SAN FRANCISCO — Let’s begin by acknowledging what is, perhaps, only self-evident if you’ve done a fair amount of drugs: it is really challenging to produce anything, let alone something significant, while high. Though artists and musicians are among the niche professions within which open drug use, abuse, or addiction might not be instant grounds for dismissal, it is arguable that most highly creative drug-addicts are genius in spite of their addiction, not because of it. An interest in drugs, especially recreational or spiritual hallucinogens, is rarely accompanied by ambition or work ethic, in the conventional sense — which is what makes DMT an interesting choice of muse for artist Joe Roberts.
In his new book, “We Ate the Acid 61)A3HT3TA3W,” Roberts offers a collection of works, in sketchbook form, that attempt to reconstruct trips taken on homemade DMT. Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a naturally-occurring substance that appears endogenously in a number of plants and animals, including the human body. It can be extracted from plants via a relatively simple home chemistry process. The high is short, but it has an extremely intense psychedelic effect when smoked or absorbed orally. On the opening page of the book, in one of the only texts, aside from a transcribed interview, is an exhortation: The way you choose to explore it is the way you choose to explore it. Make sure you take notes. This is a slightly disingenuous cue, since apparently one of the active effects of DMT tripping is body paralysis—so taking notes or creating artworks in real time would be unheard of. This makes Robert’s ability to recapture even a fragmented or distant version of his experiences extra-impressive.
Setting aside, for a moment, the extracurricular circumstances of Roberts’s work, his oeuvre is startling, capturing the kind of visual spontaneity and rejection of hierarchy that makes the work of children and Surrealists so appealing. The childlike quality of the imagery is enhanced by cultural iconography that indicates the pre-adolescent landscape — Mickey Mouse, smiley faces, Life cereal, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jif peanut butter. I hesitate to use the term “outsider art,” both because I object broadly to the notion that people lack awareness of themselves as artists simply because they make art without the framework of formal education or training, and because Roberts attended the San Francisco Art Institute — according to a bio from a 2015 show at Slow Culture, he claims he “mainly learned about drugs” there. Though, given the focus of his output, one might argue that educational experience nonetheless served to expose him to one of his primary influences.
It is the influence of drugs, the many visual instances of them in the work — a bag of shrooms or the glass bottles that indicate the extraction of DMT — and the artist’s use of them as a titular reference point from “We Ate the Acid” and the alpha-numeric that iterates the statement in reverse, to LSD WORLDPEACE at Slow Culture that opens the work, justly or unjustly, to mockery. The introduction to “We Ate the Acid” is penned by Hamilton Morris, host of VICE TV’s Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, and a short video documentary on Roberts made for the series yielded commentary equal parts admiring and derisive. Viewers seem mostly to fixate on Roberts’s odd mannerisms and demeanor, which are variously attributed by armchair physicians of the internet to drug abuse, social awkwardness, and Bell’s Palsy (a usually temporary weakness or paralysis of the muscles on one side of the face, which, for the record, does not have a casual relationship with drug use). Roberts is neither the first artist to have a drug obsession, nor the only one to have an odd way of looking at the world or presenting his ideas — at least the latter, if not the former, is practically a requirement for being an artist in the first place. So let’s set aside the context of Roberts endlessly quirky conditions, and look, again, at the work.
What draws me into “We Ate the Acid” is the book’s binding, made of what appears to be custom-printed masking tape. Combined with the sort of juvenile coding of the title, above an emblem featuring a Sorcerer’s Apprentice-style Mickey Mouse holding a key, framed by a circle of eyes, the tome feels like a well-worn notebook. Roberts’s book and its contents are in the domain of a particular genre of spooky burnout — remarkably fluent in some modes of expression and regressive in others — for whom the D.A.R.E. program had the affect of instigating a defiant willingness to utilize their mind as a test lab for an alternative hypothesis on drug use. But the tableaus that Roberts rescues from his journey of the mind are uncanny — sometimes woodland scenes or semi-industrial landscapes that are quietly revelatory, sometimes surreal camping trips or excursions through ornately detailed psychedelic palaces and corridors. Figures cast in moonlight might be grazing deer, or witches and aliens backlit against the moon. Smiley faces might be a decorative motif, or repeated in such multitude that they become the ether of a given trip, combining like building blocks to form arches and passageways. The work is mostly figurative, and for the most part discernible, one imagines scenes from a semi-rural existence — walks and picnics in a grassy glade, breakfast with two house cats, lake views, logging roads, ocean vistas, and forests at night — in other words, coastal Northern California. But everything is presented through a literal trippy filter, where reality, when it crops up, needs to be absorbed as a natural part of the landscape.
In effect, Roberts has cannily addressed the issue of drug and dream narratives, which is that no one really wants to hear you talk about them, by presenting visually rich and evocative images that offer much to engage the viewer, context notwithstanding. For this viewer, who has forsaken both Northern California and its drug culture for lo these many years, the work of Joe Roberts feels like a triumphant portal into familiar, sublime territory.