Vision quest

Joshua Lee Vineyard

Joshua Lee Vineyard in front of his painting “Mysterium Facinans.”

Joshua Lee Vineyard in front of his painting “Mysterium Facinans.”

Photo By brad Bynum

I bumped into Joshua Lee Vineyard at a house party on New Year’s Eve 2008. A few seconds after the ringing in of the New Year—folks all around still drunkenly faking the lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne”—he put his hands to his temples in the fashion of a man receiving a sudden vision or telepathic communiqué.

“Here’s my prediction for 2009,” he said slowly and straight-faced. “This is going to be the year that Michael Jackson dies. It’s going to be nuts.”

At the time, I thought it was just a bizarre and tasteless joke. But of course six months later, it really happened. It was probably just a weird coincidence, but the deliberateness of Vineyard’s prediction made it seem like he was really plugged into something.

On a recent visit to Vineyard’s home studio to see his new paintings, one in particular, “Shamohn,” caught my eye. It seems to depict some sort of cosmic Hindu deity, sitting in lotus position, with four arms and five faces, but every face is a photograph, each representing a different mood of … Michael Jackson.

“Well, you know what that one’s about,” said Vineyard.

He’s currently preparing and finalizing work for an exhibition at Bibo 3 titled The Visionary Works of Joshua Lee Vineyard. He uses the term “visionary” not to imply forward-thinking, but quite the opposite—it’s artwork about the primal moments of human consciousness. He says his current work was partially inspired by Mandala meditations, and many of the pieces reflect that: centered, entrancing compositions and repetitive, process-oriented techniques. He’s also inspired by the mystical writings of Robert Anton Wilson and the psychedelic paintings of Alex Grey.

He says he aspires to create as “a conduit for the godlike energy that sparked consciousness … a conduit for the mystical experience, the god experience, the Akashic experience, whatever you want to call it.”

It’s overtly spiritual artwork, but personal and idiosyncratic. He wants to explore that initial moment of consciousness, when the initial spark of human awareness was a lit, a moment Vineyard feels was ecstatic, a moment of singing and dancing.

“It’s when we moved from the jungles into the plains, started buying our dead, playing around with polyrhythms,” he says.

Vineyard is also a musician. Some of the works in his upcoming exhibition have previously appeared around Reno in slightly different versions as flyers for concerts featuring his band, Swahili.

In his paintings, Vineyard often intentionally uses cheap, flimsy, everyday materials.

“I use paint pens, glitter and shitty paper,” he says. He also uses photocopies, magazine cut-outs, and other collage elements. He calls one recurring photocopied character “my cartographer,” in reference to the mystical axiom “the map is not the territory.”

His choice of materials reflects his sentiment that visionary artists must remain humble. It also reflects his feeling that visionary artmaking—recreating mystical visions and expressing spiritual truths—is inherently impossible, as something is always lost in translation.

“Visionary artists find themselves in the weird place of trying to express the divine when that expression is always futile, and yet we have to do it,” he says.