Alex Grey and the Beastie Boys
In 1994, the Beastie Boys released one of their highest selling classic albums, Ill Communication. Nestled into the usual mix of high energy rap, hiphop, funk and punk was a painting of Alex Grey’s, at the center of the double album. Adam Yauch, a founding member of the group, was a practicing buddhist, introducing a young fan base to numerous spiritual ideas. Alex Grey would encounter Yauch at Buddhist ceremonies and speaking engagements with the Dalai Lama. (http://alexgrey.com/press-media/interviews/interview-for-the-examiner/). His influence on the group placed the painting “Gaia” at the core of the album’s packaging.
The Beastie Boys were huge at this time, superstars following up an 3 enormously successful albums, with yet another huge seller. Many young people had their first experience seeing Alex Grey’s deeply profound spiritual art from this painting, although they might never have known who painted it. It appears alongside the lyrics from one of the most famous acts in Hip Hop history. It seems an unlikely combo but it was placements like this that pushed Alex Grey, deeper into the youthful experimental counter culture exposure as an artist.
This image provided hours of examination along with the music during the time before internet allowed such imagery to proliferate virally. Nowadays Alex’s art can be viewed easily online, and articles abound about both Alex and the Beasties, but back then the packaging of the music was one of the only ways to get any context about the band, the process or the music itself. Album design was its own artform, and soapbox platform. Other Beastie Boy albums such as Paul’s Boutique and Check your Head had been masterpieces of urban art in the musical and graphic design sense, coming from the streets of Brooklyn and rising up to global acclaim. This Alex Grey painting was a potent visual message for them to deliver into millions of hands. The album went triple platinum. The inclusion of Alex’s work indicated that amongst the rougher, harder urban party fueled message of the original Beasties, that the band had a social conscience, and understood the notion of a world spirit. Gaia. The painting itself says it all.
Gaia is one of Alex Grey’s overtly symbolic paintings with a message clearly defined in the classic dualistic sense. This image is essentially what you open the folded album open to, it is a surprise to the buyer who buys it in a plastic packaged sleeve. It became a sort of talisman image to explain the difference between “us” and “them”. In one painting you could see what it seemed like unchecked humanity was doing to the earth, an image of doom and apocalypse. The symbolism encourages the viewer to see the world beyond the duality as a whole and the energetic of it pulsing waves into space. Truly global consciousness. An awesome image chosen to accompany the HipHop rhymes of an inner city rap crew.
11 years later, the relevance of the painting’s content has prophetically increased in importance as humanity moves further down the paths of industrialization and progress. Clearly the juxtaposition is the natural world, and the human created world. The central figure, a tree split down the middle between idyllic natural life and the fiery destruction of human progress. At the foot of the tree is a mother and child situated in the center of the duality. Humanity seems to have a choice.
The conscious and subconsciously registered symbolism here found favour in the counterculture of the day, who were skeptical of “progress” increasingly industrialized and urbanized. Hip Hop music was known as a genre of political activism, and Gaia’s message resonated with those who saw a more natural path for human evolution. One way to be truly counterculture was to get back to nature. The notion of the evil empire was growing and so were the legion of land lovers.
For many young people in the 90’s who had no connection to the art world of New York, or the legacy of the techniques of master painters, images such as Gaia, in the record packaging, were gateways into not only the fine art world, but into the world of “visionary” artists, amongst whom Alex was clearly a modern pioneer and early adopter. Alex Grey’s psychedelic vision touched some sort of universal nerve when viewed, mesmerizing those people who had similar experiences and felt aligned with Alex’s message of peace and unity, as well as full blown psychedelic imagination. Finding Alex grey art on the packaging of one’s album was a true treasure back in the day, and this image ended up on many a bedroom wall.
In 1994 It was very difficult to come across Alex Grey art other than in the coffee table book Sacred Mirrors. Alex’s art became part of the visionary music subcultures because it resonated with their experiences of those places themselves. In a lineage of artists like Salvador Dali, and Picasso, in terms of the exploration of the edges of the human mind, Alex’s art also had the realistic precision of legendary master painters, as well as a textbook worthy renditions the human figure, inside and out. Grey is perhaps the first of the modern era surreal fantastic realists whose art is expressly psychedelic, becoming both the inspiration and the source of many a tripper’s trip.
Grey became a psychedelic elder in a time when there were few role models or true master artists playing that role. In the subsequent years from exposure like the Beastie Boys provided, Grey’s art has come to be part of many authorized, and unauthorized media projects, posters, cd covers fliers etc. His art is a beacon for the neuronauts and the newage, as well as the trippers and partiers who are captivated by its fantastic aesthetic.
For those actively exploring the edges of consciousness, Grey became the leading artistic figure in the expression of the wonders of the imagination. His art would become a voice for the visionary entheogenic movement as well as nearly a household name in the musical world. Later collaborations with the band Tool would increase this appeal to the youth. Innumerable Live painting shows with his wife Allyson Grey, throughout the electronic dance media and festival circuit have placed him at the forefront of an entire realm of media art. Alex has become a performance painter and a living master of a genre that seems, in many ways to spring up behind his visonary insight.
Pop art may not have been Alex Grey’s intention when he painted Gaia, but the age of instant reproduction and mass distribution assured that Alex’s work became part of popular culture, which is exceptional, in that the work is clearly consciousness expanding, and profoundly spiritual, in inspiration, content and process. It is rare to find such devotion and insight in popular art. Gaia acted as a gateway art piece for a small section of popular culture to get a glimpse of something truly profound and to help foster larger notions of global consciousness.
RIP Adam Yauch August 5, 1964 – May 4, 2012