The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in New York City, a permanent public exhibition of Alex Grey’s most outstanding and widely appreciated works of contemporary transformative art, reminds us of just what’s possible-even in our contemporary secular society-when people unite to create something meaningful and of everlasting beauty.
On display is Grey’s installation of 21 framed images, comprising 19 paintings and two etched mirrors of life-sized figures-all of which meticulously study the anatomy of body, mind and spirit.
The chapel, a 3,000-square-foot huddle of rooms in a former warehouse, offers a collection which limns a near-fantastical world of cosmic consciousness. The Sacred Mirrors reveal the physical and subtle anatomy of a human being in the framework of cosmic, biological and technological evolution. The series is set up in a particular sequential order, presented in a linear start-to-finish fashion so that a viewer’s journey through the exhibition parallels the viewer’s journey through his or her physical, socio-political and spiritual anatomy.
Grey’s series offer us a defined relationship between the evolution of culture and the creation of sacred objects and structures – he paints souls. The human body occupies center stage as a living, pumping organism tender as hellfire: He renders it with medical-illustration precision, and then wraps each figure in layers of sacred energy. What sets him apart from other artists dealing with similar subject matter is Grey’s unique ability to visualize the multiple dimensions of reality and apply them in his own stylistic approach.
The form, lines and palette he chooses for each painting creates an image which “X-rays” these separate realms of existence – each dimension distinguishable according to the layer and detail of luminous color. Objects and space interweave each other in thick, enhancing nets, the repetition of the so-called “third-eye” reflects a lens of inner truth and skin is rendered transparent to reveal the network of muscles, veins, organs and bones within – to expose the body as the miracle it is.
The first painting in the series sets the standard for the 20 portraits to follow – a bare figure superimposed in vacant space stands tall, facing forward with wide open eyes, palms turned upwards and feet turned out. Grey depicts the silhouette of a male placed over the periodic table of elements – the words “ENERGY,” “TIME,” “MATTER” and “SPACE” appear in the center of each border.
Faint traces of color leak onto Grey’s palette in the ivory bones of the “Skeletal System” portrait – the first of six paintings representing the physical body’s main organ systems. Amid the consistently black background, gradations of primary hues coat sketches of anatomical systems as the collection’s philosophical narrative unfolds. The successive images portray the body’s physicality – male and female Caucasian, African and Asian bodies face viewers, inviting them to see past racial and gender divides to see themselves in each subject.
The following two portraits represent Grey’s philosophy that energy remains part of a coherent system. The paintings abandon the former black backdrop to adopt conditions dictated by the luminous energies radiating outward from our bodies. The succeeding two studies, both extremely abstract in comparison to the more realistic ones preceding them, zoom in on the energies surrounding the corporal-self. The next three examine three main secular deities. The final portrait, “Spiritual World,” is devoid of any physical body – it represents a depiction of the energetic sum of the former portraits’ individual parts; it is everything – every body and every energy – which preceded it.
The chapel’s architecture parallels and reinforces the ambiance created by Grey’s sacred art. The space symbolizes the dynamic force of evolution: pillows abound the walls to encourage meditation and a giant prayer wheel, inscribed with blessings of peace and healing from every faith, proliferates the entrance to encourage acceptance.
By pooling together post-modernist theory, ancient cross-cultural wisdom and anatomical knowledge from the five years he spent working at Harvard Medical School, Grey has produced stylish, universally reachable, ceaselessly appropriate and resounding symbols. In what may be described as a psychedelic realism approach -the artist repeatedly professes L.S.D. helped forge his spiritual and artistic ideology- his art evolves from exposed anatomical sketches to compact metaphors of luminous sacred energy.
Whether you think Grey’s work portrays the authenticity of celestial auras or an intensely pulsating artistic license doesn’t especially matter. The images have a strange effect on observers, enticing them to feel – or in any case reflect on the possibility of – the faint energies that encircle us. For many 21st century Westerners, the Sacred Mirrors may well be contemporary spiritual icons and graphic symbols of the universe.