With a intensely introspective nature and studious interest in the visual culture of the occult, Los Angeles-based collage artist Astral Eyes hardly seems like someone who is making a big splash in the world of high fashion. Talking to him is a wild ride through a mind that flips back and forth between planes of reality, as the strictly rational gives way to the mystical, and back again. Meanwhile, his obscure sense of humor, thick glasses, and scraggly hair and mustache conjure visions of a defrocked Father Guido Sarducci.
In his Echo Park studio, raw source material covers the walls, tables, even the floor, as a panoply of esoteric pictures from magazines and books so fills the space that it seems as if the artist’s entire world is itself a living collage. In the middle of this chaos, Astral Eyes magically weaves snippets of imagery into baffling tableaus. It has been less than a year since he began placing his collages–sometimes bizarre, sometimes humorous, and always cryptic–onto women’s clothing, and began marketing the results as a line called Goldnbones. But even in that short time, they have already made their way as far as the MTV Music Awards, when the pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen chose to wear leggings featuring the artist’s design of disembodied, glowing eyes set against a black field. This would seem to be curious company for someone described by his best friends as a hermit, and whose dedication to spirituality in art is such the he proudly proclaims that
all my creativity flows from the metaphysical–my art is entirely dedicated to accessing the insight of the divine eye.
What the divine eye channels forth through Astral Eyes are arcane menageries, most typically described as psychedelic and Dadaist. Such references are certainly valid, but they are also short-sighted. The artist’s work is too nuanced to be confined to simple categories, and underlying the hallucinatory imagery of his collages are painstaking formal compositions which not only reinforce the mystic meanings, but provide further levels of content. In his Krossthelinegoldi, for instance, theatrical costumes are combined to create the silhouette of a figure, which emerges from a glowing circle and clutches a reliquary–the motifs imply transcendence. But at the same time, colors and textures have been painstakingly modulated and matched to subtly reveal that this transcendence is dependent upon cohesion. This kind of formal strength is found throughout his oeuvre. In his Archaica, the sensory organs of a woman’s face are closed off, to imply the primacy of her inner senses, but bold yellows and reds tie the figure to the ground, sending the further message that she exists in a liminal space, at once ethereal but at the same time material. For Astral Eyes, art provides a means to escape beyond our realm, but that journey is never free, nor is it easy–it must be achieved through a process of hard and studious work.
For the artist, that journey began in a place that was less than ethereal: Houston, Texas, where he was raised as James Weigel. Considering that he has described the city as being filled with “corrupted, close-minded bigoted antediluvian apes,” one might assume that it was not the most nourishing environment for a would-be metaphysical artist. His biggest formative influence came from his mother, who was not only an artist herself, but, importantly, a spiritualist. When he started hearing voices from his closet as a young boy, his mother neither discouraged him nor told him has was deluded, but instead urged him to listen, because she believed they were angels. For the young Astral Eyes, this was not just a lesson in the supernatural, but in retrospect also in art, because for his mother the two were inseparable.
My mom would tell me about angels and how to talk to them, or we would go look at art. She was the one who got me into esoteric practice. At a very early age, she sat me down in what she called ‘Dream Time.’ This when I really learned to hear my creative voice—to step into another state of seeing reality. She showed me from an early age that art is not something to be picked apart by critics, dried out, and hung on a wall, The true function of art is to commune with the divine. A pure source of the spirit spreads out before you when you create.
As a teen he began wandering East Texas in search of dimensional portals, his first foray into escaping to more cosmic realms. From Texas, he eventually migrated to Chicago, where he wound up as co-owner and creative director of the independent music label Disaro Records. He was responsible for the art for most of the bands released by Disaro, but migrated to Los Angeles in 2007. It was there that he found a home in the city’s burgeoning occult underground.
I found a niche in LA, where there were people whose music and art seemed connected to mine, and I discovered a community based around the Philosophical Research Society. I immediately felt like a member of a family.
Along the way, he adopted the pseudonym of Owleyes, which encapsulated his occult vision: the owl sees in the darkness, discerning what is opaque to others. In late 2011, however, he began instead using his current moniker, Astral Eyes. While the switch caused a certain amount of confusion among those who follow his work, the new name implied even further sight, into different planes.
I kind of gave myself an ‘upgrade,’ I suppose. I felt I was transitioning into new realms with my work, approaching the zero point between the biological & technological human, so the change to Astral Eyes seemed appropriate.
It was in the mid-2000s, around the time of his mother’s death, that he started making mystic collages. Some of the early attempts, such as Hollow, were clearly intended to be therapeutic: it shows a hand of glory in front of a figure symbolizing his mother, who is being drawn into a chasm created out of cut apart and highly layered church walls. The collages eventually became an obsession. Working both manually and digitally–the artist refers to his approach as “analog Photoshop”–he rapidly gained facility. The medium of collage provided a kind of sacred unity, since it allowed him to fuse infinite worlds which would reorient the viewer through the act of decoding. Astral Eyes now refers to his images as “icons,” and considers them to be transformational tools for the soul.
My work has always been about finding a way to escape the mundane reality grid which we find ourselves trapped in. It’s a major alchemical undertaking–a process of creation with ritualized or magical intentions–designed to awaken the Divine within us. I pull images into the ‘digital crucible,’ from the endless and synchronous ether. The process of ‘cooking’ then begins, chopping up the material and re-contextualizing it so that what was profane is transformed into its own new mythology. The result is a living system of sacred symbols that I hope will trigger the viewer’s own sense of wonderment and spiritual self.
The idea to use Astral Eyes’ mystic images for a clothing line clothing was proposed by a friend from Chicago, Shelly Erion, whose background was in fashion merchandising. She had also moved Los Angeles, and had seen some of her old friend’s designs screened onto t-shirts. After a chance late-night meeting at a taco truck, she approached him with the novel idea that they use his images on woman’s leggings. Goldnbones was officially launched in May, 2012. Astral Eyes explains that his approach to transforming his collages into apparel designs.
My goal is to match the living desing to a living body. I try to create simple cuts with complex patterns which fit on the body in a way that activates a total synergy of the person wearing it.
That synergy has been enough to propel Goldnbones in a short time into a line of over 30 pieces, sold at boutiques in Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo. But since Astral Eyes proudly wears the badge of being a cultural outsider, and denounces as a point of pride the idea of art-as-commodity, it might seem like an awkward transition for him to see his designs wind up on off-the-rack clothing. In fact, the exact opposite is true–he exults in this new direction. Rather than bastardizing his work, the artist considers Goldnbones a way to further his unseen web of astral connections, and put him in touch with a wider audience of like-minded souls.
I make work that lives, it’s work that fuses the astral cords with others like me. I love putting my work on clothing because I love to see these icons take living form on peoples’ bodies . . . I think the more people become used to seeing scared imagery wrapped around the body, the more we as a culture will start looking for stronger and more internal symbols of the spirit. Personally, I’m thrilled by the prospect of being part of a chain reaction that helps unite the sacred and profane.
And it is that chain reaction that has lifted this hermetic visual alchemist into the unlikely role of one of fashion’s brightest new impresarios.