Psychedelic, Optical & Visionary Art since the 1960s

San Antonio Museum of Art

Through August 1, 2010
by Hills Snyder

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      Jose Alvarez
      Star Garden
      acrylic, watercolor, porcupine quills, crystals on watercolor paper
      59 x 40 inches
      Collection of Sheila and Milton Fine, Pittsburgh, Pa.
      Courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art

      Photo by Hills Snyder, Peru, 2006

      As You Like It

      I go to restaurants and the groups always play Yesterday. I even signed a guy's violin in Spain after he played us Yesterday. He couldn't understand that I didn't write the song. But I guess he couldn't have gone from table to table playing I Am The Walrus.
      – John Lennon

      All tricksters like to hang around the doorway, that being one of the places where deep-change accidents occur.
      – Lewis Hyde

      The truest poetry is the most feigning.
      – Shakespeare

      Jose Alvarez has made the most of hanging around doorways and it doesn’t really matter if you catch him coming or going. His use of porcupine quills and crystals intentionally references Carlos Castaneda, about whom validity vs. authenticity has been argued, but in the end this doesn’t matter—you make your own authenticity out of whatever raw materials are available. I know for sure this is true—I think it’s why they call it art—because it’s made up. There is art, theatre if you will, involved in even the most genuine rituals and eventually you’ll understand why the jaguar skull on the Mesa faces you at first and then faces the opposite direction later. You’ll understand this, if, that is, you are willing.

      The time has come to talk of many things.

      I’d like to say that Alvarez’ 2007 painting, Star Garden, is “on view now” at the San Antonio Museum of Art, but it isn’t. That would be, perhaps, too much of a good thing, as the show already has lots to offer. The piece is among those works included in curator David Rubin’s original conception of Psychedelic, Optical and Visionary Art Since The 1960s, but it could not be brought to the museum due to financial limitations. Given those constraints, a decision was made to focus the contemporary branch of the show mainly on San Antonio artists, leaving the shipping budget for what Mr. Rubin calls the “pioneers”—artists like Alex Grey, who has become well known since the early seventies for leaving academia driven paradigms and engaging something more transcendental. Star Garden is in a Pittsburgh private collection, but maybe some intrepid Central Texas collector will step up and give the museum a new Alvarez piece. If they do, I promise to visit it often, as I have done with Frank Stella’s Double Scramble—a real touchstone, and the main reason I’ve visited SAMA for the last three decades.

      By the way, you can stand on Michael Fried and argue that theatre vs. objecthood debate if you wish, but when I visit Double Scramble, I’m not looking at a picture, I’m going in.

      Not that it isn’t flat or anything.

      Anyway, for now, the full-page reproduction of Star Garden in the lavishly illustrated catalog will have to do. The painting has the look of what I can only call fairy dust wall paper—saccharine, seductive, hi-def—a soft-edged, split-fountain of turquoise, yellow, pink and purple, across which concentric orbs, cellular flowers, starbursts, morphing tubes of color and weird gargoyle-like finials hover, seeming to float and drift. The mottled tubes are rigid, hypnotized, simultaneously serpent and shehnai, while the gargoyles call to mind a lot of things—the creatures that at times bedevil Jim Woodring’s cartoon character Frank, Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations of radiolarians and other life-forms, Wedgwood urns (SAMA has a gallery full of them), the 3D renderings of the Mandelbrot set known as Mandelbulbs, all things steampunk and of course Terence McKenna’s self-transforming machine elves which McKenna himself has compared to Fabergé eggs.

      I’ve encountered these entities before—they seem to smirk a lot and have strangely modulated voices, not unlike the garbled transmissions from the future heard by James Cole in the Terry Gilliam film, Twelve Monkeys. Yet they speak without sound. I don’t know if they are significant. I think they function as red herrings mainly, just to see what you’ll fall for. On the other hand, I can’t say conclusively, and I’d like to know more. Once they whispered to me “if you want to get to pleasinoinktament you gotta go nootinoinkstowards.” I shit you not and I knew exactly what they meant. It was actually helpful information. I feel that perhaps they populate a border where travelers are likely to find that maps are of no use; that the whole notion of that kind of superimposed logic is extremely funny.

      It’s interesting that when Alvarez uses these particular images they are often bilaterally symmetrical. This is a characteristic of sentience. On another level, twinning is the feature that most vividly characterizes the ladder-like structure of DNA (though one of the “uprights” is inverted). In Haeckel’s ornamental morphology, this doubling, one side mirroring the other, is called “organic stereometry” though he takes it further, to radial symmetry.

      Check out the 1998 reprint of Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature, first published over a century ago. A gorgeous book, you can put it on the shelf next to the catalog for the Psychedelic show. While you’re at it, open it to page 17 where you can see that the photograph of Constant Roux’s 1907 glass chandelier, based on Haeckel’s drawing of the Discomedusae (apparently created in a fever on a Saturday night), prefigures the Mandelbulb, which was not seen until at least eighty years later.

      In addition to being a potter and an abolitionist, Josiah Wedgwood was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. He lived in a time when fossil collecting was a big deal, though many didn’t have a clue as to their actual origin. The notion of extinction of species was not widely accepted or even dreamt of. Many believed the earth was less than 6000 years old based on Bishop Usher’s calculations (foolish fundamentalists still believe this). Some collectors thought that fossils were gems buried in the earth by an external god just so people could dig them up and be delighted.

      Thomas Jefferson came along a little later, in between Wedgwood and Darwin. He was an avid fossil collector and an early player in American paleontology. He was no literal interpreter of scripture, which he has referred to as including ignorance, absurdity, untruth, charlatanism and imposture.

      Anyway, the point is, nature speaks louder than words. Or rather, it is The Word. Olaf Breidbach, in his introductory essay to the Haeckel reprint, refers to Haeckel’s project as a “phylogeny of the spirit.”

      Redressing the concept of symmetry: it’s important to note that without asymmetry, life would not be possible. The cosmic mistake that allows the imbalance between matter and anti-matter certainly qualifies as a deep-change doorway.

      Maybe that’s what they think is so fucking funny.

      The elves I mean.

      It’s only 625 miles from Novelty, Missouri to Hazard, Kentucky. You could easily drive it straight through, but no matter how close you get, the distance that’s left can always be halved, so you may never get there. Not only that, it can seem sometimes that you’re going in circles—didn’t we already go through Grayville? But you gotta do what you gotta do, doubt and determinism not withstanding, even if your car’s a clunker. It’s necessary for something, even if you don’t not know what.

      And you can always take a cab, if you really have to.

      Stochasm: a strange arroyo into which one may slip without notice. There’s one in Illinois, right outside Grayville. If you are drawn into one, you won’t know what’s in store, but adaptability helps to insure a favorable outcome.

      Star Garden bears a remarkable resemblance to The Robe of Chemchuties, a subatomic raiment discovered by Voyager 2 on the eighth moon of Uranus in 1986, just a year before mandelbiulbs began to appear. Chemchuties is known to be connected with Matter Sophia, Pachamama, Isis, Gaia, Shakti, Shekinah and is a frequent cohort of Bill the lizard. It is said that she is the dragon referred to by Merlin in the John Boorman film, Excalibur.

      Merlin: Shall I tell you what's out there?
      Arthur: Yes, please.
      Merlin: The dragon. A beast of such power that if you were to see it whole and complete in a single glance, it would burn you to cinders.
      Arthur: Where is it?
      Merlin: It is everywhere. It is everything. Its scales glisten in the bark of trees. Its roar is heard in the wind. And its forked tongue strikes like... [lightning strikes]
      Merlin: Like lightning—yes that's it.

      And clanking through this panoply of forms comes the human—still in this century bound up with breastplate and helmet, sword and shield—all the apparatus necessary to protect itself.

      From what, exactly?

      As we’ve seen before, doubt and necessity are the parents of invention, but history is the cab driver of evolution. Beyond the opposed views of history, linear and cyclical, there must be a third option.

      What exactly?



      Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?


      A companion piece to this article is forthcoming in Artlies online. Hills Snyder lives in San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at

      + 1 Comment
      Jun 22, 2010 | 3:52pm

      The author’s insight regarding the cosmological matter/anti-matter asymmetry elucidates.  Alas, my heart is always off-center.  And the universe contains no fixed points by which to measure how so.  And even though straight lines appear very real when looking at the horizon from any point in the Texas panhandle, Susie Rosmarin and Bridget Riley have proven that those too are part of the illusion.

      More than anything right now, I long to see this glass chandelier.

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