Visionary Art: Pavel Tchelitchew and Alex Grey

Considering how much time I spend trolling art openings and museums, it’s rather amusing that so little art actually evokes a visceral response from me. Many pieces are intellectually interesting, of course, but nothing really seizes my by the neck and shakes me to the bone. With a couple of exceptions…

One chilly dark night, years ago, I wandered through New York’s East Village, in an even darker mood. Nothing was going right in my life, it seemed, and somewhere between the avenues of self-pity and depression, I found my way into a small bookstore. On a table there, I began to page through a book of semi-psychedelic pseudo-medical illustrations, showing auric fields emanating from people, their chakras, and the typical veins and bones you’d expect to see in scientific illustrations — if the illustrations were copulating, praying, meditating, and wandering through outer space. Something began to change in my mood. I couldn’t explain it, but I began to realize there was a whole world beyond my clouded little problems. By the time I’d paged through to the end of the book, my whole attitude had been transformed. It was perhaps the first time I’d actually seen physical visualizations of the chakras and energy fields around our bodies, although I’d frequently heard them discussed. The artist was of course, Alex Grey. He’s not to some people’s liking, but I really felt an impact on my whole perspective just from reproductions in a book.

By sheer synchronicity, once I had relocated to LA, my good friends had arranged an exhibition of his work in their gallery. By the time of this opening, the impact of Grey’s paintings had diminished for me, but standing amidst them in the gallery, I was awestruck. Meeting the artist, I just found there wasn’t really anything I could say because I was so deeply moved. But I wanted to know more about him.

Grey has written a book on his artistic process, and recorded a tape of dialogues discussing the evolution of his work, entitled, “The Visionary Artist.”  He frequently gives artist’s workshops at Esalen and the Omega Institute. His work was spanned a wide gamut, from the dark photographic documentation of the decay of a dog he accidentally ran over to workshops designed to unite inner city kids in artistic collaboration. Psychedelic experiences play a large role in his life; he met his wife during an acid trip. While working as a medical illustrator in a morgue, he poured lead into the ear of a decapitated head (apparently a common procedure) and actually became haunted by the head’s spirit. This experience so deeply moved him that it opened up a whole realm of spirituality in his artwork. He’s a rather devout Buddhist.

Standing in the midst of a tryptych at the gallery, I found myself speechless in the middle of a crowd. I had felt that deeply moved only once before, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As I reached the end of the historical evolution of modern art on the second floor, before emerging into the lobby, a huge painting by Pavel Tchelitchew, entitled “Hide and Seek” loomed ominously. An enormous tree stretches into veiny arms, framing faces, and in its truck, a girl looks up into the trunk, a baby emrging between her legs. The painting is rather large, perhaps 6 feet square. Unlike Monet’s water lillies, there were no benches to sit on to try to digest the complexity of this overwhelming work. So I plopped down on the floor in front of it, transfixed, and probably stayed there a half an hour gaping. Then I returned again and again to the museum, to see it.

Hide and Seek was inspired by a tree Tchelitchew saw at an English estate during a visit in 1936, but it was nearly 6 years later that he began the painting, which took three years to complete. It is the second of a projected tryptych, following Phenomenon. The third was never completed. Phenomenon was ultimately gifted to a museum in Moscow, which apparently was rather non-plussed to receive it.

Alex Grey’s “Gaia” seems to bear more than a passing similarity to Hide and Seek:

Who was  Pavel Tchelitchew?  And how the heck do you pronounce his name? (I’ve been told “Chitch a’ Chef.”) A Russian painter, he emigrated to the US in the early 20th Century, and spent a good deal of time in Paris and Italy. He was friends with Gerturde Stein, who was a big supporter of his work. He was good friends with Balanchine and Diagalev, and painted portraits of them and contributed many of their stage sets. He was somewhat of an outsider to the Getrude Stein circles because of his homosexuality. The excuse given by curators for him not getting more attention, is that they don’t know how to categorize him, or where he fits in the canon of modern art. MOMA apparently no longer exhibits Hide and Seek, following their renovation. The excuse is its large size and lack of context. (update 2019: apparently it’s on display again)

Hide and Seek is hallucinogenic. But there’s no mention of drug use in his history. But Phenomenon isn’t nearly as psychedelic; in fact, it’s nearly a realistic montage. His other works vary enormously in style; some seem to be pale imitations of geometric constructivist photo illustrations by El Lizzetsky.

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