For three months in 1964, a couple of years before Timothy Leary advised the masses to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” California-born artist Steven Arnold lived on the small island of Formentera, off the coast of Spain. There, he took LSD every day, made weird costumes, played with paint, and slept in caves with a group of fellow American art students. “This new drug was so euphoric and visionary, so positive and mind expanding … I ascended to another dimension, one so beautiful and spiritual that I was never the same,” Arnold said of the experience.
Today the sentiment might sound like a hippie cliche, but the surreal photographs these experiences inspired are anything but. After leaving Formentera, Arnold created hundreds of otherworldly, black-and-white tableaux vivant — gender- and mind-bending takes on imagery from classical mythology and religious texts (i.e. one photo entitled “Fag Jesus”). Here, body-painted models are strung up on gleaming crosses, porcelain dolls sprout from a goddess head in mandala-like patterns, and angels with Illuminati-pyramid loincloths emerge from scallop shells.
Epiphanies, now on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York City, is the first exhibition of Arnold’s vintage prints since his death from AIDS in 1994. “Arnold meant for his photographs to be objects of meditation, like Tibetan thangkas,” Vishnu Dass, executive director of the Steven Arnold Archive, which is based in Maui, told Hyperallergic. “He was deeply into Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, the idea of the Hero’s Journey.”
Though they’re psychedelically inspired, Arnold’s photographs bear none of the now-dated visual tropes of the ’60s counterculture — there are no peace signs or paisley. “When everyone else was wearing beads and tie-dye in San Francisco, Steven was throwing Fellini parties,” Vishnu Dass says. “He definitely influenced the Bay Area’s psychedelic community, and some of his pieces are extremely psychedelic, but in this totally unique way that bridges glamour, spirituality, and psychedelia.”
Arnold constructed his surreal scenes using a trove of costumes and props at Zanzibar Studios, a former pretzel factory in LA where he held nightly salons crowded with legendary local characters: Timothy Leary, George Harrison, Debbie Harry, and John Waters star Divine. The androgynous characters featured in them make the photos feel particularly relevant today. Stylistically, Arnold’s high-contrast, hard-light images have more in common with German Expressionist photography than the psychedelic art of the Woodstock era — though he was one of the original poster artists for San Francisco’s influential Matrix nightclub, where bands like Jefferson Airplane played.
Arnold was heavily influenced by his mentor, one Salvador Dalí, who became enamored with Arnold’s film Luminous Procuress in the late ’70s and later invited the young artist to help build the Dalí Museum in Figueres, Spain. His high school art teacher’s advice to “make art from the inside out” and “solve problems from a soul level” also informed Arnold’s creative process.
Though he helped shape the Bay Area counterculture in the ’60s, and was also a prolific filmmaker, painter, illustrator, set and costume designer, and assemblage artist, Arnold never attained the better-known status of many of his contemporaries, including Joel-Peter Witkin, Andres Serrano, and Robert Mapplethorpe. “The AIDS epidemic was a very scary time for the gay community, and a lot of the work coming out started turning really dark,” Vishnu Dass says. “So that was what was popular. But Arnold was looking at the same things and shining light on them instead of becoming dark or depressed or afraid.” Arnold himself was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and died of the disease in 1994.
Vishnu Dass discovered Arnold after “giving up everything and moving to Maui to become a student of Ram Dass.” He hopes to help renew interest in the artist’s work with this exhibition and a documentary about Arnold’s life, which has been in the works since 1996.
Steven Arnold: Epiphanies continues at Daniel Cooney Fine Art (508–526 W 26th Street, #9C, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 19.