There is no doubt about the revival of interest in recent times of psychedelic aesthetics and themes throughout western pop culture. From the latest film clips by Ke$ha to the stocking of vintage outdoor festival get-up at mainstream fashion stores, youth cultures across the globe have gravitated towards the aesthetics of psychedelia and re-appropriated them as their own. Contemporary art around Australia has been no exception to this trend. New Psychedelia, a survey exhibition of such art at the University of Queensland Art Gallery, attempts to not only uncover the existence of this trend within art making but also attempts to articulate its meaning for a generation of artists who would be, in the majority, too young to have experienced (and thus truly understood) the original psychedelic movement. Why, in such modern, technological times, would there be a push towards alternative consciousness of the mind? In a youth culture which does not find its power in gurus, LSD trips or flower power, what is it about these themes which resonate with artists? New Psychedelia attempts to answer these questions.
Curator Sebastian Moody identifies three factors which he believes constitute the motivations for expanding consciousness which he sees as the objective of this new movement: neo-sharmanism; technology and perception; and spiritual capitalism. These concerns are what defines the new psychedelia from its original form- “The new psychedelia may not directly mirror this earlier style or the 1960s experiment with hallucinogenic drugs, but it borrows from its aesthetic and is, similarly, popular in the wider youth culture.” (35) In this way, Moody argues that this new movement attempts to transcend the restraints imposed on the individual by technology and capitalism through subversion born of “… mystical, quasi-spiritual, New age space of the outer reaches of human unconsciousness.” (40)
When confronted with such a large survey of works (over fourty in total), the existence of such a trend is hard to deny. It is also clear, through skimming over the whole exhibition, that this revival demonstrates an exciting, diverse and rigorous engagement and the energy of this articulation is palpable. The works which stand out the most are those which clearly expose a connection between new and original psychedelia by pushing this aesthetic further in application to contemporary times. Dale Frank’s painting ‘Jerry’s Plains, Martindale’ and Anita Fontaine’s installation ‘H3ROIN’ are examples of this reinvention through their utilisation of the psychedelic aesthetic in exploration of darker, more knowing terrains which are only possible through the privilege of hindsight. The blinding spectacle of drug induced consciousness is rejected in favour of an aesthetic which pulsates in its evocative exploration of contemplative, mystical and uncanny terrains. This can also be seen in the series of smaller works on cardboard by Sean Bailey, who has also substituted the lucid optimism of original psychedelia for a more rudimentary exploration of perception. His unresolved, sludgy shapes attempt a expression of symmetry which remains unrealisable due to the physical constraints of gravity and other realities governing the material surface. TV Moore’s ‘Self Portrait on Acid’ also exhibits a literal reference to old psychedelia with personal rather than phenomenological implications. The work features a photograph of the artist on acid, printed on to a sheet of acid trips which seems to acknowledge the psychedelic possibilities of drug induced expanded consciousness while also realising its limitations through the crass and unflattering portrait such a state provides. In this way, the viewer realises both the appeal and the revolutionary incapacity of such consciousness which, by its nature, can only be accessed internally.
Some of the less successful works either responded too literally to the original psychedelia or did not respond clearly enough. I am thinking in particular of the work Tim Maguire’s mixed media piece ‘Red Leaf II’ and Ross Manning’s moving sculpture ‘Fixational Eye’. Although both works are attractive in their optics and ‘trippy’ nature, neither really say anything new or build on these old psychedelic aesthetics in effort to redefine them. On the flip side, other works which have been tied into the show due to their connection with technology and capitalism- James Deutsher’s sculpture installation ‘Lemons’ and Matt Hinkley’s mixed media installation ‘Untitled’ are a bit too strong and literal in their concern with these themes to make connections to psychedelia itself, old or new. This was exacerbated by the nature of the exhibition space itself, whose sections broke up the flow of the exhibition, disrupting the energy between pieces. The space itself made the choice of three themes within New Psychedelia appear arbitrary given it conforms to the three major spaces in the floor plan. Considering the most exiting room is the last and the biggest, it seems that the exhibition would lend itself better to a more open plan space in which the argument and comprehensive selection of artists could be fully appreciated, as could the impact of the ‘expanded consciousness’ most of the artists selected explore so successfully.
New Psychedelia convincingly articulates a new trend within the work of young contemporary artists exploring psychedelic resistance in the wake of the high resolution, clinical nature of technological global capitalism. In their own ways, each artist resists this environment of speculative, clinical precision through an aesthetic which is purposely understated, naïve, unresolved and vague. However, their motivation behind such aesthetic is anything but, and the overall energy of the exhibition seethes with a more knowing optimism which remains unlimited in its imaginative capacity whilst demonstrating a tried-and-tested understanding of its limitations in the external world. How much this stance rejects, rather than facilitates, technology and capitalism, whose chameleon-like nature is notorious for consuming resistance into pre-packaged niche markets (a fate that sealed original psychedelia), is still to be seen.