By Alex Distefano
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By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A large but soft-spoken crowd gathers in the foyer of the Alex and Allyson Grey's Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (COSM), which overlooks a notorious stretch of nightclubs on West 27th Street. An unfelt air current tickles prayer flags hanging from the ceiling; Nietzsche's infamous quote "God is dead" sways next to a less controversial statement attributed to God: "Nietzsche is dead." The other flags offer inspiration from a wide range of sources: German theologian Meister Eckehart, Bahai's founding prophet Bahaullah, Lao-tzu, Mr. Rogers, William Blake, Alcoholics Anonymous, Monty Python, Nine Inch Nails, Aldous Huxley, Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Tool, and the Dalai Lama. The crowd, like the flags, is amassed from similarly far-flung backgroundsa Russian woman who discovered Alex Grey's artwork on a bottle of imported liquor; an 18-year-old college student from Argentina who is an avid fan of Tool; a tattoo artist from Columbus, Ohio; a onetime hippie mother and her 14-year-old daughter from Boulder, Colorado; a spiritual-healer-in-training from Venezuela; a 32-year-old game designer from Long Island. What they all seem to share is an interest in mystical experience that has been tapped and, in some cases, ignited by the artwork of Alex Grey.
During the early 1970s, Alex Grey reacted to the stultifying minimalism of the institutional art world by setting his armpit hair on fire and bringing decomposing dogs to art school. But this youthful nihilism subsided on May 30, 1975, the night he first dropped acid and met his future wife and fellow artist, Allyson Rymland.
"I gained an entirely new perspective on existence," says Grey, whose casual manner is offset by intense blue eyes, long silvery hair, and a somewhat ageless countenance. "First I realized there was a possibility of being happy. Then I understood that I could have a direct relationship with some kind of divine reality."
Informed by their newfound love and a shared exploration of a wide variety of entheogens, Grey's work took a sharp metaphysical turn and, quite quickly, came to typify the very best of psychedelic art. Over the years, Grey's paintingsenergy grids emanating from meditating figures; fiery busts with swirling galaxies in the place of eyes; "subtle bodies" revealing chakras, pressure points, and psychic emanations; religious archetypes composed of third eyes and esoteric iconography; anatomical figures without flesh engaged in passionate embraceshave appeared on the covers of Newsweek, Juxtapoz, and ArtPapers. He has created album art for the Beastie Boys, Nirvana, String Cheese Incident, and Tool and exhibited at P.S.1 in New York, the Grand Palais in Paris, the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego; his art also enhances rave flyers and sheets of blotter acid across the country. Grey's most ambitious worka series of 21 life-size canvases called the "Cosmic Mirrors," which took nearly 10 years to completepresents the human form in varying states of anatomical and spiritual undress. One painting shows a nearly scientific rendering of a body's lymphatic system while another portrays the "universal mind lattice," a vision of consciousness Allyson and Alex shared while tripping one night. The Chapel was originally meant to display these large paintings, but since opening two years ago, it has become something more.
"The [Grey] family really attracts people," says 30-year-old Eli Morgan, a longtime Tool fan and Grey admirer who volunteered to co-produce trance parties in order to raise money for the creation of the COSM. (Morgan now functions as the chief graphic designer for the quarterly COSM Journal for Visionary Cultureand as creative director for COSM Press, which has just released a coffee-table book on the intentional community of Damanhur.)
"The parties didn't really make money," admits Grey, "but they built community, which was the missing component. We really wanted to create a sacred space where creativity and spirituality could be explored, but a chapel without a community is just a joke."
Housed in a long stately hall with moody lighting, burnished wood floors, and golden pillars shaped like seraphim, the chapel is certainly a stirring space. The massive cosmic mirrors, set in custom-made frames depicting the varying paths of wisdom and science, beg attention and reflection. "Allyson inspired the entire series," says Alex. "I wouldn't have done it without her. She told me to paint them. She named them."
"He always says that," says Allyson, giving her husband a deep kiss in front of the rapt crowd. "Alex makes me the source of what he does, but everyone knows that he is the source of my whole life. If you want to know how to make a relationship work, that's it: Be each other's source."
Alex opens a set of heavy wooden doors, beckoning us under an archway that reads, "Surrender to Love."
The Chapel, we discover, is just the beginning.
COSM houses several galleries that form a sacred spiral filled with both Greys' artwork: There are vivid fractals featuring an invented alphabet; beings of light in the acts of copulation, birth, and death; family portraits including daughter Zena Lotus Grey; a psychedelic rendering of Albert Hofmann; a foreboding vision of an escapable apocalypse. Each room reveals more of the Greys' distinctive internal vision.