Friday, December 09, 2005

Chapel of Sacred Mirrors

Last time I was in New York I stumbled across the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. I had been wandering through the galleries in Chelsea for hours and was kinda burnt out on the "white box" experience. At another time I might have found the Chapel either ridiculous or creepy, but at that particular day it was fascinating. According to the website,
The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM) is a sanctuary in New York City for contemplation and a center for events encouraging the creative spirit. The Sacred Mirrors, on display in the Chapel, are a series of paintings that allow us to see ourselves and each other as reflections of the divine.
The Chapel is the work of artist Alex Grey. At first I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be some kind of installation art piece, or the work of a cult. Turns out it's a bit like the combination of the two. Not that there is a Chapel Cult, per se, just that you get an odd vibe from the rooms, like you're entering the sacred space of an alien religion, from an alternative universe just this side of the everyday one you live in.

There are two major rooms, separated by a small entryway/shop. The right hand room contains the Sacred Mirrors, 21 paintings installed in a very specifically designed space, full of red and gold and circular mirrors. The paintings themselves are close to human-sized, each in a cathedral-door shaped frame. They are hung in a specific sequence around the room, much like the Stations of the Cross in a Catholic church. Starting with The Material World, the silouette of a man on a field made up of the Periodic Table of Elements, they range through several anatomical works (Skeletal System, Nervous System, etc.), then male and female examples of three major races of the world. After these (the weakest, due to a somewhat generic rendering of each race) comes four paintings of spiritual systems - my favorite being the Psychic Energy System with it's simultaneous portrayal of nerves, bones and chakras, and emitting a kind of crackling lightening (for SciFi fans out there it doesn't look unlike a quickening from Highlander, but not in a silly way). Lastly there are three representations of religious figures (Christ, Sophia, Avalokitesvara) and a more abstract work titled Spiritual World.

They're a mixed bag as individual works, but together they form an interesting space. As I said before, the racial paintings bothered me because of their blandness, and blonde Christs always annoy me. I was drawn to Sophia, even though she's covered with weird eyes and seems to have an alien fetus in her chest. The anatomical works are cool. They could have been boring, too much like medical illustrations, but somehow avoid that.

The second room contains another series, Progress of the Soul. This room, painted in yellows, doesn't have the impact of the Mirrors, but some of the paintings are more successful. I especially liked Praying.

From what I've gathered, the artist uses psychotropic substances to reach a mystical state, and his art is a representation of these visions.

In an interview, Grey states
My work scares some people because the Divine Imagination can be a scary place, which anybody who has tripped knows is true. It's not only that you see scary monsters, or experience your own death, or dissolve into a network of infinite light, but that such all enveloping visions severely challenge any conventional "non-mystical, non-visionary" worldview. Anyone who admits the existence of these boundless inner dimensions realizes they have profound implications about what we believe reality is. Blake and other visionaries knew these dimensions first hand and now with LSD and DMT nearly anyone who has the guts and the curiosity can be introduced to some aspect of the terrain. But we have to remember that during his day, Blake was regarded by many as totally mad.
And, regarding locating his work in a "chapel" as opposed to a gallery,
A secular art gallery or museum is not the proper place for spiritual art. In order to work most effectively, spiritual art requires a sacred setting. The sacred art and architecture of previous cultures have always been sites of initiationinto their unique and culturally bound understanding of spiritual reality. The tribal myths and dogmas that keep religions at war are not the mystical truths at the heart of each religion. Today, a more embracing and universal spirituality is possible. The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors would be dedicated to fostering such interfaith and post-denominational spiritual understanding.
Some of the paintings are a little too drug-trippy to me, they don't connect to my unaltered consciousness. I'm not denying that these experiences are real, just that some of the paintings go a bit over the top, like Cosmic Christ. Maybe in these cases the vision is just too individual, even as it strives to be universal.

Whatever his spiritual beliefs, Grey is an amazing painter at times, managing to achieve a level of transparent detail in his x-rayed figures that doesn't fall into flat illustration. He's obviously more than just a trip-obsessed deadhead - not only are the paintings meticulous in detail, he's clearly studied both Christian and Buddhist religious art closely, and while his art shows these influences it is still very much his own. I admire his very unique vision, and the determination to exist outside the gallery system.

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