Turning On, Tuning In and Painting the Results
By KEN JOHNSON
Published: December 19, 2008
The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in Chelsea will close at the end of this
month. That may not mean much to most of the art world's hipper
denizens, but it will to visionary and psychedelic-art fans for whom
the chapel has been a mecca since it opened in 2004.
Founded by the psychedelic painter Alex Grey, and his wife, the
painter Allyson Grey, the chapel is a curious, over-the-top
combination of art gallery, New Age temple and Coney Island sideshow.
The main attraction is an installation of allegorical neo-Surrealist
paintings by Mr. Grey that, in the context of a carefully
orchestrated theatrical environment, is designed to transport paying
visitors into states of ecstatic reverence for life, love and
universal interconnectedness. (Parts of the chapel, at 542 West 27th
Street, are also decorated in Ms. Grey's rainbow-hued, grid-patterned
Mr. Grey is an illustrator in the best and, frequently, lesser sense
of the word. (The nonprofit chapel derives much of its income from
the sale of posters and books reproducing his paintings.) In his
signature imagery he depicts people with transparent skin revealing
underlying muscle, bone, organs and circulatory systems; they are
surrounded and penetrated by fields of cosmic energy represented by
glowing linear patterns.
One of his most striking pictures shows a life-size semitransparent
couple making love as incandescent wave patterns swirl around and
through them. It is at once sexy, repulsive and hair-raising.
The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors proper is a long hall with red walls
hung with a series of 20 life-size paintings of standing human
figures that Mr. Grey made in the early '80s. (They were exhibited at
the New Museum in 1986.) They include pictures of naked racial types;
images of people with skin peeled off to reveal underlying anatomical
structures; and figures that have almost completely dissolved into
patterns of circulating light.
At one end of the hall, a radiant Jesus hangs next to a glowing
Sophia, the wisdom deity, whose ample body is covered by hundreds of
Each painting has a faux-bronze frame carved with small symbols
representing different stages of enlightenment and punctuated at the
top by a round, electrically illuminated stained-glass image of an
eye in the tip of a pyramid. Five golden arches in the hall are
anchored by 10 "archangels": gold-painted, cast-resin figures
resembling ancient Assyrian sculptures, each with three faces, a
convex mirror in its chest and wings wrapped around its columnar body.
"The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is a womb for the gestation of the
awakening human spirit," notes a guidebook available in the book and
gift shop. And a core element of the chapel's consciousness-expanding
mission is belief in the power of certain ingestible substances or,
as aficionados prefer to call them, entheogens to foster a
mystically transformative experience. Mr. Grey's 2006 portrait of the
discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann, is displayed on an easel in the
middle of one of the chapel's other rooms. It's called "St. Albert
and the LSD Revelation Revolution."
The guidebook describes a small painting titled "Seraphic Transport
Docking on the Third Eye" thus: "In 2004, while journeying on
Ayahuasca" (a hallucinogenic brew used by South American Indians),
"Alex saw multicolored angelic beings, and alternated between
witnessing the visionary realms in his head and painting them. During
this series of visionary experiences, he received instructions about
the appearance of and statements on the soon to-be-built walls of the Chapel."
A well-kept secret of the mainstream art world is the role that
psychedelic drugs have played in shaping and altering the course of
art since the 1960s.
Visionary art is not new see Bosch, Blake, Redon and others but
in Western society before the 1960s, it was the province of isolated
individuals. Then LSD became widely available, and anyone could have
mystic revelations for the small price of a little pill.
Two recent, disappointingly flawed exhibitions inadequately addressed
the subject: "Summer of Love" at the Whitney Museum of American Art
last year, and "Ecstasy: In and About Altered States" at the Los
Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005. For the most part,
mainstream discourse about art goes on as if the psychedelic
revolution were just a minor, tangential distraction.
Yet evidence of psychedelic experience is everywhere in art these
days, from the paintings of Takashi Murakami, Steve DiBenedetto and
Philip Taaffe to the perceptually confounding sculptures of Charles
Ray and the baroque films, sculptures and performances of Matthew
Barney. The rapturous video installation by Pipilotti Rist now on
view at the Museum of Modern Art is nothing if not psychedelic. The
story of contemporary art and the psychedelic revolution remains to be told.
What's unusual about the Greys' project is not only that they openly
acknowledge their pharmacological sources of inspiration but that
they are also dedicating their psychedelic vision to the service of a
kind of neo-pagan church. A sweetly charismatic couple in their
mid-50s who could be mistaken for ministers of a Unitarian church,
they have hosted full-moon gatherings every month where they and
others sermonize, tell stories, sing and play music, recite poetry
and otherwise try to promote spiritual enlightenment.
And hundreds have attended their regularly sponsored Entheocentric
Salon, an all-night party involving, according to the guidebook,
"live painting, video projections, local and international DJs and
musicians, live performances, lectures and visionary conversations."
A natural anxiety about all this is that it might turn into an
electric Kool-Aid-drinking, snake-oil-selling cult. The Greys said in
an interview that they want to promote only the most responsible and
carefully structured use of entheogens in contexts that promote
psychological and spiritual well-being and positive illumination for
individuals and communities. Equally important, they added, are other
techniques of "accessing the divine," like meditation and yoga.
While the chapel in Chelsea will close with a New Year's Eve party,
the Greys' project will not come to an end. Through the chapel's
corporation and with help from donors, they have bought a 40-acre
plot of land in the upstate town of Wappinger, where they plan to
rebuild the chapel and develop an interfaith retreat center. There,
eventually, they intend to construct a great four-story, domed temple
to house the Sacred Mirror paintings and provide a place for rites of
Art world sophisticates may call the Greys' project goofy, but in
this scary time of economic implosion, their investment in spiritual
expansion might just be the smartest of all.
NYC chapel dedicated to psychedelic art ends trip
December 20, 2008
NEW YORK - The long, strange trip of a Manhattan chapel dedicated to
New Age belief and psychedelic art is ending.
The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is slated to close with a New Year's Eve
party after four years of attempting to transport visitors to altered
realities through art and neo-pagan spirituality.
Painters Alex and Allyson Grey founded the chapel in 2004 as a
combination temple, gallery and sideshow. The painters exhibit their
artwork at the neo-pagan church.
A guidebook available in the book and gift shop notes, "The Chapel of
Sacred Mirrors is a womb for the gestation of the awakening human spirit."
The Greys are already planning for a reincarnation of the chapel on a
40-acre plot of land in upstate New York.