Most artists wouldn’t take on the staggering task of illustrating the end of the universe for their first major work, but then, most artists aren’t as driven in capturing the cosmic as Paul Laffoley. It was back in 1965 when he embarked on his artistic journey of diagramming the mystical and transcendental, starting with “The Kali-Yuga: The End of the Universe at 424826 A.D.,” a painting involving Hindu cosmology and symbolism of the end of the cycle of time. Earlier in the decade he’d studied classics, philosophy, and art history at Brown University and then architecture at Harvard (he was later involved with Minoru Yamasaki’s designs for the World Trade Center), and he worked for a time in the studio of the dimensionally experimental artist and architect Frederick Kiesler. But it was in Boston that the Massachusetts-born Laffoley would find his focus, creating intensely mapped paintings of sacred, spiritual, and scientific processes.
In 1971, Laffoley established a nonprofit called the Boston Visionary Cell, operated out of a room in a downtown Boston office building, which also doubled as his home. It was formed as a sort of artist’s guild to promote this “visionary art,” a genre grouping together mostly self-taught artists who concentrate on inner perception. Paul Laffoley: The Boston Visionary Cell at Kent Fine Art is the first to delve into this mission in the context of Laffoley’s career in visualizing the intangible.
Because of its self-taught creators and themes like time travel and alternate dimensions, visionary art usually lands in the outsider art outskirts. Its borders of time and place are also sketchy. The Boston Visionary Cell’s manifesto has visionary art’s bloodline sourced in Neolithic cave paintings, and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore includes in its broad collection high profile eccentrics like Nek Chand who built a sprawling spiritual sculpture garden out of recycled materials called Rock Garden of Chandigarh in India, alongside more elusive figures like Martín Ramírez, a diagnosed catatonic schizophrenic who spent most of his life in mental institutions in California, where he made drawings and collages inspired by the religious iconography of Mexico on book pages stuck together with a mix of spit and potatoes. In loosely identifying visionary art by its emphasis on symbols, many also loop in artists who are far from art outsiders like William Blake, Gustave Moreau, Frida Kahlo, and Salvador Dali.
With its definition so tenuous, visionary art as a movement or genre can be difficult to examine, but with Laffoley’s art everything is presented as a blueprint for understanding. The exhibition at Kent Fine Art is dominated by his large-scale paintings that graph and chart subjects like the act of lucid dreaming, unrealized technologies, and “the megapattern of the world soul,” which is explored in a mixed media work merging ideas of selves from psychoanalyst Carl Jung and Japanese zen master Daiun Sōgaku Harada. Each richly vibrant painting, structured like a futuristic mandala, stretches to a square of about 70 by 70 inches, and is annotated with vinyl lettering for both its message and spiritual sources. If you go in with little knowledge of the mystical, it can be an overwhelming experience, as even Laffoley’s explanatory text is a mind-bending meander through ideas culled from world religions and diverse philosophies. And it’s not meant to be something that can be understood at a glance — Laffoley spent up to three years on some of the pieces. However, for even the most philosophically lazy among us it is a fascinating study on the use of visual art to express what is often beyond words.
Each towering painting starts out as an intensely researched hand-written discourse. A smaller room in the exhibition includes some of Laffoley’s heavy block writing, such as on inventor Nikola Tesla’s “Death Ray,” which Laffoley asserts “was his ability to go so deeply in lucid dreaming that he would reach the lux of the mind or the white light which would either cause death to the dreamer or bring back highly focused energy into the objective world.” As Laffoley’s four main areas of work are “Operating Systems,” “Meta-Energy,” “Time Travel,” and “Lucid Dreams,” it’s not surprising Tesla makes a few appearances. In 2000, Laffoley held a seance in Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel, the room where Tesla lived and died in the last decade of his life, to channel the late scientist and find out what work he had done in that “lost” time when he had been under-the-radar of science. “I discovered that he had been designing clothes, or devising a way of using the etheric layer of the aura to create a clothing-state that he called an ‘ectoplasmic mystagogue’,” Laffoley stated in the publication that accompanies the exhibition.
Laffoley illustrated Tesla’s invisible clothing that could protect its wearer in “extreme environments” like underwater and in outerspace in a piece called “The Ectoplasmic Man,” and these sort of mental machines appear in other paintings as well, such as “The Solitron,” a painting of device of Möbius loop tubes that looks like the Star of David, used by lucid dreamers “for the production of perpetual motion through the creation of solitons,” waves that keep their form and speed forever. In the 1980s, he even started to use his art as a device itself, which could be a physically interactive guide for parapsychic journeys, usually through more lucid dreams. It’s worth noting that Laffoley attributes his art to his own physical mental device. In 1992, he claims that a small metal “implant” was found in his brain, and was declared by a local chapter of the Mutual UFO Network to be a “nanotechnological laboratory” that is “capable of accelerating or retarding [his] brain activity like a benign tumor.” Laffoley believes that “the ‘implant’ is extraterrestrial in origin and is the main motivation of [his] ideas and theories.”
Oddly, while ideas of the soul arriving on Earth and Western alchemy are intricately examined in The Boston Visionary Cell exhibition, what exactly the nonprofit does, and who it involves beyond Laffoley, is vague. The nonprofit and Laffoley were evicted from the downtown Boston office building in 2005, although that has likely not slowed down their or his dedication to promoting these religion and time-crossing ideas. In fact, the art itself seems unhinged from time, and although decades separate some of the paintings, they appear to flow out of one temporal moment. It’s obvious that Laffoley is a uniquely focused person, and there’s some insight into his perception of the rest of us in the label text for “The House of Self”: “[It's] is the third painting of mine that was commissioned, paid for, and eventually returned to me without my having to return the purchase price. My only explanation as to why the buyers did this is the fact that I gave them more than they bargained for. I guess what they actually wanted was an illustration of a personal belief system they had adopted and would outgrow after a while. The painting would then act as a memento of a step in their mental ‘development.’ What they got from me, instead of a souvenir, was an idea that went beyond their initial creed. This was particularly true of religious beliefs imported from the East, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Zen, aspects of which have literally invaded Western worldviews over the past century and a half, including advanced scientific beliefs. Personally, my father began instructing me in many of the traditions of Asia when I was seven years old.”
Most of us are obviously hopelessly behind Laffoley in terms of our spiritual understanding, but as a guide into the metaphysical world his paintings are entrancing charts to discover the mental landscape of one of the most ambitious contemporary creators of visionary art.
Paul Laffoley: The Boston Visionary Cell is at Kent Fine Art LLC (210 Eleventh Avenue, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 9.