Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Sacred Mirrors

The Spiritual Energy System

As I probably have posted before, I spent several years after graduate school interviewing artists who were doing spiritual art, and among them was Alex and Allyson Grey.  I return to this wonderful interview to share it again.

To read more about THE SACRED MIRRORS, visit the website of Alex Grey:  


THE SACRED MIRRORS - The Art of Alex and Allyson Grey

Interview with Lauren Raine August 17, 1988    

The Greys have achieved international recognition as painters and performance artists. Alex is  the author of THE MISSION OF ART, a book about art and spirituality.

 Allyson's intricate paintings are abstract, unlike the visionary figurative work of her husband. Her Spectrum Series shows an underlying grid that runs throughout her work, sometimes visible, sometimes not. Allyson compares the squares that compose her paintings to cells, which like the cells of our bodies make up a living whole.  In her diptych Chaos and Order  Allyson  describes the ever transforming dance of energy and matter. And what lies beneath is Light  from which all colors come, and to which they return.

The Sacred Mirrors   are predominantly painted by Alex Grey, but include  collaborations by Allyson, and are a  group of 22 paintings that took Alex 10 years to complete. They are works of amazing dedication. They were first shown as a complete installation at The New Museum in New York in 1986. and since that time have toured museums around the world, to finally be installed in The Chapel of the Sacred Mirrors. There is also a book, THE SACRED MIRRORS (1990), with commentary by Alex Grey and Ken Wilber.

The paintings are "Mirrors of the Self", each one removing another "skin", another veil, to disclose the physical, social and metaphysical anatomy. Alex compares the progression of the series to the Alchemical Quest - "the transmutation of "base metals; lead (bodily consciousness) into gold (spiritual consciousness)."

The journey begins with the first painting, Material World. Fragments of actual mirrors, sandblasted with symbols for the elements of the periodic table, surround a human figure shaped from a leaden sheet. As you stand before the panel, you regard a distorted reflection of yourself within it ... our unfragmented self is obscured, hidden by the impenetrable density of physical life. The Body is explored through the different anatomical systems. As each skin is removed, another intricate system is revealed. What Alex calls the "Skins" reveal the socio-political dimensions of life. The last group is Spirit, metaphysical anatomy. Skeins of light emerge. Alex calls this the "Universal Mind Lattice", the dissolution of boundaries between self and surrounding as we enter unitive, spiritual dimensions of consciusness.

The journey to Self is, ultimately, a return to the world, to compassion and love within embodied existence. The Bodhisattvas are the next group, the illuminated ones. In 1989, Alex and Allyson collaborated on another painting they added to the original series of 21 - Sophia. The Sacred Mirrors close with a life-size mirror, with a sunburst inscribed at the level of the viewer’s heart. Within it is one word: "God".

Lauren:   Allyson, would you talk about your painting, The Jewel Net of Indra?

Allyson:   Indra is the Hindu god of space. The Net is a metaphor for the Net of space, the unity of being. At each point where the net intersects, there is a jewel, with infinite facets. And each facet reflects every other jewel in the Net. It's an infinitely reflected inner space.

I became an abstract painter with this series. In a sense, the work is Tantric. Much of the visionary art people are doing these days is narrative or allegorical, but mine is pretty purely abstract. It's based on units of linked squares, a spectrum made up of cells. The cells are unified into a system, just as we are. So, it models our life systems into small cells that fit together, and are also individual and distinct.

"Order" Allyson Grey
Alex: The idea of the Jewel Net is similar to the notion of a hologram; each part reflects the whole and an infinite progression is created.

Allyson: Chaos is also a major aspect of my work. One painting is a diptych, one side being Chaos, and the other Order. There is entropy - you can see there is order in the universe, but chaos is also very evident. The painting is composed of units of 100 squares, which are just constantly falling apart and coming together again.

Alex: Allyson's Chaos paintings are a kind of freeze frame, a momentary look into a chemical reaction that may be attaining a new level of order.

Allyson: It's like clouds. A cloud has a kind of solid form, yet if you watch one for a while, it always seems to be dispersing. Form exists, and the constant dissolution of form.

Alex: Allyson's Jewel Net is about something we both experienced a long time ago. It changed our work.

We did a psychedelic meditation together. For myself, there was a progressive infinitizing of space. I felt like I went out of my body, into what I can only describe as a network of interlocking cells. They were like energy cells within a grid that expanded infinitely. I was a cell, a kind of fountain and drain of energy, connected with all the other fountains and drains in the entire network, in the grid. And the energy moving through us all was love.....

I felt it was a resolution of the "one in many". We're all connected, on some level, and that level seemed more real than anything physical. This table does not seem as real to me as that experience. It was a kind of bedrock reality of the interpenetration of all beings and all things.

We were merged, and yet distinct. Each unit had a job to do, each being was separate, and at the same time was united by its similarity to all other beings and things, because the energy flowing through us was all the same energy. I felt that each resonating little node in the network was conscious of every other node, aware it was interconnected with all the other nodes.
The Universal Mind Lattice

Lauren: Was it frightening?

Alex: No, it was total bliss! It was an eternal place, a heaven realm.....I felt that this was integral to the universe, the way it really was. But it was inexplicable, and to try later to portray it as art was a mind numbing task.

Lauren: And you shared this experience together?

Allyson: Yes.

Alex: That was the other strange thing.

Allyson: We knew it had changed our work and our lives. It was the most important thing; we felt that was what we should make our art about. For me, and for Alex also, it was about energy. I felt energy flowing out of me, and flowing into Alex. We were like two nodes in a network, and as we got further and further along it, there was a whole vista of nodes, and we became part of all the vistas in the network - which is everybody and everything. We experienced it simultaneously. We both came out of it drawing pictures that were very much alike.

It was a vision, because it was visual. But it was also an experienced reality. It wasn't implanted, so much as we were opened to something already existing. As if the door opened, and there it was. That was what was real.

"The Spiritual Energy System" Alex Grey

Alex: As if the Curtains of Maya were pulled back for a moment, and we could see the furnace room of what is actually behind everything! I think the experience initiated us onto a spiritual path. It didn't mean we knew how to do anything at that point. We were given it in our ignorance, it changed us, and somehow our model of reality changed to accommodate the experience, and has progressively expanded through our readings and pursuit of various spiritual paths since.

The esoteric core of every religion talks about that dimension. The Tibetan Buddhists have words for it, Madame Blavatsky talked about the Monad, there is the Hindu Atman within the Brahman, Christ Consciousness......I think they're all metaphors for the same thing. I went looking for descriptions, you know, who else has been to this country? And I found numerous descriptions in esoteric and Yogic literature.

I later found an almost exact description of our experience in a Readers Digest from the 60's - an account from someone who died from a heart attack, and was brought back to life. He described a grid. Allyson's painting, the Jewel Net of Indra, speaks of that grid.

Allyson: The Spectrum is a system of color. Being a painter, I looked for the basics. I was looking for the underpinnings of painting as well as consciousness. In order to bring those two aspects together, the spectrum was, to me, the basic system. Rather than choosing one color over another, I chose the entire spectrum; and one shape, the square, which is a human-made shape, very rarely found in nature, because I'm a person, and I didn't want to create organic shapes. At any rate, I mixed formal aspects of painting, color, shape, composition of design, with actual systems that exist in life.

Also, a spectrum is white light broken down into its various components. So, there is a white light that runs through the work, uniting everything. The squares are units of light......playing and dancing.

Alex: And breaking down and coming together. Maybe we're all light, the world is made of light, and the nature of light is completely mysterious. So Allyson's paintings may be accurate representations of what's really going on.

Allyson: Because the light is what binds, and also what separates. That's my grid. And that's how things stay separate and together. Chaos and Order exist simultaneously without conflict, as does each color. It's just all these polarities joining in.

Alex: We're actually doing the same paintings, but they come out differently.

We've studied Tibetan Buddhism, and have been initiated into various initiations. We both found Tibetan Buddhism to be an important path. Their ability to visualize sacred places is inspiring. We love Tankha paintings, and different kinds of devotional arts, and feel we are devotional artists in a secular society. That involves having to discover your own icons or symbols.

If you reach down far enough, we're all made up of the same archetypes. Since our experience of transpersonal space, I believe there are structures that are universal. Joseph Campbell talked about what he called "core myths". As did Jung. If you go deep enough into yourself, you find yourself in a noisy place with a lot of other people. And if you draw symbols from there, you plug into a collective form of consciousness.

Any art object has a physical form, an emotional statement, and some kind of mental concept behind the work. Some artworks express an emotional mode, some are more cerebral; but even cerebral work has a "feeling tone", and even the most expressionistic works were painted on a rectangular canvas, and have some structure to them. Along with these qualities, there are other level, like awareness of the heart, and higher insights of psychic and spiritual reality. The most profound works of art, to my mind, reflect all these dimensions, they play on all of them.

I think many artists feel they are weaving some form of energy into their work. It's what psychometrists see when they "read" objects. There is an aesthetic psychometry each person does as they look at a work of art. Artworks are like batteries - if we're receptive, they can charge us. I've always felt all art contains some form of consciousness, because it has been manipulated by people. It's just the question of what awareness the artist and the viewer bring to it. My idea of reality is that there are many, many interpenetrating dimensions.

Allyson: What really touches you is work that operates on those many levels, including the material level. People with great ideas who don't know how to implement them are as badly off as those with great implementation, and no ideas. Visual art has to be implemented and formally produced in a communicative way.

I think a genuinely spiritual art has to be based upon experience. People who haven't had a transcendent experience usually refuse the entire subject. It's good to have a vocabulary, to be able to communicate on an intellectual level, but one needs to experience art arising from some inner source that is true, that is authentic.

Alex: There is a kind of "light weight" New Age painting - you know, luminous angelic beings floating around, glowing's nice, and its intention is to counter the abrasiveness in our daily lives. But sometimes the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, and all the deep cords that pull your heart are taken away. You can't eliminate the suffering of the world, and the experiences of death and mortality that give us reason to seek higher sources. When you eliminate the so-called negative aspects of life, concentrating only on positive images, you remain mired in the unintegrated experiences of darkness within yourself. I don't think genuine spiritual art can be based on saccharine has to integrate more than that. This returns to what we were saying before, about functioning on various levels.

Lauren: Alex, how did the series of paintings The Sacred Mirrors come about?

Alex: The inspiration came from the mystical experience I described. I experienced what I call "The Universal Mind Lattice". I wanted to take the viewer there, but I felt I had to move through different dimensions of reality before arriving there.

The first panel in the series is called The Material World. It's a lead sheet, shaped into the silhouette of a person. The body's biochemistry has been hammered into the lead. Leaded mirrors surround it, containing the Periodic Table of the Elements. You see, we're welded into the material world by our relationship to the elements, all our bio-molecular interconnections with the world. And space and energy, time and matter - all are aspects of the material world.

These are material boundaries. The painting has actual mirrors in it, which are fractured, so when you look at yourself, you see a distorted image of yourself. If you try to get an entire glimpse of yourself, it's obscured by the leaden figure. Metaphorically, you cannot see yourself undistorted or unobscured in the material world.

After this, there are paintings about the different anatomical systems, the Skeletal System, the Nervous System, the Cardio-Vascular System, the Lymphatic System, and the visceral, the Muscular System.

These are beautiful real systems constantly at work inside of us. I thought of Jackson Pollock when I first saw the cardio-vascular system exposed; there were all these interconnected skeins and networks, all emanating from the pump of the heart. And there is the duality of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood, the carbon-dioxide-oxygen exchange with the planet that is always going on, feeding each cell.

Lauren: I'm reminded that all this activity is going on "under the skin", constant activity of which we aren't even conscious, so even physically, we are veiled from ourselves.

Alex: Yes, or the processes that allow our consciousness to manifest are veiled.

Next I moved to the "skins", female and male, Caucasions, Africans, and Asians; because whenever you put skin on the anatomical systems, they become very distinct and individual, which is why there are so many problems. We see our differences, instead of our similarities. I wanted to give a tacit nod to those differences, and also invite the viewer to see himself or herself reflected in others, which is the intention of The Sacred Mirrors.

I broke the Series down into Body, Mind, and Spirit. The first seven paintings are The Body, the physical dimension. The Skins are the socio-political level, the dualities that exist on that plane.

We move to metaphysical anatomy with the Life Energy System, and the Psychic Energy System. The Psychic Energy System is the crux of the Series, because it shows inter-penetration of the physical body with the more esoteric energy systems. It has the acupuncture meridians and points, the chakras, and the Kabbalah Tree of Life - all of which are keyed to various aspects of the body. The Hebrew and Hindu physical-to-spiritual hierarchies are overlaid.

The Spiritual Energy System shows a more progressive dissolution between the Self and surrounding, which is reminiscent of the experience Allyson and I spoke of, the loss of boundaries. From there, the Series moves to the Universal Mind Lattice, where there is interconnection with infinite spheres of light. The figure is connected to all other beings and things.

The backdrop The Universal Mind Lattice is played upon is The Void, which is what the next painting is about. Buddhists speak of the Void and Clear Light existing together. I wanted to make this image, but at that point it had to veer into archetypal representation. There was no way to symbolize it as an actual experience. I had to resort to symbols. So I used the Tibetan
symbol of the Kalachakra in the center, which is about transmutation of the elements by the principle of emptiness. That's why it is surrounded by the elements of earth, fire, wind and water.

The next painting is Avalokitesvara. Tantric teachings say that the infinite compassion of the Bodhisattva is the same as Voidness. This is one of the highest teachings, the understanding that boundless love is the ground of being from which all things come. The Void represents how far one can go to get off the Wheel of Life. You can go to Voidness and dwell there, or the Universal Mind Lattice, and dwell me, the highest teachings are those that speak of returning to aid the suffering of the world. That's what Avalokitesvara did, sprouting a thousand arms and hands to help the world with an eye of unobstructed vision in each palm.

The Sacred Mirrors hopefully takes one on a journey. Through various levels, back to the world, with a revised notion of oneself and ones surroundings. Because, if you understand the spiritual energy systems, and the social manifestations of people, the "skins", and physical being, you still won't understand life's purpose. The great teachers of the spiritual traditions, the Bodhisattvas, provide a moral anatomy, systems allowing us to know our life paths, what is right and what is wrong. They elevate us in ways simply knowing about your cardio-vascular system cannot.

The final painting in the series is a Mirror, on which has been inscribed a sunburst. Inside the sunburst I engraved a word: "God". It's located in the heart region. The meaning of The Sacred Mirrors is, in essence, very simple. To see ourselves, and the world around us, as sacred.

I hope people can be affected by the work in some way that catalyzes their own spiritual growth. That's what makes a work of art "transformative"; it has an intention towards transformation locked into its structure. But the reason we're making art is as a devotional practice - it's a way to demonstrate the unity we feel with all other beings.

Lauren: You have also done, and continue to do, performance art, including a performance I saw a documentation of called Burnt Offering.

Alex: Burnt Offering was about burning through layers of myself. In it, I enacted three different "Fire Sculptures". The first was a big picture of my face with a third eye. It started with a propane torch behind the picture, which burned through the third eye and eventually burned the whole face away.

In the second Sculpture, I read from three different sacred books: the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, and the Bible. After reading a passage from each, I put the book in an urn to burn it. So, I burnt the holy books together in the same urn, and mixed the ashes together to form sacred ash. I was trying to "burn down to the essence" of all these different teachings. I then rubbed the ashes all over my body, which was already covered with blood.

Lauren: Why blood?

Alex: I don't always know why I do these things! But looking back, I think I can say that it was about being physical. The "Fire Sculptures" were rituals about the burning away of ego and form, through the revelation of the third, or "inner eye". Flames represent the consciousness that engulfs all of the wisdom teachings, and reduces them to a similar substance. By rubbing the "residue" or ashes of those teachings all over oneself, one's "bloody physical ness" is transformed into a more metaphysical nature.

In the last "Fire Sculpture", I had seven skulls surrounding me, which symbolized the different chakras. They were in a semi-circle in front of me, and above me was a skeleton I lit on fire. It was the final burning away and illumination of a kind of surrogate self.

Lauren: In your painting Holy Fire, you make much use of the element of Fire.

Alex: The Flame is consciousness. Any experience that expands awareness can be a purifying experience - bathing in the "holy fire". It's kind of funny, by the way, but when I work with fire imagery, I do seem to get feverish! When I was working on Holy Fire, I spent two weeks in a hot, feverish state, because I was suffering from an infection. Allyson made all the sculptures for the Burnt Offering performances, because I had a very high fever then too!

Lauren: The two of you often do performances together. In Prayer Wheel, you were tied together, and performed a walking meditation in a circle, making a living "prayer wheel".

Allyson: We've done a number of performances in which we set up a tableau, and activate it by being in it.

Alex: A Prayer Wheel is an engine for spiritual energy, that's what it symbolizes. It's meant to radiate an affirmation of the source of Spirit: "Oh Hail the Jewel in the Lotus, Om Mani Padme Hum", the jewel of spiritual being in the lotus of the unfolding mind. By repeating the mantra in the context of a huge prayer wheel, we felt like a generator. Allyson and I represented male and female polarities, and we were flanked by symbols of birth and death. Because everyone has both elements within them - and at every moment we're somewhere between birth and death, moving around the Wheel.

Copyright 1989, 2005 Lauren Raine.

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