The New Eye
Visionary Art and Tradition
The sad truth about descriptive categories like “visionary art” is that they are both useful and lame. Especially in the art world, the language of genres and styles often has more to do with galleries and critics than with making and enjoying art. But reflecting about categories can also be fruitful, because it shapes the context of our seeing—and more importantly, the way we share and talk about our seeing. So here is my seed crystal: visionary art is art that resonates with visionary experiences, those undeniably powerful eruptions of numinous and multidimensional perception that suggest other orders of reality. Certain individuals have a predilection for visionary experiences, but these luminous glimpses bless us all at some point in our lives—sometimes through intentionally induced trance states or psychoactive raptures, and sometimes through the gratuitous grace of deep dreams or the demented funhouse of a quasi-schizophrenic break. But we also understand and experience visionary experience through visionary culture, those artifacts of human culture with its eyes agog.
From the perspective of the mainstream art system, however, visionary art could be seen as an attempt to broaden and extend the notion of the outsider artist—those creative madmen, religious eccentrics, and poor folk considered to be outside the boundaries of conventional art history. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, for example, describes its collection as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” That’s all fine and well, and the museum is cool, but this definition is pretty lacking. By insisting that visionary artists are self-taught, the AVAM implies that visionary art is not found inside the schools, movements, or lineages that compose the dominant flows of art history. It becomes a purely idiosyncratic affair, reduced to the solitary, obsessive individual, a Simon Rodia or a Howard Finster. But many visionary artists—by my definition—are and have been formally educated. More importantly, many visionary artists self-consciously locate their work within a lineage of inspired image-makers that stretches back through generations of Surrealist dreamers, mystic minimalists, and medieval icon painters. Abstract art, the most exalted and intellectualized gesture of the modernist avant-garde, actually emerged from a lotus pond of theosophy, spiritualism, and occult meditation practices.
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What is Visionary Art? by Alex Gray
The Visionary Tradition
A complete historical account of the global visionary art tradition would fill volumes. The sixteen thousand-year-old cave paintings of human/animal hybrids, such as the Sorcerer of Trois Freres, are a good starting point. Much ancient shamanic art, such as African ritual masks and aboriginal rock and bark paintings, clearly depict visionary dreamtime wanderings and encounters in the lower and upper worlds. A visionary art history lesson would include representations of mythic deities and demons: the Mayan feathered serpent; Egyptian and Greek sphinxes; and Indian, Balinese, and Thai portrayals of many-limbed, many-headed beings housed in complex mandalas.
One of the earliest known Western mystic visionary artists was Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German abbess. While enveloped by a fiery inner light, she was told to "speak and write not according to human speech or human inventiveness, but to the extent that you see and hear those things in the heavens above in the marvelousness of God." The icons created from her visions are direct and authentic gifts of spirit.
Perhaps the most famous visionary artist was the fifteenth-century painter Hieronymous Bosch, who portrayed an extraordinary array of grotesque beings, tortured souls in hell, and angels guiding the saved to the light of heaven. His Garden of Delights is one of the strangest paintings in the world – an encyclopedia of metamorphic plant/animal/human symbolism. Pieter Bruegel was touched with the same visionary madness when he created Fall of the Rebel Angels and Triumph of Death – an amazing landscape featuring a coffin go-kart and armies of skeletons herding the struggling masses. Northern and Italian Renaissance artists like Grunewald, Durer, and Michelangelo delineated the revelations of Christian mysticism with searing, Gothic realism.
Our historical sketch of visionary art would have to include the seventeenth-century alchemical engravings of Johann Daniel Mylius, and mystics like Jacob Boehme and Robert Fludd, who detailed complex mandalic philosophical maps pointing to union with the divine.
William Blake, the nineteenth-century mystic artist and poet, conversed with angels and received painting instructions from discarnate entities. Blake published his own books of art and poetry, which revealed an idiosyncratic mysticism arising from his inner perception of religious subjects. He resisted conventional religious dogma, proclaiming that "all religions are one." The characters in Blake's paintings and engravings seem akin to those of Renaissance masters Michelangelo, Raphael, and Durer – yet are softened with a peculiar magic. His artwork exalts an ideal realm of inspiration that he termed the "divine imagination." Blake's work laid the foundations for the nineteenth-century Symbolist movement that included such artists as Gustav Moreau, Odilon Redon, Jean Delville, and Frantisek Kupka.
The realm of visionary art also embraces Modernist Abstraction like the works of Kupka, Klee, and Kandinsky; Surrealist or Fantastic Realist art; and Idealist work like Blake's. The twentieth-century Surrealists operated in a territory without clear moral order: a dreamship adrift on the ocean of the unconscious. Artists like Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Hans Arp, Hans Bellmer, Stanislav Szukalski, Juan Miro, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Frida Kahlo mixed images from childhood memories, adult desires and fears, sex and violence – wherever the creative currents led them. The visions of the Surrealists help to define a dream realm where any bizarre juxtaposition is possible. A profound truth resides in such strangeness, for these visions can shock us into deepening our acknowledgement and appreciation of the Great Mystery.
The Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew was one of the great visionary artists of the twentieth century (his obsession with anatomy and mysticism relates to my own work). Tchelitchew's paintings evolved through metamorphic symbolism to x-ray anatomical figures glowing with inner light, and eventually progressed to luminous, abstract networks. Perhaps the most widely respected visionary painter of the twentieth century is Ernst Fuchs, whose highly detailed and symbolic works are often based on biblical and mythological subjects. Fuchs combines the technical mastery of Durer and Van Eyck with the imagination of Bosch and Blake in a completely personal fantastic realism. Fuchs has had a widespread and profound influence on many of the greatest contemporary visionary artists. The masterful Mati Klarwein, Robert Venosa, De Es Schwertberger, Olga Spiegel, Philip Rubinov-Jacobson, and many others count him a key teacher or inspirational force.
The post-World War II Vienna school of Fantastic Realism included artist friends of Ernst Fuchs, like Arik Brauer, Anton Lehmdon, Wolfgang Hutter, and Rudolph Hausner. In 1940s America, the artists Ivan Albright, George Tooker, Paul Cadmus, Peter Blume, and Hyman Bloom were known as Magic Realist painters.
The psychedelic sixties spawned a new kind of poster art, leading many painters in a visionary direction. In the 1960s and 70s, a loosely associated group of California visionary painters – Joseph Parker, Cliff McReynolds, Clayton Anderson, Gage Taylor, Nick Hyde, Thomas Akawie, Bill Martin, and Sheila Rose – were published by Pomegranate Art Books. Pomegranate has also featured the shamanically inspired work of Susan Seddon Boulet. A more visually aggressive psychedelic pop surrealism energizes the work of Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Robert Williams.
Paul Laffoley, a painter and architect, is one of the most encyclopedic of visionary geniuses. Dystopic visions of contemporary hell worlds are stunningly portrayed in the paintings of Joe Coleman, H.R. Giger, Manuel Ocampo, and Odd Nerdrum. Visionary abstraction is articulated in beautiful infinities in the works of Allyson Grey, Bernie Maisner, and Suzanne Williams. Some of the most promising new visionary painting is by A. Andrew Gonzalez, Erial, and Guy Aichison. The archetypal mindscapes of Francesco Clemente and Ann McCoy enjoy the rare distinction of visibility and success in the contemporary art marketplace. The word "visionary" has also come to be associated with "outsider, naive, insane, and self-taught" artists, who include Adolph Wolfli, Reverend Finster, and Minnie Evans.
What unites these various groups of artists is the driving force and source of their art: their unconventionally intense imaginations. Their gift to the world is to reveal "in minute particulars," as Blake would say, the full spectrum of the vast visionary dimensions of the mind.
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Visionary Art--In The Eye of the Artist
Introduction from “Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey”
What is Visionary Art?
The American Visionary Art Museum
800 Key Highway
Baltimore, MD 21230
How is visionary art different from folk art?
The German origin of the word "folk," or volk, suggests "of the people." The term "folk art" can be applied in the broadest sense: it's art of or by the people. At AVAM, we don't define visionary art as "folk art," or even "contemporary folk art," principally because organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts rightfully define folk art as art coming out of a specifically identifiable tradition. Folk art is "learned at the knee" and passed from generation to generation, or through established cultural community traditions, like Hopi Native Americans making Kachina dolls, sailors making macramé, and the Amish making hex signs. The "contemporary folk art" label isn't appropriate for AVAM either, since we like to show works created by self-taught artists who may have lived hundreds of years ago, alongside work that may have been created last year. The exhibition themes we choose to explore are, thus, innately timeless -with the power to inspire human beings in highly personal acts of creation. Unlike folk art, visionary art is entirely spontaneous and individualized.
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