James Cobb, Gratitude X 3, 2007; Giclée prints on paper; San Antonio Museum of Art, Gift of the Austin Fairchild Art Foun

Is he dead? Sit you down, father. Rest you.

Hills Snyder

The White Man goes into his church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes into his tipi and talks with Jesus.
— Quanah Parker

Art will move out of the gallery and museum to reintegrate with sacred ritual and aboriginal participation.
— Daniel Pinchbeck

Am I really flying high over America?
— Ossie Clark

“Psychedelic” is a word like “America.” You have an idea of what it means, but this may have nothing in common with what it means to someone else. Take the guy I recently saw in the San Antonio Public Library, with his magic-markered backpack advising us to FOLLOW SARAH TO AMERICA. I am sure he had a different response in mind, but his handiwork suggested to me only one thought: you can’t get there from there.

So it goes for “psychedelic.” Your definition and mine may not be the same.

The psychedelic movement in the Industrialized West has been gathering steam for a long time and is going strong, now more thoughtful and more serious than in an earlier, famous phase, the sixties. For instance, 2004 marked the first sanctioned research in thirty-five years—war veterans receiving FDA approved treatment with ecstasy for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and since 2006, Johns Hopkins has been doing therapeutic studies with psilocybin. Psychedelic, Optical and Visionary Art Since The 1960s stands between, suggesting that cultural upheaval has yielded style and lingering visual influence. It is a collection of art works that are characterized by intense color, intricate pattern and, at times, the fugitive contents of the randomly loping mind. The gorgeous catalog is valuable as a visual reference—a number of the works included in it could not be brought to the museum—and also for three very different essays: Curator David Rubin makes his case for psychedelic as a style pervading contemporary culture, Robert C. Morgan’s piece happily foregrounds Henri Michaux and Daniel Pinchbeck’s historical overview of the Western world’s fearful suppression of gnosis serves as a succinct introduction to the notion of personal psychedelic initiation. Additionally, the book and press release materials are extraordinarily generous to the lava lamp, available now in the museum store.

Alex Rubio, Trust, 2005; acrylic on canvas; collection of Ruben C. Cordova

“Mind manifesting” for a couple of decades was the most commonly used definition of “psychedelic,” but the word itself has been drained and is just as often employed in a glib Austin Powers parlance, pretty much meaning “awesome.” Present day, the word entheogen is widely used in the West, at least among those whose use of psychoactive materials is in some way ritualized. The word means “creates god within.” Put another way: the kingdom of heaven is within you. Indigenous ceremonies don’t use such words; don’t need to be “westernized.”

Originally coined by Humphry Osmond, “psychedelic” is notable in his answer to a couplet he received from Aldous Huxley. The written exchange went like this:

Huxley: To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme.

Osmond: To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.

So even though the word has lost some resonance, it’s good Osmond’s choice is the one that took off. Can you imagine an album called The Phanerothyme Rhymes of The 13th Floor Elevators?

The show features several artists that would have to be included: Deborah Remington, Fred Tomaselli, Sharon Ellis, Alex Grey and Jeremy Blake, whose Reading Ossie Clark is the perfect piece to represent Swingin’ London in this context. Others gathering notice, Kamrooz Aram, Gean Moreno and Jose Alvarez, are included as are many that are new to me, notably John J. Connor, Dean Byington, Ati Maier, Chiho Aoshima, Zachary Wollard and Wiliam Fields. It is Alvarez’ work which I most regret is not physically at the museum—his paintings, subversive, sincere or otherwise, convey a certain majestic hilarity familiar to anyone who has ever ingested “the ones that stain blue.” There are also a few artists that fit the context less comfortably, like Peter Halley, whose Neo-Geo pictogram is included by virtue of Day-Glo paint, but that is the way of such surveys—my sacrament may be your apertif. Furthermore, I understand why Karen Mahaffy’s supremely psychedelic video, Still Life with Fruit and Zuang Zi, is not in the show—it takes one outside the curator’s premise—but I am sincerely puzzled to not see works by Giles Lyon, Peter Young and Paul Laffoley. Young’s late sixties dot paintings are a natural for this context (maybe he’s beyond it) and Laffoley’s thoughtforms could serve as an interesting counterpoint to James Cobb’s inner space cartographies. I also lament the absence of work by Pablo Amaringo—but he’s from the other America. Nonetheless, it is truly an awesome roundup of stuff, reflecting lots of research outside The Vaults of Erowid.

Frank Stella’s Double Scramble is a cornerstone—it was this piece that spurred the curator to do the show—and is one of the standouts of the SAMA permanent collection. Its Modernist unprimed edges are a true sixties relic and contrast noticeably with the tattooed sides of Erik Parker’s Space Chase, painted almost forty years later. Parker’s three paintings are given a well-deserved central position in the main gallery. They’re large, slurpy-slick and let us know the artist had a good time painting them. He has kindred spirits in Robert Williams, Albert Alvarez and Alex Rubio—these four well represent the contagion of culture that is central to the curator’s thesis.

Constance Lowe, FabCom 14-2, 2004; colored pencil on drafting film; courtesy the artist and Ruiz-Healy Art, San Antonio

Constance Lowe’s paintings hover on the central irony of the show—that it does not claim to be about “the psychedelic experience.” Rather it is a gathering of evidence to support the notion that certain aspects of that experience have influenced the cultural surface. Yet I would support the assertion that Connie’s paintings are no such evidence. Her images are where her investigations have taken her, pure and simple. Which makes them kind of, I don’t know, psychedelic. It is as if you played the chords to the Moonlight Sonata in reverse order expecting to get the Sunlight Sonata. You won’t. In other words, these quietly centered paintings are the real thing. Their bilateral forms can suddenly spin and become cross sections of radially symmetrical figures lending them an impish, Heisenberg-in-reverse “we change when unobserved” quality.

Holding my laptop like a lyre, I key the following:


This installation presents a psychedelic light show that may induce a condition of disorientation for sensitive individuals. And you might like it.

This augmented disclaimer serves as the introduction to the room housing Richie Budd’s Bon Voyage, Somnambulating De Pileon, a kind of portable personal assistant facility sporting your bar-b-que pit, your pulsating rave, your watchful ocular, your NLP voice-over and a lot more. In its presence please try to be humble. Quoting Charlotta, a random viewer: “This is the sad state of art in our lives.” And her friend: “Charlotta, did you even read what this is?” So some come unprepared. Or over prepared, as the case may be. Such is the state of our lives, but the front end of the machine features an operator’s cockpit sized for a 4 year old, suggesting you become like a child to enter this multi-sensory media kingdom. Or maybe it’s requiring you to stand apart so you can objectify it and perhaps learn something about your machine.

Torsion: the extent to which a curve departs from being planar.

Abstract: Piles in a pile group subjected to torsion simultaneously mobilize lateral and torsional resistances.

Response: Subject to that category of change these behaviors can be expected unless the change was expected.

In other words, Charlotta, get twisted. You might like it.

And this pile of stuff will definitely twist your plane if you can fly in low enough to receive its rewards. Try standing a couple feet from the back end, eyes focused on the entrainment cherries. Do this while the Thunderball spins and splays its Tinkerbells on the walls and ceiling. Within 10 seconds the room will stabilize, except for the floor supporting you and the machine, which will then spin in the opposite direction. Most pleasing. Go with it, even if it mobilizes your resistance —it may tell you of your sleep. It can be helpful that way. I spent so much time with it that I came to feel I should offer it something.

Froatic Simultaneity: when related events happen separated by time but in relative proximity.

On December 9, 1968, in Menlo Park, California, Douglas Engelbart and others performed for 1000 computer professionals what has come to be called The Mother of All Demos, demonstrating for the first time the interactive possibilities of collaboration via computer. Two decades later, Ken Adams and Britt Welin, known collectively as Rose X, began their partnership with Terence McKenna in their video document, Experiment At Petaluma. Alien DreamTime, a rave/performance with sounds by Stephen Kent and Space Time Continuum, followed in February 1993, in an unoccupied building in San Francisco. These early live mashups were the beginnings of the performance-art/psyche-rant hybrid that McKenna became known for in the years that followed. It was a moment when technology and the times synced up—Rose X’ only tools were the video toaster and an Amiga computer, egalitarian machines to match the open spirit of what was created that night.

Flash forward to 2010, Leslie Raymond and Jason Jay Stevens, collectively known as Potter-Belmar Labs (PBL), collaborate in a live audio/video work at The Other Cinema, just a few blocks south of the Folsom Street address where Alien DreamTime was originally performed. Titled 21st Century Psychedelic, it was created for the Psychedelic show and opened the Tuesday night series of films and guest lecturers in the SAMA auditorium. It was the most fun I’ve had in that room since The Art Guys kissed every single person in attendance there, back in the previous century, and it broke me open as no art had since seeing Brett Gaylor’s rip! A Remix Manifesto at The Video Jam a few months ago.

The piece begins with a 1957 Moody Institute instructional film narrated by Dr. Irwin Moon, who is accompanied by a lab-coated sidekick using high-speed and time-lapse cameras to delve into The Mysteries of Time. Corny and ernest, it is likely to have offered a large number of fifth graders their first exposure to Crenellated Milk and Eggs William Tell. About 8 minutes in, Dr. Moon, who wants us to understand relativity, suddenly steps forward with a posture of familiarity and asks, “Say, would you like to take a nice two day vacation? All right, sit back, relax and enjoy yourself.” Soon, soundless lips still moving, Moon fades into a smoke-veiled space, which then segues to the scene of a person drifting on a bed in the Playa Del Rey from the “this is no dream” sequence in Rosemary’s Baby. Certainly an image signaling a voyage, what follows is a series of visual cues, which promise to take the participant in and through. They deliver, but your response is critical—you create the quality of it. Nonetheless, PBL have provided the setting for a great experience. The tumble and flow of images—hands winding a ball of string, a combustible cocktail party, forested pathways, 10,000 yearning seedlings, a key—these are cut with shimmering audio loops, Jorge Luis Borges voice-overs, Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera (from Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much) and the notes of She’s A Rainbow scattered like sudden showers. A mechanized rhythm interrupting a quiet sequence is reminiscent of the metered shaking of a shacapa signaling the next icaro in an otherwise nearly silent ayahuasca ceremony. By the time you get to the long mesmerizing sequence of fearful symmetry—bilaterally doubled images that imply a lowly buzzing sentience—the hypnotic bond is complete. The lingering effect is truly remarkable—I experienced an increase of love in my heart. Aqui tienes la sensacion de nacer y perecer cada dia.

Last October the San Antonio Express-News ran a short piece listing the top ten psychedelic songs of “all time” (in quotes because only songs from the sixties were included). There were a few one hit wonders which rode the wake of the times—stuff like Incense and Peppermints and I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night. But along side those were a few indisputably seminal numbers like Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, The Byrd’s Eight Miles High and The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. But one song that you never see on such lists is yet another Lennon song, Because, recorded over three years later in 1969. For me it is the single most psychedelic song of the era, even though it has none of the obvious characteristics typical of the genre. Its quietly ecstatic harmonies offer lyrics in the syllable-shy-ku form—gentle contiguities folding images into words and back into images with a simple Möbius maneuver. It’s not at all trippy and never fails to return me to a certain green hillside by a lake near Lawrence, Kansas where I felt with utter certainty the sense of something exalted bound by the bittersweet conditions of finitude.

Because the world is round it turns me on
Because the wind is high it blows my mind
Because the sky is blue it makes me cry

Psychedelic, Optical and Visionary Art Since The 1960s claims to be the first ever look at the development of a “psychedelic sensibility” in contemporary art and like the aforementioned song list, it delivers what it promises within its own parameters. It makes its case admirably. But what is this culture that creates and collects this sensibility? Why are we willing to reframe Frank Stella or even Peter Halley in this way? Why are there golf balls called MOJO that come in a box that looks like 1967? Is there something that hopes to regain obscurity by becoming generic? Is all this, including the show, just marketing for baby boomers? Is there a river of gratitude and benevolence over there, just behind that hill?

The list of questions could go on.

Apparently, art is a gateway drug.

A companion piece to this article can be found in ...might be good. Hills Snyder lives in San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at www.hillssnyder.com.

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