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O.C. ART / CATHY CURTIS : 'Psychedelic Experience': a Long, Strange Trip

March 23, 1993|CATHY CURTIS

It's funny how the mere mention of psychedelia is enough to start reminiscences flowing from members of the boomer generation.

Art critic Dave Hickey opens his sprightly essay for "The Contemporary Psychedelic Experience," an exhibition at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery through April 27, with memories of seeing "the stars fall and the sky fold" back in Austin in 1965.

As he notes, "the latent snobbishness of the drug culture" is such that he himself initially discounted a recent account of French philosopher Michael Foucault's experience with LSD because it occurred too late (in 1975), at a "tacky place" (Zabriskie Point in Death Valley) and with the "wrong" music (by German serial composer Karlheinz Stockhausen).

On my way to the exhibit, I found myself replaying pertinent moments--alas, perilously close in time to Foucault's epiphanies--including my attempt to turn mescaline-trip revelations into a college art project. Believing I had discovered an obscure truth about the minute shifts in vision experienced by a body in motion, I made a (thankfully brief) student film that tracked a pair of anonymous feet crunching through a forest, represented by wobbly shots of branches against the sky.

Utterly baffling to my instructor and fellow students, this venture into Super-8 auteur ship was a fruitless attempt at offering what Hickey calls "a vertiginous glimpse into the abyss that divides the world from our knowing of it."

In fact, all psychedelic art comes up against a built-in failure to communicate. The trappings of psychedelia--the swirling, complex patterns, the clashing colors, the puffy lettering, the outlandish scenarios--are merely code references, broad winks that say, "Hey, man, I've been there."

By using this language, artists are understood to be to gesturing toward the indescribable: a mental state in which the universe seemed to be spilling open all of its secrets at once, sensory input is piercingly keen and taboos are turned inside out.

You may be thinking, "Thanks for the memories, but what does this all have to do with the '90s?" Well, as Hickey points out, "psychedelic style" is simply one of many ways artists have rebelled against academic strictures in art. Whether the style in question is Rococo, Art Nouveau, psychedelic or graffiti-inspired, it aims to break down the established order by infecting it with outlandish vulgarity.

Nearly all 14 artists in this show transform the '60s look in ways variously inspired by custom-car culture, tattoo designs, graffiti, cartoons, "high" art, punk music, horror movies and disgust at 12 years of Republican presidencies. For the most part, apocalyptic scenarios have supplanted the blissed-out flower power look. Everybody's on a real bad trip, thanks to the fog of cynicism that has supplanted the sunshine of our love.

But the important thing to remember is that, rather like "outsider" art, most of the work in this show runs on a track separate from the pieties of the serious contemporary art world. (When the twain do meet--as in "Helter Skelter" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles last year--the art crowd tends to feel about as uncomfortable as a tattoo artist at a gallery of minimal art.)

So keep in mind that lots of the art in this show is about being childish and disgusting and obsessed with pop trivia and pop taste. On a basic level, it's about expressing your most outre personal fantasies. If you are male--as all but one of these artists are--these fantasies may or may not cast women in a clearly feminist light.

On a somewhat more nuanced level, the art is about the juxtaposition of clashing (or surprisingly simpatico) visual styles drawn from different eras ('60s vs. '90s), sources (fairy tale illustrations and tattoos) or spheres of the pop world (car culture and Saturday cartoons).

The artists--most of them unknown except to a small band of fans--range from septuagenarian Henry Hill, who was involved in legal experiments with LSD in the late 1950s, to Douglas Vincent O'Neill, who was born in 1958. He grew up in a world where tie-dye T-shirts were available at Sears and "Woodstock" was a record his seventh-grade teacher played for the class.

Hill's drawings--big, puffy letters spelling out "Nancy" and "Love" with doodle-type designs reminiscent of bubbles, driftwood and skeins of thread--are pure retro fun. His huge "The Force" offers the adolescent vision of a sky-borne megalopolis populated by a curvaceous nude perched on a building, robots, mutated chess pieces and a cavalcade of red-and-white striped creatures.

O'Neill's generic computer-generated drawings contain the sort of cliches young men doodle in their class notebooks: nubile women, staring faces, an animal head on a human body. In fact, O'Neill uses a scanner to "sample" imagery from other sources which is then converted into digital information and recombined into patterns of his own devising--much like the aural excerpts collaged into industrial rock.

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