Review of Ken Johnson’s Are You Experienced?

Review of Ken Johnson’s Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art (Prestel, 2011)

by Lily Koto Olive 

Originally published by The Brooklyn Rail, March 2012, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2012/03/art_books/margaret-evangeline-shooting-through-the-looking-glass 

Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art (Prestel, 2011)

Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art (Prestel, 2011)

In Are You Experienced? critic Ken Johnson examines the drug culture of the 1960s and the psychedelic culture it has spawned. Johnson chronicles various artistic movements and media from the 1960s to present day, ranging from Earthworks to cyber-psychedelia, installations to illusionism. As Johnson locates psychedelic consciousness as the origin of art since the 1960s, the nature of psychedelia comes into focus. Johnson brings attention to details that one would notice more in an altered state, such as heightened color, patterns, and grid systems, and the lack of narratives in avant-garde films which focus more on innovative experimental performances. In the sections that address scale and sexual evolution in art, Johnson omits particularly relevant artists and works.

In full disclosure, as a personal experiment I read this book both under the effects of marijuana and in complete sobriety. Neither state was better for cognizance in the end, but did lead to some introspection in certain sections of the book that wouldn’t have been as riveting otherwise. Like Johnson, while stoned I found the heady conceptual impetus behind Minimalist and Post-Minimalist works to be even more poignant and enveloping. I found myself engrossed in contemplating Richard Tuttle’s motivations behind his Zen-like rope pieces.

My mind wandered between parallels of the absolute meaninglessness of the object being presented, then in turn contemplating the possible symbology behind the experience. I wondered how staring intently at the object in a gallery space must force the viewer to focus on nothing but the object in the present. As Johnson supposes, “Be here now” could be an overarching motto of this book. Another example that stood out while in an altered state was the mention of conceptual artist Robert Barry’s typed words “Something which can never be any specific thing” on a blank index card in 1969. This piece is a total enigma leading to the winding thoughts: If it’s nothing then it must in turn be everything, which also in turn means if it is everything, it cannot be one thing.

By examining and chronicling the growth and enlightenment of the American collective psyche, Johnson attempts to persuade readers that our expanded consciousness affects the way we view and construct art today. He candidly speaks of his own experiences with drug use, readily admitting to using marijuana and LSD, regaling his trippy tales, analogies, and parallels. At times, Johnson’s quips border on juvenilia: “Catch a whiff of weed here?” and “I wonder how many visitors prepare themselves pharmacologically for that possible cosmic display?” These comments sometimes seem like an unnecessary overexertion to prove his point. His cheeky comments are tiresome at times, but I never lost interest in his argument.

Johnson’s examination of the effects of scale and feminism are particularly poignant yet incomplete. While readers will find the expected mentions of visionary psychedelic artists such as painter Alex Grey and Inka Essenhigh, I was surprised Johnson neglected to mention Australian sculptor Ron Mueck in relation to scale and psychology in his section “One Pill Makes You Larger, One Pill Makes You Small.” Mueck’s gigantic heads and figures are a quintessential example. While Mueck isn’t American, which assuredly explains the rationale for the omission, his use of hyperrealism in details of his large-scale figures forms, skin, hair, and pores produces jarring effects when viewed in person. The experience challenges the viewer’s sense of space and scale; his massive sculptures dwarf museum and gallery-goers, an experience that turns the environment into an unfamiliar reality.

Also overlooked was feminist installation artist Judy Chicago, who pioneered the field and paved the way for subsequent generations of female artists. Chicago is relevant to Johnson’s “Sex and Sensibility” chapter where he chronicles how sex has been portrayed since psychedelia’s counterculture became sexually liberated, and in turn led to the second-wave feminist movement. While Johnson thoroughly examines how photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman questions women’s portrayal in our culture, he could have additionally examined the social construction of sex and gender further in how Chicago reclaimed the feminine in the midst of our male-dominated art world. Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party brought psychedelia and feminist ideas together in a bizarre, monumental manner. The many detailed settings, the symbolic triangular shape of the table, and the use of the vagina aim to grasp and elevate the universal feminine experience. In its totality and repeated attention to patterns and shapes, the psychedelic is strongly present in this work.

While the book would have been stronger without these omissions, Johnson’s fantastic trip through his book both reveals as much as it rewards. The revelation of how psychedelic consciousness has manifested itself in so many vastly differing modern art movements, from the 1960s acid rock posters to contemporary work such as trippy video installations by Pipilotti Rist, made me look at my own work in addition to works of other artists in a new way.

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