Distant Horizons: Pioneers of Psychedelic Art’ is a thoughtful exhibit that features mind-blowing, kaleidoscopic works.
PHOTO: CAL KOWAL // COURTESY OF THE CARL SOLWAY GALLERY
Isaac Abrams, one of the four artists featured in the Distant Horizons: Pioneers of Psychedelic Art exhibit opening Friday at Carl Solway Gallery, well remembers when he tried the hallucinogenic drug LSD. It was 1965 and he had already taken the mind-altering substances psilocybin and mescaline. But acid, as LSD was called, was stronger — it caused a radical heightening of consciousness.
“I came away with the idea that the experience was profound and had to generate an artistic response,” he says. So he started a gallery devoted to Psychedelic art, Manhattan’s Coda. He found few if any artists creating the kind of work he liked, and eventually cash ran short.
“So I traded for a large canvas, 5-by-7 foot, and some small canvases and I spent a short time learning how to mix paint and which brushes to use and I embarked on my first serious painting,” he says.
That work, 1965’s “Hello Dali,” is the largest of 10 paintings that Abrams has in this thoughtful show, which also features Psychedelic work by the artist collective USCO (particularly Gerd Stern), Tony Martin and Ira Cohen. (There are also films.) “Hello Dali” is, fittingly, mind-blowing — as if a kaleidoscopic camera had been installed in your brain to beautifully scramble your vision of a landscape into ornamented, segmented fragments of green, blue, yellow, red and every other color in the mind’s eye. In fact, the mind’s eye is there, itself, on the canvas, as if floating through doors of perception.
“Hello Dali” comes to the Solway Gallery — as does some other artwork in Distant Horizons — straight from a traveling museum exhibit, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia. That show has been hailed for taking seriously an art movement of the mid-to-late 1960s that is considered today more of a fleeting cultural trend, if it’s considered at all.
Hippie Modernism’s artists and message appealed to Michael Solway, director of the gallery his father established. Growing up in Cincinnati in that era, he loved Psychedelic art and music — his father had a show of the music poster and underground comics artist Victor Moscoso in 1973. He also liked the musicians favored by the late Ira Cohen, who took woozy, distorted color photographs of them and others reflected on the surface of Mylar. In this show, Cohen’s 1968 “Jimi Hendrix” is a fitting portrait of the Rock star whose “Are You Experienced?” song is one of Psychedelic Rock’s greatest.
Solway asked his friend, New York-based critic and curator Carlo McCormick, to organize Distant Horizons. “It appeals to me as a way of redressing art history and also being for the underdog,” McCormick says about the task. “These guys are not the Pop artists of Psychedelia — not the Peter Maxes and stuff like that. They were innovating visual strategies really early, and they really did get the historical short shrift. They were known for a while, but the art world didn’t want their maximalism and instead went toward Minimalism. It was a way to get rid of this experiential kind of art.”
It would be simplifying things to say that LSD was the sole propellant for the work made by Psychedelic artists. It was outlawed in 1968 amid stories of “bad trips,” but by then its insights into the values of expanded consciousness had affected the arts, especially; inversely, the inherent creativity of artists became increasingly revered by those of the youthful 1960s counterculture who were newly “experienced.”
Artist Tony Martin — who shows oil paintings, posters, drawings, ephemera and more in this exhibit — says he was never deeply into acid.
“I took a very minor amount of drugs in the ’60s,” he says via email. “I tried LSD once; it was an interesting experience. I felt it related to my own natural imagination. (So) I relied on my own natural imagination, which was fertilized by the history of art, the art around me, the wonderful natural world and human world joined together.”
In the 1960s, he created “paintings in time” — multi-projector visual presentations involving light, liquid and dry ingredients, abstract hand-painted slides and some realistic imagery — for New Music composers at the San Francisco Tape Music Center.
“That didn’t mean I was decorating their music,” he says. “I was making my own compositions that went with their music. That’s important — some of those I (visually) scored.”
He went on to do light shows at San Francisco Rock ballrooms. He also has made innovative sculptural installations like 1968’s “You Me We,” in Distant Horizons, which merges the images of two people looking into custom-made two-way mirrors.
USCO’s Gerd Stern goes back to the roots of the Beat Era and published a book of poetry in 1952. Distant Horizons has a variety of appealing multimedia pieces created by USCO — the artist collective that was primarily Stern, Michael Callahan and Stephen Durkee. Also in the show is Stern’s “NO OW NOW, USCO: Two Mantras” circular word collage on vinyl. A precursor of Baba Ram Dass’ admonition to Be Here Now, it repeats “Take the no out of now/then take the ow out of now/then take the then out of now/It is possible that it is possible.”
It’s probably Abrams who best explains the impact LSD could have on an artist’s life. “I’ve had experiences incredibly attuned to the physical natural world, like digging a hole and looking at everything revealed in the leaves and the little bugs and their color,” he says. “Sometimes I’ve had very crystalline experiences, and sometimes out-of-body (ones). They reveal themselves in some of the works I’ve done. The experiences are enriching. I haven’t done psychedelics like I did at one point for quite a while, and I’ve still been growing as an artist and a painter.”
DISTANT HORIZONS: PIONEERS OF PSYCHEDELIC ART opens Friday with a 5-8 p.m. reception at Carl Solway Gallery (424 Findlay St., West End). The artists and guest curator Carlo McCormick will have a panel discussion at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by a poetry reading by Gerd Stern. The show is up through Sept. 16. More info: solwaygallery.com.