Alex Aliume is about to show me his latest painting, made with a new technique. I’m on my knees on the floor of his 8- by 12-foot basement studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and 3D neon fluorescent artwork covers almost every square inch of wall, floor, and ceiling.
The new painting is called Cosmic Consciousness. When I say painting, though, I actually mean four paintings: I see one thing under normal light, another with 3D glasses, another under black light, and something else in total darkness.
Under normal light, I see a Rorschached scarab, or at least the ghost of one.
When we put on the 3D glasses, the image acquires six inches of depth, and I feel the urge to peek under the edges of the thing. The 2D-to-3D transition is like falling into the Westeros maquette at the beginning of Game of Thrones. When Aliume turns on the black light, it starts to glow, and I realize that there is a painting beneath the painting. It almost looks organic.
Aliume, who is 25, has only been painting full-time for two years. He hasn’t actually exhibited very much, partially because he fields an endless stream of requests to visit his studio. He’s got 82,000 followers on Instagram, and he has sold work to buyers from the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Holland, India, Thailand and the Philippines. Blue Man Group cofounder Chris Wink is an avid collector, and it won’t be long until one of Aliume’s works ends up on an album cover. (I’m talking to you, Circles Around the Sun.)
And he is about to show me something astonishing. “I am going to turn off the light,” says Aliume. “You will see what this is able to do. This is not human.” The room goes dark. At that point, clarity and confusion collide. There is a painting beneath the painting beneath the painting. I don’t quite understand what I’m looking at, but I do know that it’s beautiful. Is it the night sky? Or is it the Chakra system? (As above, so below.) Or is it both? It might be … the everything.
“I am still trying to understand what I found,” Aliume says. “It was an accident. This is a map of something cosmic.”
I want one. I want it on my wall, so I can stare at it every night and go riding on all those waves of light.
You don’t need to use psychedelics to appreciate Alex Aliume’s art, but it sure helps. And even if the various ingredients of a typical Aliume painting are familiar—vanishing points, 3D, black light, and neon—the territory he occupies at their intersection is his alone. If we are living in a moment of psychedelic-aided spiritual renewal—and microdosing techies and serious mental health researchers alike would argue that we are—Aliume is painting the posters for it.
The hope, hallucinogen advocates might say, is that they will help us find our way back to a harmonious state not just with each other but perhaps with the planet itself, before all the toxicity of modern life—both environmental and interpersonal—poisons us (and the planet) beyond repair.
What Alex Aliume will tell you is that the spiritual insights gleaned from either doing psychedelics or the echoes of it you find in his own art are not teaching us, but simply reminding us of something that we already knew.
“Psychedelics open a door in front of you,” he says. “They send a signal from our planet, from the higher consciousness, that you are a spiritual being, part of one energy, the quantum structures of the universe, connected through different levels and different realities. And this renaissance is happening because we’re on the verge of destroying ourselves and the planet. They teach us to see the life inside of things other than ourselves.”
It’s important to note here, too, that Aliume does not come across as smugly spiritual, one of those self-designated keepers of wisdom that he has and you don’t. Rather, he threads the needle of enlightenment: He really does seem as if he’s trying to remind us of something, not to shove it down our throats or keep it to himself. “I want to bring people inside paintings,” he says, “to change their understanding of what art can do.”
Until recently, Aliume’s work generally fell into two categories. There is the more geometric stuff, which uses a lot of repetition (shapes and curves) and plays with optics using fairly precise geometric progressions. And then there is the more representative stuff, which conjures people (sort of), animals (his cat, mostly), and other, more off-the-wall imagery. But as of June, he’s added a third, of which Cosmic Consciousness is the very first example.
To make it, he used a (secret) technique involving glow-in-the-dark phosphorescent paint—not just the commonly available green, but many colors—but the result is no mere whoa-man dorm room art. In Cosmic Consciousness, Aliume has created something that’s difficult to describe, other than to say that it reminds pretty much everyone who sees it of something they’ve already seen, whether it’s the lights you see when your eyes are closed or the cosmic web/matrix that sometimes appears when you’re in the midst of a psychedelic trip. People say that kind of thing about a lot of his paintings. What does Aliume say? “I hope they remind people about love,” he says, “which is the only thing we can take with us when we go.”
The phosphorous thing was an accidental discovery (a spill, a piece of paper to wipe it up, a dawning realization). But Aliume has positioned himself in the slipstream of improbable and unpredictable events by paying attention to the things someone else might ignore because they’re outside whatever slowly solidifying frame of reference we all build for ourselves, adding new fortifications every day. “I pay attention to everything,” he says. “Because the universe is in the details. And you’re not going to pick up on the signals that your higher consciousness is sending you if you’re not looking.” Aliume, you might say, is looking on behalf of all of us.
Take a minute to look at what Aliume is wearing today: a sleeveless black cotton T-shirt, men’s harem pants, an amulet around his neck, a wrist mala, and a pair of high tops that he’s painted to look like one of his paintings. Other days it might be a faux-fur vest, designer jeans, and sandals—a combination of hippie, hipster, and gypsy … call it hipsy. He’s almost always wearing a visor, both as a fashion statement and to shield his eyes from black light. Slight, with shoulder-length hair, he has the look of a wandering yogi. His wardrobe both telegraphs the preternatural calm of a seeker and throws off the distinct whiff of joy he leaves in his wake. Some people really do spread the love.
Aliume was born in Kharkiv, the second-most populous city in Ukraine, with 1.4 million inhabitants. When he was 6, his father abandoned him and his mother, and they moved to the village of Chkalovsky, about 30 miles away.
That was about the time he began having visions. When he tried to sleep, he’d start feeling physical pain. Then he’d lose touch with his body. ”Different visions brought me to different places,” he says. “I’ve seen life on other planets. I’ve been inside other beings. Inhuman beings. Ninety percent of my consciousness would be inside of something else, and just 10 percent here. It brought me so much pain. I just wanted to be outside running around with other kids.”
When nearby hospitals couldn’t help, his mother began taking him to Eastern European healers—shaman types. Nothing worked. When he was 7, he stumbled on his grandfather’s collection of books about magic—not the pulling-a-rabbit-out-of-your-hat stuff, but things like tarot, energy, and black matter. That got him going, and at 12 he joined an internet-based organization in Moscow called Ecology of Thought. He considers its founder, Lyudmila P. Troyan, a mentor.
Her message, in 23 words: “Our cosmic organism is a complex self-adjusting and self-training system—a physical body and hundreds of conditionally visible, mutually penetrating and interacting bodies.”
In 13 words: There is one consciousness, and it flows both within us and through us.
In one word: Love.
Alex Aliume became a mystic. “I felt like I was being reminded of something all the time,” he says, “as if life—or my soul—was sending me signals, reminding me of why I’d come here. I knew I had something to show people, but I didn’t know how I was supposed to do it.”
At 15 years old: astral projection, out-of-body experiences, no drugs involved. One time he seemed to find himself inside the consciousness of a spider that was climbing into the wider cosmos, then into another body, and then he heard the sound of thousands of people screaming behind him. “I experienced the death of all people,” he says. “But I went too deep and realized I had to stop. I couldn’t find any teachers out there, but maybe that’s why I brought back the ability to move colors and make art. I have seen the other side. Maybe I brought it back with me.”
There weren’t many outlets for an astral-traveling future psychedelic painter to express himself in Chkalovsky. But where there are young Eastern European men, there are bands. “Music was my first passion of expression,” he says. “Just music—not something spiritual or mystical.” He worked in a few studios, played a little, put a few parties together. He even got his mother to accompany him to the tattoo parlor to get the words “Street” and “Voice” inked into each forearm.
Talk to Aliume for any period of time and he will loop back to his central (and yes, somewhat brain-bending) message. “Descartes created the material way of thinking—basically, that the brain creates consciousness,” he says. “But do you know what? That came to him in a dream. The angels brought the idea to him. So … a metaphysical thing brought him the thought that we are all material. It’s paradoxical. The brain does not produce consciousness. It exists outside of us, and through time.”
Aliume’s stepfather died when he was 15. It took the joy out of the music, and that’s when he resolved to get to the United States. He opened a clothing store on local social media called, simply, Hipster Store. He used the money he made from it to begin visa proceedings and eventually buy himself a one-way ticket to New York. He was 20 when he arrived in Brooklyn. He didn’t know a soul, save for a few social media connections, and took a job working as a busboy in Brighton Beach.
In his downtime he began creating YouTube videos, first as a “Rave Blogger” and then as the host of “Psychedelic Travel Videos”—a few of which garnered views in the tens of thousands. You can still find a handful of them on YouTube, although they’re all in Russian. They’re both edgy (he smokes pot! he goes to raves!) and adorable (he wears his ambition to create something right there on his sleeve … when he’s wearing sleeves).
One of his videos caught the eyes of Brooklyn’s avatars of cool—Vice—and he used the exposure to enter a competition organized by the global creative collective D&AD, winning one of a handful of free slots in an elite training program that typically culminates with coveted job placements in the creative fields. But working in the restaurant, making travel videos, and spending several hours a day in the design program began to sap his vital energy. Seeking some sort of balm, Aliume asked an artist friend if he could borrow a canvas and some paints. Painting became a way to decompress, and the more he painted, the more he wanted to do nothing but paint.
Then he had a dream that changed everything. He was in some sort of dark expanse. What was he doing there, he thought, given that he’d just gone to bed? Then he realized he was in a clearing in a forest, in the middle of a circle of trees about 20 yards away. When he tried to move, he couldn’t, and he looked down. He had hands, but no legs—he was a tree with roots burrowed deep into the earth. When the first drops of “rain” hit his skin, he realized it wasn’t water but a black liquid that was seeping right under his skin. Other colors followed and covered him entirely. When he woke up, 23-year-old Aliume suddenly knew what he had to do. He started painting every day.
During my immersion in Aliume’s art, I have found myself torn, unable to decide what I find more remarkable: the art itself or the fact that he’s only been painting for two years. Whichever side you come down on, the fact of the matter is that he’s been painting in an absolute fever during that time, practically inventing new techniques by the day.
His most accessible canvases employ geometric shapes to evoke notions of the infinite. Consider, for example, Torus of Life.
Aliume says it’s his way of showing us the sacred geometry of “how everything works,” where each part of a fractal is both unique and a copy of the previous one. “I didn’t learn this by looking at YouTube,” he says. “I looked at myself and at nature.”
When he says, “sacred geometry,” he’s referring to those shapes and proportions that are universal, and the metaphysical principle of the inseparable relationship of the part to the whole. Aliume is not a mathematician, but he’s clearly fluent (in both verbal and artistic terms) with concepts like the golden ratio, the Fibonacci sequence, the torus, fractals, and recursive geometries.
Does he really understand the math, I ask him? He almost scoffs in response. “Mathematicians didn’t invent this stuff,” he says. “It’s everywhere around us, in nature. All they did was describe it in the language of mathematics. It was already there, long before they came along.”
As it turns out, a theory that the universe might actually be shaped like a torus took hold in cosmological circles for a while back in the ’80s, but it ultimately failed to gain purchase among physicists. Still, does Aliume’s painting represent something profound? I decide that it must and pose the question to Lyman Page, a cosmologist at Princeton University.
“The Torus image looks like the inside of a fusion tokamak,” he tells me. He’s talking about a machine that uses a magnetic field to warp plasma into the shape of a torus in the hope of producing thermonuclear fusion power. “Maybe this will be the path to man-made fusion, abundant clean energy, chicken in every pot, and saving humanity. Not quite at the toroidal cosmos level but still pretty cool.”
What about Interdimensional Portal? Is that shape, you know, cosmic? “That looks like a flux tube or a wormhole,” he says.
Flux tubes are real, cylindrical regions of space that contain larger magnetic fields than the space surrounding them. Wormholes are a speculative product of theoretical physics, the simplest description of which is that they’re tunnels that provide shortcuts through spacetime. This, at least, is not surprising; Aliume believes he has traveled through time himself, although he never mentioned taking a wormhole.
While much of Aliume’s work contains echoes of hard science and galactic-level imagery—the way out there—some of his pieces come from the other direction, from deep inside. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Aliume painted Pure Consciousness after a psychedelic experience.)
But what he would tell you is that the two realms are one and the same. “Certain energy structures exist that are a kind of web that connects different levels of reality into one,” he says.
So where’s the gateway into these structures? How is Aliume walking through it? How can you or I walk through it? This is the point in the story where we need to talk about psychedelic mushrooms and the message they have for us, the very same one that Aliume is passing along through his art.
As mycologist Paul Stamets tells Michael Pollan in his 2018 best seller, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, “Mushrooms are bringing us a message from nature.” Stamets argues that a vast web of mycelia in the soil constitute “Earth’s natural Internet … a redundant, complexly branched, self-repairing, and scalable communications network linking many species over tremendous distances.” Originally skeptical of such claims, Pollan is a convert: “A forest is a far more complex, sociable, and intelligent entity than we knew,” he writes, “and it is fungi that organize the arboreal entity.”
We can double down on Pollan, though: Ordinary mushrooms are the hidden layer beneath the visible world, but magic mushrooms are the doorway to that invisible, branching, interconnected world. When you look at his canvases, it really does seem as if Aliume has managed to surface some sort of underlying organic structure of the everything, and the experience of seeing one is nothing short of profound.
Aliume certainly takes it seriously: He calls himself a “Russian Mystic Visionary Artist” and his studio a “Neon Visionary Art Temple.” The first time I met him, the preciousness of his self-regard was almost enough for me to file him under “Yet Another Millennial With Preposterously Inflated Self-Worth,” but I was thankfully in the company of those more patient than me, and I stuck around to look at the paintings. These days, I think he might even be selling himself a little short.
And the combined effects of black light, fluorescence, and 3D: Is it cheesy? In the hands of many, yes. But not in Aliume’s. What he has managed to do inside his Neon Visionary Art Temple is to create, again and again, art that sucks you inside of the frame, and the next thing you know, you’re no longer standing in front of it but inside of it.
“When you say that someone has got it, this kid had it,” says Shawn James, the proprietor of the Greenpoint Gallery, a nonprofit arts organization. “From the style of his fashion to the uniqueness of his paintings and the whole black light thing.” James provides exhibition space as well as career counseling to emerging and outsider artists, and he has supported Aliume since the early days, giving him canvases, supplies, even a bicycle. “Alex is in the top percentile of artists who have walked through my door,” James says.
Aliume is not the first artist to hope that his work can be a catalyst for some sort of enlightenment, one stunned observer at a time. Rather, he’s just the latest in a long line of them. Dadaist painter Jean Arp famously said that he hoped his work might induce a kind of waking enchantment. In his book, Dreaming With Open Eyes: The Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Century Art and Culture, University of Brighton professor of poetics Michael Tucker’s central argument is that “twentieth-century artists of the industrialized West have helped to prepare the way for the shift in consciousness which is so sorely needed today: away from a mechanistic, rationalist model of thought to what has been called a sense of participation mystique in life.” Tucker venerates the artist as seer, healer, or shaman.
Aliume calls himself a mystic, but his goal is the same: Humanity won’t make it, he says, unless mass enlightenment happens. And we won’t get there unless we find our way back to a state of complete and total wonder about the universe and our place and purpose within it. He’s trying to help us dream with our eyes open.
This spring, Chris Wink—the Blue Man Group cofounder—hosted a party at his apartment where a dozen or so of Aliume’s paintings were the featured performers. Wink, of course, helped overthrow the old order of theater in New York in the 1980s by injecting it with an experiential, or immersive, component. Blue Man Group made theater fun, tweaking the norms of performer-audience interaction in the midst of an orgy of visual and auditory input.
Before the party, Wink installed black light throughout the space, and the result, when you added in the 3D glasses, was a room full of giddy amazement, exhortations by clustered groups of viewers losing themselves inside one painting after another. This is the typical reaction to Aliume’s work. It’s like being with people who are seeing the northern lights for the first time.
Wink can appreciate that Aliume’s paintings take on whole new dimensions under the influence of hallucinogens, but he’s adamant that you don’t have to be on anything to enjoy them. “People used to say that about Blue Man Group all the time,” he says, “that we must have done a lot of drugs to come up with it all. And we’d say, ‘You don’t understand, we’re trying to create an experience where you don’t have to be on drugs.’ Alex is tapping into things, he’s lifting the veil. That’s what acid or mushrooms do, so the two go very well together. But they don’t need to be together.”
When I visit Wink in early July to talk about Aliume, it’s hard not to notice that there is nothing on the walls of his massive living room but Aliume paintings. “Little by little, I just took everything else down,” he says. “They were just prints, and they were polluting the space.”
Wink has commissioned two gigantic paintings from Aliume, Infinity and Portal to Another Dimension. “I don’t think of Alex as an artist in the traditional sense,” he says, pointing to Infinity. “He’s a guy who’s exploring the edges, the interface of our reality and whatever is beyond that—the infinite. Pondering the infinite has always been a mind-fuck for me. His stuff also provides a unique aesthetic experience; it’s like having a grown-up toy.”
Say, for example, you decided to take a few hits of acid and sat in front of Infinity once the drug started to kick in. Pick a point—any point—on the canvas, and try to hold your focus. Once you’ve nailed it down, the rest of the painting will start moving spontaneously around it. Of course, that’s what acid does, whether you’re looking at one of Aliume’s paintings or the leaves in a tree. But it does need something to work with, and outside of nature itself, you will have a hard time finding better fodder for “visuals” than the art of Alex Aliume.
Portal sits above a closed-up fireplace in Wink’s living room. It evokes a similar journey into spacetime. “He told me about the mathematics of it,” Wink says, “and I didn’t understand a thing. Apparently, there are 12 exact spirals. But there’s also an implied shape that goes right off the canvas—you complete the thing inside your own mind.”
Wink is talking about Aliume’s take on the “flower of life” symbol, a series of multiple, evenly spaced overlapping circles, arranged to form a flowerlike pattern, where the center of each circle is on the circumference of six surrounding circles of the same diameter. But Aliume says it also contains the “Space of Variations,” a concept popularized by the Russian writer Vadim Zeland in his book Reality Transurfing.
The basic idea: Reality (i.e., the “space”) contains all possible “variations”—those that have existed, do exist, will exist in the future, or won’t exist at all. Our minds travel along lines in that Space of Variations as energy potential and materialize different variations along the way. And while you can’t change a scenario of variation, you can change your thoughts, which move you to another variation. In short, you can’t alter the space of variations (i.e., reality), but you can … change your mind. (Zeland, like Aliume, considers himself not the source of this information but simply its conduit—a “retranslator.”)
I ask Aliume if he measures out the spirals first and then paints over them. “I wouldn’t even know where to start,” he says. It’s all free-hand. If you want a perfect spiral, he says, you’re welcome to make it using the perfect lines created by a piece of software. But we are not perfect. He wants you to feel the fact that his hands are not machines. He is not a laser printer.
Most of Portal was painted with fluorescent acrylics, but charge it up under black light and then turn the light off, and everything disappears but the dots, which Aliume painted in phosphorus acrylics. “You don’t see the squares anymore,” Aliume says, “but the spirals glow—you can see the bones of the painting.” He’s right, you can—but they also move. When you climb inside Portal, Aliume literally takes you on a “trip”—no hallucinogens required.
Wink is currently the “director of content and cool shit” at Area 15, an experiential entertainment complex opening in Las Vegas in late 2019, and he’s already decided to use Aliume’s work in Wink World, his plan for a black-light-heavy experiential ride through a series of infinity rooms. “His stuff is already kind of moving on the canvas,” he says, “so I said to him, ‘What if we could make it literally move? What if we made it spin?’”
Wink commissioned one piece as proof of concept—two wheels that spin in opposite directions, whirling blazes of color that are like a ride for the eyes. The wheels move at different speeds, too, which practically compels your brain to try and ride your sight from one wheel to the other. It’s mesmerizing. It’s also arguably his fourth technique—kinetic sculptures created using ultraviolet and phosphorescent materials, set in motion under a strobe light.
When Aliume dropped the spinning wheels by Wink’s apartment, he also brought Cosmic Consciousness, the four-level painting he showed me in Bushwick. Wink hadn’t seen the phosphorus technique yet, and he called me after Aliume had left.
“That’s not just next-level,” he says. “It’s profound. It’s sort of like a Jackson Pollack … until you realize that it’s symmetrical! Which makes it not at all like a Pollack. It’s much more like the bilateral symmetry found in nature. And with the light changes, it oscillates between looking like a fungus and looking like the cosmos. And once in a while it looks like some kind of quantum blueprint for the hidden energy matrix behind the wizard’s curtain.” Wink commissioned one on the spot. I’ve seen the same thing happen three times since.
The commissions are going to keep coming, as more and more people become exposed to Aliume’s work. At this point, he can barely keep up with demand. He works through the night, sleeps late, and then works into the night again. In July, his girlfriend broke up with him because his painting has consumed him.
At some point, he’s got to move into a bigger studio, as the converted utility room in the basement is just way too small; there’s not enough space for the art or the constant stream of visitors. Aliume can also feel the copycats breathing down his neck. He’s cagey about his methods, not because he doesn’t want to share them with his buyers, but because he doesn’t want other artists to start ripping him off, which is going to happen soon enough—especially when more than a handful of people have seen what he’s been able to do in paintings like Cosmic Consciousness.
It’s hard to describe—hard to fathom, even—that a single image can telescope in on itself the way this painting does. You most certainly don’t need to consume any psychedelic drugs to make it happen—the art does it all by itself—but it’s all intertwined in the end. Alex Aliume took the long way to get here: painful visions, astral projection, mysticism, and an unwavering commitment to deciphering the message he feels he’s been sent here to deliver. Other people might take a gentler road, through meditation, perhaps. Are you considering taking the side door—hallucinogenics—to help you enter Aliume’s hall-of-mirrors metonymy of psilocybin consumed and cosmic mycelial network experienced? In that case, bon voyage.
Or you could just turn out the light.