling that the artist is no longer responsible for
translating the myths of their religions. In fact religious art, in
general, has kind of dried up except for a few vital sacred art traditions
in various indigenous cultures. The main topic, as you were saying, became
art as self- expression. And so this is the other reflection of the
evolution of consciousness in art. We're now at this kind of ego phase in
the art. We've moved away from the kind of pre-personal ego, where you're
only in relationship with the mythic you and the taboos. You know if you
went against the taboos of the culture, then the gods would strike you down;
so quite often these mythic sculptures and things, are a little bit onerous.
As much as we appreciate them, they were kind of a way to keep the people in
line with the myths of the culture that we, perhaps, would interpret as
oppressive. As modern, rational people, we really can't accept them on that
level. We can admire their beauty, but we don't believe in the myth that
brought them into being.
So now we have the self-expressive modality of the artist. The artist is a
world unto himself. And this is necessary. We can look at it in terms of
child development. You can see how the mind goes through these sort of
magical and mythical understandings of the world and then, in early
adolescence, it rises to a more rational or reasonable understanding of the
world. I would say that the twentieth century modern art movement is a lot
like an egotistical adolescent in terms of its sort of righteous idealism
and also its willingness to take risks and be revolutionary. Yet, it's also
completely focused on itself. So in a lot of ways, the public has become
disenchanted with the artist archetypes, or artists are seen as crazy or
self-absorbed characters. Thus, the archetype of the artist-mystic who
serves the community -- the old role of the shaman and such -- is a little
bit missing, although I do think it's starting to re-emerge.
** ONN Joel: And what you're doing is part of that re-emergence.
** Alex Grey: Well, at least I'm trying to encourage the moral and
spiritual aspects of art that may not have been a primary component in the
vision of modern art, which was more about getting your own personal vision
together. You see, all these states and stages in the evolution of art are
really important. You can't have a trans-egoic art without having first
gone through an egoic art. You really need to understand the need for a
personal vision, and that is what modernism was all about. However, what it
sort of forgot about was its soul -- and it's responsibility to feed hungry
souls in the community. That's what we're I think bringing back now in a
more integral understanding of what art can be.
** ONN Joel: Tell me more directly how your art fits into the lineage, the
history of sacred art.
** Alex Grey: I tend to understand its relationship with spirit in various
ways. It first expresses through the magic and mythic kind of archetypes,
then goes through this egoic modern art, which may even deny spirituality as
a goal or a source. I don't want to put myself up on some kind of pedestal
or anything saying I'm trans-egoic or something, but at least that is the
intention that informs my work. It arose from those experiences that
confounded my limited understanding of what we were as people. My wife and
I experienced ourselves beyond personality, and that felt more real than
what we were used to. It then became important to try to find ways to talk
about this interconnectedness of all beings and things within the web of
life and to find, if possible, the kind of underlying generalities that
inform sacred art, but are experienced on a personal level.
I think that's what contemporary artists now are faced with if they want to
make sacred art. They are attempting to find the forms that relate to the
existing scared archetypes, such as the cosmic or realized person in the
form of Jesus or Buddha or whatever. We want to look for a universal
archetype of spiritual realization that's not culture bound. Obviously
we're always going to be temporally and culturally bound in some way, but
we've got the entire span of art history now to inform us. So it's part of
our job to look at all world cultures and to look at all of their art to see
how this subject has been approached. Then we need to look deeply within
and find what resonates with our own meaningful archetypes. Then we need to
introduce that to our community -- to find a way we can serve the community
with our art. The goal is to make art benefit as many beings as look at it;
and so the intention becomes to bring benefit to a community -- sort of in a
league with the Boddhisatva's vow or the bodichitta kind of Buddhist
approach to the spiritual path. They say if we don't dedicate our actions
to the benefit of all beings, there's no spiritual growth. So an artist who
wants to make his art a spiritual practice has to consider the intentions
that go into the work.
I think that now we are able to look back over millennia of sacred art, as
well as the past couple centuries of more modern and post modern art and be
informed by many truths. The sort of generalities that emerge through our
analysis of art impresses and impacts our personal work, and we realize that
the creative act is something that carries within it the spirit of all
creative acts. We can look at Sheldrake's morphic resonance as we lift our
brush, and see that the ghost of all creative acts accompanies us and
compels us toward finding the true, the good, and the beautiful.
** ONN Joel: How can the artist be a catalyst for individual and
collective change? You just answered that it is simply by the act of
lifting the brush.
** Alex Grey: If we accept this morphic resonance thing as true, accept
that monks meditating in a monastery can be acting for the benefit of all
beings, then we are accepting that there is a subtle influence in a field, a
dynamic that's put into the evolution of consciousness. We're accepting
that whenever these good intentions are brought in, they can inform our
works and our actions and can spread a field of positive benefit into our
environment. It acts on a subtle basis, but then the physical works can,
themselves, bring beauty and joy to people. The floating of these images
into our culture can happen via any mean -- a note card or a CD cover, a
picture on the web, or a magazine or a book or a painting in a gallery or in
a museum or in a chapel. Any of these encounters with imagery that relates
to our higher nature can bring us into resonance with our own divine nature.
These are catalysts for transformation. They can then be taken in by other
artists and reflected in their work, which sets off another chain of
relationships. So you're right that just picking up a brush with good
intentions and bringing your own creative dynamic to the equation can help
** ONN Joel: Where do you see transformational art headed in the next century?
** Alex Grey: I think that there's a lot of work to do. Obviously the
re-visioning of our planet as a sacred home and the counteracting of the
environmental devastation that's ongoing as a backdrop to our daily lives
are important areas that artists can begin to change by addressing the ideas
that we hold about the planet and our place on it. To me it's very
important to re-sacralize our understanding of our relationship with the
planet, and then to make peace between the various religious archetypes --
to find the commonalties, the underlying truths of the different world
religions, and to point to them with as many universal archetypes as we can.
Perhaps we need to incorporate the symbols of different world religions into
one picture so as to cancel out the supremacy of one over another. And we
also need to acknowledge our interfaith perspective. As the Dali Lama was
saying, along side of our religions, we need a new spirituality that any one
of good will would find acceptable. The imagery of the contemporary sacred
artist would be in alignment with that.
Yet, there's no one way of doing any of this stuff. We can each find our
own way. There's no medium that it's limited to. You've got web sites and
videotapes, you've got audio works, songs, orchestras, and dance pieces.
There are all sorts of ways that you can praise spirit through art, with no
limit. I think there is an integral art that can emerge from our
post-modern perspective that wants to honor all these different points of
view. I'd like to think that the multi-cultural, all gender, all racial
kind of truths can be brought into the equation. I think the artist of
today can help to midwife this new integral spirit -- new world spirit.
** ONN Joel: That's a beautiful place to end. Thank you for this time,
Alex, and thanks for offering to respond to email from ONN and IONS members.
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