High Art 

Affirming art’s secret history of substance abuse

Thursday, Nov 3 2005
One of the collateral victims of the U.S. government’s criminal and moronic War on Drugs has been public awareness of the degree to which American culture has been shaped by the widespread use of powerful psychoactive substances by its creative minds, particularly since the 1960s. Music, literature and film have been transformed, to greater or lesser degrees, in order to correspond to the unspoken and otherwise undocumented frontiers of consciousness whose ongoing exploration has fundamentally restructured our society’s individual and collective understandings of reality, not to mention attention spans.

For various reasons, visual art has had an even more pronounced association with pharmacologically induced altered states of consciousness. The history of modern art could easily be re-framed in terms of what poisons were being ingested by artists in each period: Cubism = Absinthism, Pop = Amphetaminism, etc. Further, many pioneering researchers in LSD and other major psychedelic drugs — Aldous Huxley, Stanislav Grof, Oscar Janiger, Masters and Houston — were particularly attentive to the responses of visual artists, who seemed to have a vocabulary more capable of describing the visionary realms into which they found themselves transported. Of course, all that went deep underground in 1966, when acid became suddenly and extremely illegal. Through the early ’70s, it was possible to openly acknowledge the influence of drugs on art, but with each subsequent decade, the need to be pharmacologically closeted grew and grew.

While gossipy cautionary tales like Jean-Michel Basquiat’s received wide play for their reinforcement of the party line, the overwhelming mass of positive drug-related artistic experiences, as well as the even deeper and broader social, psychological and spiritual issues they pointed up, have remained basically taboo. With its latest major exhibit, “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States,” MOCA has courageously confronted this taboo in a funny, celebratory manner, creating what amounts to a theme park on the topic of intoxication.

 Chino Aoshima’s City Glow (2005)

As with any theme park, some attractions rock and some suck. In “Ecstasy” ’s case, I think this derives from an attempt to represent a wide swath of responses to altered states of consciousness (ASCs), ranging from Klaus Weber’s essentially political gesture of putting a trace amount of LSD in a crystal fountain to Ann Veronica Janssens’ colored-light projection Donut (2003), which uses strobing concentric rings to induce drug-analogous glitches in brainwave frequencies. Some works, like Elija-Liisa Ahtila’s rather dry 2002 triple-screen projection, Talo/The House, explore the more frightening ASCs that border on pathological dissociative realms, while the show’s ostensible pièce de résistance — Carsten Höller’s Upside-Down Mushroom Room (2000) — has the boneheaded literalism of stoner art made by a smart-ass high school kid who’s never actually been experienced. “Oh, wow, giant spinning upside-down amanitas! I must be high!”

A number of works share this unfortunate confusion of menu for meal — Roxy Paine and Takashi Murakami also seem to have been included solely on the basis of their verbatim ’shroom imagery, while Fred Tomaselli’s intricately composed resin-soaked collages of actual pot leaves, blotter hits, Valiums, etc. (now fleshed out with body-part magazine clippings), have lost their slight conceptual edge through more than a decade of repetition, though they’re still pretty pretty. Tom Friedman’s Play-Doh pharmacopoeia treads dangerously close to the same redundancy vibe, but is pulled clear by the inclusion of several other works that hint at the restless inventiveness of his oeuvre — though I’m not sure what a Styrofoam sculpture of a plane hitting the WTC has to do with altered perceptions. Yes, I do. I just don’t know what it has to do with drugs.

As the show’s title suggests, not all the works reference drug-induced ASCs — Matt Mullican shares a couple of videos documenting his long-running experimentation with hypnosis as a tool in painting and performance. Many of the works — Glenn Brown’s sumptuous seething oil portraits or Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s miniaturized movie-theater installation, for example — re-create perceptual divergences that most teetotalers know from fever dreams or grace. The most successful works in the show are, in fact, those that mimic the phenomenology of ASCs rather than displaying some not-so-secret symbol with a knowing wink.

Foremost among these are installations by Pierre Huyghe and Erwin Redl. Huyghe’s piece — centered in a darkened room on the upper mezzanine — consists of a miniature stage set equipped with elaborate computer-choreographed theatrical lighting in a range of reds and purples, which sweep across tiny clouds of smoke-machine fog to the strains of Debussy’s lush, sentimental orchestrations of Eric Satie’s Gnossiennes. Sitting on the provided floor cushions, the viewer is strangely transported by what could easily pass for an elaborate pitch to subcontract a Vegas figure-skating revue, yet the work achieves a transcendent level of cheesiness — breaking on through to the other side of kitsch.

Redl’s MATRIX II (2000/2005) installation is more clinical, but no less sublime. An entire blacked-out back corner of the cavernous Geffen Contemporary is given over to a three-dimensional grid of glowing green LEDs, immersing viewers in a Euclidian field that shifts and reconfigures into different patterns as they move around it, conjuring both a hyperawareness of human spatial perceptual hard-wiring and an intimation of the underlying geometric realities experienced by devotees of peyote and mescaline. A word of caution: Try to visit this show during off-hours, as many of the works — particularly these immersive contemplative environments — are completely sabotaged by crowding. I haven’t heard a single favorable report of the supercongested opening.

 Ann Veronica Janssen's
Donut (2003)
As with many MOCA survey shows, there are an unusually high number of frustrating curatorial exclusions. Apart from the many obvious mainstream art-world figures, it would have been exciting to see some psychedelic art produced in the course of psychiatric research — there have been studies done since the show’s 1990 cutoff date. Many of the inclusions are equally puzzling. Franz Ackermann’s painting installation is swell (but somebody please give that dude a color wheel!) but says nothing about the topic of ASCs. At least, Paul Noble’s epic, lyrical graphite drawings scream “Pothead!”

One of the big conceptual problems with a show like “Ecstasy” is that it can document the impact of ASCs – drug-induced or otherwise — only up to the point that they continue to validate the museological presentation of precious material objects that fall into a special category we agree to call art. And while the amount of excellent work on view here makes “Ecstasy” a definite must-see, and MOCA is to be commended for its brave affirmation of the politically unsanctioned potentials of human consciousness, for most of the people I know who have actually seen “a world in a grain of sand,” the idea that experiences of visionary ecstasy can be mediated by any authority or institution is a joke. But hey — it’s good for a laugh.

ECSTASY: In and About Altered States | The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo | Through February 20, 2006

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