By: Ian Mofford
Although our national news is currently filled with discussions centered on gun violence, foreign affairs and economic reform, environmental issues have proven to be a consistently reoccurring topic in global discussions. From oil spills to smog to climate change, environmental issues are always on the worldly agenda. That being said, it seems reasonable to take the time to analyze Gaia by Alex Grey. Although more known for his anatomically detailed paintings dealing with the metaphysical realm, many of Alex Grey’s paintings hold strong political messages. Regardless of the fact that this painting was produced over twenty years ago, the images and messages still resonate clearly when examined in a modern context.
All artists have a message in mind during the creative process. Through the use of severe contrast, Grey is able to send a powerful message with Gaia. Not only is the painting as a whole breathtaking, the viewers also have to take in the messages from the two sides of the painting. Gaia centers on mother earth represented by a faced tree divided in two. On the left side of the painting, a majestic, multi-climate landscape features animals and humans from all over the world coexisting on the branches of Gaia and on the ground below. Water is freely flowing from Gaia and the sun shines brightly on a clear day. Grey notes that this side represents “a natural cycle of birth, sustenance, and death…woven into the tapestry of Nature.” On the right side of the painting, the complete opposite is shown. The background features a smoggy, industrial waste filled sky with theshapes of skyscrapers, smoke stacks, and corrupt businessmen (“the wasteland of a disposable culture”). Telephone wires now tie up the breasts of Gaia, which provided water on the left side, and the branches of Gaia (including the people on them) are on fire. Grey mentions that this side of the painting shows “Gaia’s body…being ravaged and destroyed by man…causing diseases and defects in the Great Chain of Life.” Through the blunt contrast of the two sides of the painting, Grey makes a bold statement about “the present crisis in the environment.”
The use of such drastic contrast is done with the intention of evoking a strong emotional response from the viewer. Political art generally strives to inspire people to act and Gaia’s appeal to emotions, arguably, does that. The left side of the paining, with its scene of peace, is very beautiful and calm, which naturally evokes feelings of happiness and ease. It demonstrates that everything is working in perfect harmony, as it should. The right side, quite oppositely, shows images that viewers see more often in the world and popular media: destruction, industrial waste and corruption. The images and symbols used on the right side, which are very hard and graphic, include skinless corpses and a “diseased and demonic phallus.” Considering the use of color as a tool to translate tone, the two sides greatly differ once again. The left side consists of a variety of bright, natural colors while the right side consists of a combination of grays, blacks and reds. These two opposite sides put together to make one whole painting and to consequently be considered together as a whole causes an immediate emotional response of disgust and concern.
This emotional response is what Grey is after. Works of art such as Gaia are considered protest art. Although modern protest art has a tendency to be subtler, Alex Grey takes the issue head on and for good reason. Gaia was based off of a “vision” Grey had in 1988 and the painting itself was produced and finished in 1989 when Grey still had a studio in Brooklyn. Taking this time frame into account, the bluntness of the piece can easily bejustified and explained. The 1980’s are a decade that saw a lot of change and advancement in the areas of technology and commerce. The emergence of personal computers and the Internet sparked the foundation upon which our culture rests today. Along with this advancement in technology comes the ability for businesses to expand their reach and influence. Not only did technology allow business to expand but it allowed science to expand as well, enabling scientists to learn more about the state of the environment. During the late 80’s and early 90’s, knowledge about environmental degradation such as acid rain was becoming more commonplace amongst the general public. Despite this, the call to action was not quite established. This painting was Alex Grey’s call to the people to make them realize that the way they gained their money and power were meaningless and was resulting in the destruction of their home and the homes of millions of other species: Earth. However, the overall message of the painting is one of hope. “Emerging also from that microgenetic level—but on the side of Nature—was an evolutionary arm represented by a large “seeing” hand which catalyzed the collective will of the people, enabling them to see, with eyes of unobstructed vision, the actions necessary to stop the destruction of the world soul.”
Gaia is rightly considered a piece of protest art, thought it does not match the current format for the genre. Protest art, as a genre, is intended to be seen by many people and subsequently encourage those viewers to take action in order to change the problem. In most recent years, protest art appears as graffiti. While the attention to detail and the skill level is comparable between some modern graffiti artists and Alex Grey’s methods, this distinction is important. Gaia serves as an important marker for the beginning of protest art centered on the environment but it is not seen on the side of a public building. The original Gaia was created with oil based paint on a stretched linen fabric like most traditional paintings. It stands at 8 feet tall by 12 feet wide, roughly the size of the average bedroom wall. So not only does it exist on a traditional medium, it is colossal in size, making it less accessible as the street graffiti that anyone walking by can see. That being said, Grey had this painting on display in his Brooklyn studio, which, although not as polished as it is today, was a rather socially progressive section of New York. Grey’s chapel-like, open door policy allowed curious or otherwise interested individuals to come see it. Although the Internet was in its infancy, resulting in the piece not receiving as much global recognition as many modern pieces, Gaia still resonates today, which cannot always be said of graffiti pieces, commonly known for getting painted over. Comparing Alex Grey’s work to modern protest art gives the viewer a fairly solid timeline of the environmental protest art genre which arguably started with Gaia.
While some pieces of art heavily rely on symbolism in order to create a point or a call to action, others take a more direct approach to the subject. On his website, Alex Grey includes pictures of all of his artistic creations with a blurb underneath. Some of them have just the dimensions of the original creation while others have lengthy back-stories. When it comes to Gaia, there is a rather lengthy blurb in which he describes the painting and exactly what it means. It almost appears as if he wants you to understand the painting quickly so you can go out and act upon it. Even if Gaia is not your aesthetic cup of tea, it is undeniably thought provoking. Is fame and power all that important if it means the absolute destruction of the place we call home and forthe generations to come?