Maybe you didn't know that the meaning of term psychedelic is mind-manifesting? But apart from that, I believe we all know what psychedelic art is. It is probably one of the most exploited visual styles in design, corporate advertising and popular culture in general, especially in our digital age. Trippy or Psychedelic art is something we usually proclaim as kitschy or banal, but if we return to that point in history when psychedelic art first emerged, we might discover some interesting facts about the movement that would change our opinion. Usually referred to as art influenced by hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or mescaline, psychedelic art was more than just a visual representation of the artists’ trippy-hippy experiences. To discover all features of psychedelic art, we must travel beyond the world of lava-lamp decorations and hallucinogenic trips into the very center of American social and political context in the sixties and the birth of a counterculture movement.
Let’s be realistic, the first thing that comes to mind when we think about psychedelic art is the sixties and seventies rock music, and of course - drugs. But the whole phenomenon of psychedelic art was present even before psychedelic rock emerged on the music scene. There were many attempts in the history of art to free the artistic process of rational restrictions and artists have been experimenting with the mind-altering substances for centuries. Let us just remember romanticism whose manifesto was built on the exploration of the imaginative with a little help of absinthe or opium or both occasionally, or surrealism and the concept of the unconsciousness rooted in psychoanalysis. However, the thing that undisputedly triggered the birth of psychedelic art as we know it was Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD, which was embraced by the artists who found their inspiration in those liberating experiences only drugs can provide. On the other hand, the connection between hallucinogenic drugs and trippy, psychedelic art lead to the strong critique of the style itself, as it was seen as the mere attempt to recreate the sensual and visual experiences of the artist on drugs and without any further aesthetic value. Those who were more tolerant and a bit less elitist about the new movement spotted the connection between psychedelic art and historic genres such as Art Nouveau, Op-art and even surrealism.
Even though critics were eager to discard the movement in aesthetic terms, psychedelic art was not insignificant, as they might have thought, especially if we have in mind its relation to the emergence of counterculture. The generation of “baby boomers” who started questioning the political and social values of post-war America was mainly responsible for the birth of psychedelic art and wider psychedelic movement. The protests against the cultural values of their parents, segregation, war, social norms of consumerist America in the 1950s were also followed by their turn towards the eastern spirituality and explorations of their newly found sexual liberties. The rejection of the mainstream culture was followed by the establishment of the new one, most notable in the new music genres like psychedelic rock. The new music was quickly followed by new cover artworks which to this day stand as some of the best and most important examples of psychedelic art. Wes Wilson, Peter Max and Victor Moscoso are probably the best-known poster artists in the sixties and their work have shaped a whole new generation of musicians and their audience. Wes Wilson was the first to introduce the popular psychedelic font which made the letters look like they were moving, and Victor Moscoso used the vibrating colors effect to achieve that specific psychedelic aesthetics in his artworks. That very same aesthetics, forming in the poster works was further explored in the underground comix, the other important phenomena which was at its peak during the golden years of psychedelia.
During the sixties, there were two major art movements dominant in America. One of them was self-referential abstraction, and the other was pop art. Born in the subcultural context psychedelic art was not apolitical like abstract expressionism, nor was it celebratory of the consumerist lifestyle like pop art was. At the time, psychedelic art was subversive and liberating just like the counterculture it emerged from. However, by the late sixties and at the beginning of the seventies things have changed and corporations started to recognize the commercial potential in the psychedelic aesthetics. The rebellious nature of the movement was abolished, once the world of psychedelic art was consumed and co-opted by the cultural industry. Ironically, psychedelic art with all of its features became part of the world it initially fought against. In the seventies, the recognizable imagery of psychedelia from contrasting colors and kaleidoscopic patterns to morphing objects and the surrealistic subject matter was used to sell a variety of products, stripping the psychedelic art out of its ideological properties and taming its revolutionary potential.
Corporate advertising is one of the main reasons why now we see psychedelic artwork as kitschy and bad. But there are still those artists in our time who won’t give up and want to return psychedelic art to its glorious days. One of them is Bruce Riley, a Chicago-based artist who is bringing the spontaneity of psychedelia to life in his magnificent psychedelic paintings. By pouring paint and dripping resin on canvas, Bruce Riley manages to create wonderful pieces of psychedelic art that are reminiscent of those golden years of the movement but also more engaging for today’s audiences. Another American artist whom we simply have to mention is Ryan McGinness who is bringing psychedelia to a whole new level by appropriating corporate logos and symbols into his paintings, doing the same thing corporations did in the seventies when they started to borrow and exploit psychedelic aesthetic. If we think about it for a while, we might start to think that we are trapped in the world of psychedelic inception with so many appropriational elements swirling back and forth.
And we definitely cannot finish this story without taking a look at the use of psychedelic elements in digital art. Representation of psychedelic experiences has never been easier than it is now with so many graphic software which allow easy and unparalleled freedom of image manipulation. The rave culture is also responsible for the subcultural revival of psychedelia and during the nineties, psychedelic art merged with the cyberculture forming a unique cyberdelic phenomenon. Although there are artists who are still devoted to this style and psychedelic art has a big community of enthusiasts, and even though there are great possibilities in the computer-generated art for the revival of the movement, psychedelic art stays on the margins of contemporary art production. Will it ever be able to restore its previous glory is to be seen, but for now, it isn’t that bad to remind ourselves of one of the important moments in modern art history.
Featured image: Bruce Riley - Ganesha's detail 14. Courtesy of the artist