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This work was produced in connection with an exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art. When one glances through the pictures reproduced in this fascinating book, one finds brilliant colors and intricate shapes, many of which produce a striking emotional impact. Yet it would be impossible to describe them in words, since only a small minority of the images could be called representational.
Art that is puzzling is not new, dating back centuries. More recently, in the 20th century, the Dutch graphic artist Escher cunningly manipulated geometric perspective to depict impossible objects and scenes. Or again, the Belgian surrealist Magritte would show a body lying on a beach, the bottom half being a women and the top half a fish -- reversing the old myth of a mermaid. Magritte was often asked what a particular picture symbolized, which greatly annoyed him: '[people] hunt around for a meaning .H... because they don't understand what they are supposed to think when they confront the painting ' ... They want something to lean on, so they can be comfortable.' This applies a fortiori to psychedelic art, for while Magritte introduced seemingly absurd incongruities, he still showed recognizable objects and figures. But it should be added that he pursued a philosophical search for the nature of the real, for him 'the mystery'.
Magritte was wrong to be annoyed, since the search for meaning is a fundamental human characteristic. When it comes to the works reproduced in this book, one gets a strong feeling response to many of them, yet the meaning is hardly ever elucidated by the title. It is therefore helpful to have a lengthy introduction by Rubin, who traces the history of this tradition and provides detailed comments on each piece.
As the term 'psychedelic' indicates, the origin of the style date back to the 1960s when the hippie movement flourished and the guru of LSD, Timothy Leary, declared it to be the remedy for all our ills. The visions engendered by LSE, whether ecstatic or terrifying, excited artists (and also musicians), who sought capture them in their respective idioms. As Rubin shows, since the demise of the LSE culture artists turned to an astounding variety of other sources of inspiration, including the writings of French postmodernists, the psychology of perception, Tibetan Buddhism, feminism and questions of sexual identity, and numerous others. They also began to make use of digital technology in their creations.
The accounts Rubin provides of the artists' backgrounds and how they came to produce what they did are very helpful for understanding what the artist was trying to say, as an example will make clear: 'Wollard's The Butterfly Effect ... calls attention to global warming, but with an emphasis on the power of the news media to reveal, conceal. or manipulate what we are told about the state of affairs. The impetus for the painting was a news story concerning irregularities in the flight patterns of butterflies. To refer to the idea that they were off course, as well as to express his distrust of news reporting, Wollard organized the butterflies to form the word "ERROR". In a related move, he created the word "FOX" at the bottom of the painting, identifying the news network that he considers the number one culprit of 'proselytizing and spreading misinformation.' This reveals that the painting, which at first sight appears inchoate and with the words cunningly concealed, is in fact packed with meanings.
In addition to Rudin's illuminating essay, there are two other, briefer ones. The first sketches the cultural scene from the 1960s onwards in relation to modernist art; the second explores the nature of psychedelic experience. Altogether this is a splendid book that offers the reader both intellectual and visual delights.
© 2010 Gustav Jahoda
Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press).