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To the user of hallucinogens—whether mescaline, psilocybin or LSD—the world is transformed into a work of psychedelic art for the time the drug is active. Brave New World author Aldous Huxley described this condition in The Doors of Perception (1954), an account of his first mescaline experiences with researcher Humphrey Osmond in 1953. It was Osmond who later suggested the term psychedelic when the pair was looking for a word that might allow public discussion of their discoveries. Osmond’s neologism means “mind-manifesting” and refers to the process whereby the mind of the mescaline or LSD user receives unfiltered perceptions of the world and of those interior states that Huxley later described as the mind’s visionary antipodes: “manifestations … of the non-human otherness of the universe.”

Album cover art for Noema’s The Magic Movement (left) by Spanish designer and illustrator Luis Toledo. Working under the name La Prisamata, Toledo is best known for his “spiritual digital collages,” such this personal piece (right), titled Alta Mayor.

One of Huxley’s early realizations was that art of any kind, even the most apparently visionary or transcendent example, is a poor substitute for the profound transformation of the world as revealed in the psychedelic state. The art that we consider today to be psychedelic exists outside the hallucinogenic experience and, like the paintings that Huxley was studying during his mescaline trips, such art can’t help but be a poor substitute for what it might represent. Psychedelic art, which can range from intensely personal work to commercial derivations, signposts its visionary origins in much the same manner as does religious art, serving as a reminder and an icon of something beyond the world of everyday life.

Psychedelic art falls into two broad categories: the first attempts to capture the perceptions of the visionary state and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with drugs at all. Examples include paintings and drawings by so-called outsider artists such as Adolf Wölfli, the kaleidoscope cats of Louis Wain, and paintings by fantastic and visionary artists such as Ernst Fuchs, Mati Klarwein and Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Certain forms of religious art are psychedelic in this sense when they vividly present the mystical realms that Huxley believed were an integral feature of the mind’s antipodes.

The second category is psychedelic in the Alice in Wonderland sense and comprises all the familiar poster designs and record sleeves of the late 1960s, together with T-shirts, tapestries, and the groovy paint jobs on trucks and cars. This type of psychedelic art is the most commonly visible form, and its core features were developed in a very short space of time—roughly, the two years from mid-1965 to mid-1967—by poster artists in San Francisco and London. Pitched at a young audience, the psychedelic posters rejected the clear and immediate styles of commercial advertising in favor of distortion, intensity and semi-legibility. The designs drew attention not with their message, but with a vibrant graphic confusion that emulated the multimedia derangement of the senses taking place at the concerts they promoted. The posters and record sleeves also served to remind users of psychedelics of their own acid experiences and to remind the audience of Huxley’s antipodes—travel posters from a journey to the Other World.

Vibrant graphic patterns in the work of Brazilian artist Duda Lanna find a home in commissioned designs for Kimberly-Clark (left) and obox (right).

The key feature of this type of art is always a striving for visual excess: vivid hues and spectrum shades; gradients and clashing colors; dazzling periodic structures borrowed from optical art, aka op art; collage and superimposition; a magpie accumulation of motifs from art nouveau, symbolist painting, comic books, cartoons, antique photographs, engravings and fin de siècle erotica; and, of course, the flowing letterforms, which, by necessity, are almost always hand-drawn. San Francisco psychedelic artist Victor Moscoso studied at Yale under Josef Albers, but he claimed that his most vibrant and striking effects were achieved by doing the opposite of all that he’d been taught. Channeled chaos is a hallmark of the psychedelic style. By 1969, this first phase of psychedelic art was over, even though elements lingered into the next decade, inspiring the visionary landscapes created by California artists Nick Hyde, Gage Taylor and Joseph Parker, as well as painters such as Klarwein and Robert Venosa, whose detailed canvases appeared not only on gallery walls, but also on covers of albums by Miles Davis, Santana and others. In Europe, the painters of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, notably Fuchs, led the way for a new generation of artists unconcerned by trends in contemporary art. Fuchs’s blending of symbolism, surrealism and religious art used a hyper-real painting style to render human figures, plants and fantastic creatures as living jewels. Fuchs’s influence can be found among the works of painters such as Alex Grey, in which the human figure is a transparent being radiating auras and enmeshed in grids of glowing light, and Martina Hoffmann, the wife of the late Robert Venosa, who shares her husband’s fascination with jeweled landscapes, hybrid beings and crystalline forms. In Heaven and Hell (1956), Huxley notes the connections between stained glass, jewels and the visionary state.

A surreal landscape for the cover of Earth’s double album Primitive and Deadly by Los Angeles-based artist Samantha Muljat; a music poster by Portland, Oregon, artist Mishka Westell.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, fantastic realism was a haven for unfashionable psychedelia. Away from the art world, however, Benoît Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry was revealing new forms of polychrome unreality in the iterations of the Mandelbrot set—the channeled chaos of mathematics. The popularity of Mandelbrot’s fractal forms combined in the early 1990s with several other developing trends—desktop computer graphics, cyberpunk aesthetics, techno and ambient electronic music—to produce a digital equivalent of the psychedelic art of the 1960s, although the novelty of Photoshop collages and simple 3-D graphics soon grew stale.

Twenty years on, with the visual arts a fragmented field and no single movement prevailing, artists are free to pursue their own interests without the pressure of chasing an avant-garde. In the profusion of competing styles, psychedelia has made a return among a range of international artists, illustrators and graphic designers. One leading exponent is Fred Tomaselli, a Californian whose paintings and collages often work prescription drugs and psychotropic plants into their surfaces. Like Klarwein and Venosa, most of Tomaselli’s work is produced for the gallery, but Tomaselli commissions have also graced several album covers. Not surprisingly, the music world continues to encourage psychedelic art: Mishka Westell in Austin, Texas, works beautiful variations on the San Francisco poster style in her promotional art for Southwest music festivals, and Samantha Muljat, a German artist and photographer based in California, finds in her album covers and posters a mystical potential in the Western landscape.

Collage was a popular surrealist technique that 1960s artists such as Wilfried Sätty, Martin Sharp and Tadanori Yokoo further developed in their concert posters. Digital tools have revitalized the technique, enabling Spanish artist Luis Toledo, aka La Prisamata, to create fevered dreamscapes that push the surrealism of Fuchs and Sätty to extremes of detailed complexity.

Illustrator Mathis Rekowski’s surreal digital compositions are reminiscent of the work of Salvador Dalí. His commercial clients include Delta Airlines, Mercedes, Skoda, Sport Chek, Wired and Volkswagen, among others.

Elsewhere, a psychedelic influence—whether explicit or latent—can be found in the work of Italian illustrator and designer Flavio Melchiorre, whose drawings shatter the world into multicolored fragments, and in the work of Melbourne, Australia–based graphic designer Simon Bent. Working under the name Volume2a, Bent borrows from the op art styles of the 1960s and the bold graphics of Heinz Edelmann and Peter Max. In Berlin, German artist Mathis Rekowski offers sardonic ripostes to the platitudes of the love generation: Make War declares the legend underneath a melting, glowing, multihued Darth Vader mask. Psychedelic art can be purely figurative or it can verge on the abstract, as in the swirling, patterned landscapes of Duda Lanna, a Brazilian artist and designer, whose intent can be discerned in the titles of some of his works: Serotonin, Cosmic Amphetamine Brain, The Mushroom Collector and Bailão Psicodélico, which means “psychedelic dance.”

The drug connection may no longer be essential for art to be considered psychedelic; the term is loosely applied to any vivid graphics as often as “surreal” is to anything slightly unusual. But a resurgence of interest in psychedelic drugs may yet stimulate further developments. Recent research has shown the benefits of psilocybin in helping cancer patients deal with anxiety; this and other research bolster calls for the half-century of prohibition to be reassessed, even ended altogether. With each decriminalization of cannabis, the argument for banning other psychotropic drugs grows weaker. It may be unwise to consider a future “psychedelic renaissance,” but the artistic path to Huxley’s antipodes is increasingly open to all. ca
John Coulthart (johncoulthart.com) is a fantasy illustrator and graphic designer working in Manchester, United Kingdom. His previous essays and reviews have appeared in Eye magazine, Strange Attractor and Horror: The Definitive Guide to the Cinema of Fear.

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