By Jared Chausow
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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 Culture and 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.
"Really, who needs drugs when you can hang out here?" says 22-year-old Sacha Mulroney with a wonder-filled grin. "I wish I could sleep here overnight."
While slumber parties are not yet part of the curriculum, COSM does offer yoga classes, Tibetan bell ringing, art salons, full-moon and new-moon ceremonies, art classes, and lectures for people interested in visionary subjects like sacred geometry, yantra, and alchemy.
For the full-moon celebration, Eli Morgan has to set up a remote viewing space in the chapel. As the main gallery fills to capacity, young adultsTool fans mostlyhappily sprawl out on zabutons. A 103-year-old paranormal researcher named Alexander Imich takes a seat near nine-year-old wise child Leigh Singer, who will later deliver a poem to the large crowd. People sit on the floor, offering each other back rubs and introducing themselves with hugs. The ceremonywhich includes two poets, a blind dancer, a rabbi, a shaman, a kirtan singer, a sitar player, and a visionary lawyergoes on for far too long, but no one seems to mind much. A few even cry.
As people flow into the dance hall, the sound of drums and the smell of burning sage fill the air.
"This is a pretty strange scene," says 37-year-old Hannah Hooglander, a visitor from Ontario who was brought to COSM by a childhood friend. "They all seem so hungry for meaning. Any meaning."
"Art started as an expression of the sacred," says Alex Grey, as a crowd of admirers hover at his shoulder. "With the general decay and corruption of religious institutions and the disassociation and alienation people feel, it makes sense that art is again coming to play a vital role in nurturing the souls of postmodern people."