Drugs

These Mescaline-Inspired Paintings Are a Trip

Journey from the contemporary geometries of Tofer Chin to the darker side of the mescaline-fueled art of the 1950s.

by Noémie Jennifer
Feb 20 2017, 5:00am

December, from Alex series. Courtesy Tofer Chin

This article was originally published on August 3, 2015 but we think it still rocks!

Tofer Chin wants to set one thing straight: "I never work under the influence," he tells Creators. His 2009 painting series, Alex—an homage to his high school dealer—is rooted in how his experimentation with the psychedelic drug mescaline has affected his process and perception. Mescaline occurs naturally, most notably in the peyote cactus and other members of the cactus family. It is known for hallucinogenic effects similar to LSD and psilocybin, but "unlike LSD, mescaline never lies," says the artist. "Instead, the mescaline experience includes visual enhancements of originating truths."

November and March, from Alex series. Courtesy Tofer Chin

June, from Alex series. Courtesy Tofer Chin

Chin looks to spark an emotional reaction in viewers by offering "an alternative to one's everyday." His checkerboards, spikes, and stripes vibrate on the canvas, and echo many of the recurring visual patterns and phenomena most often described by mescaline users. The Alex series includes 12 works, named after each month of the year spent by the artist studying the drug's effects.

3 Stalagmites (White) on Divisadero Street, San Francisco. Courtesy Tofer Chin

These days, however, Chin feels he has moved on from the work. He is more focused on developing an aesthetic vocabulary inspired by the built environment, whether natural or man-made. In the studio, he distills what he's seen into minimalist forms, and often puts these back into the world in the form of outdoor murals.

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With both art-making and drug-taking, subjectivity is everything. Chin's bright, angular, and altogether uplifting artwork is in sharp contrast with that of Henri Michaux, a French poet and writer who is today best known for his "Mescaline Drawings" of the 1950s. For one, Michaux most definitely worked under the influence, with a much looser hand that gives in to the drug's effects. His drawings are laden with anxious energy, with vast networks of frazzled, repetitive lines, and the tunnel-like structures that appear in his work seem to lead one deeper and deeper into the artist's altered state. Michaux put together Miserable Miracle in 1956, a book of words and pictures that describe his experiences with mescaline, two years after Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception on the same subject.

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Unfortunately, as is too often the case that with psychotropic drugs, one person's creative fuel can mean the demise of another. Artist and writer Unica Zürn is a case in point: Zürn met Michaux in Paris in 1957 and spent that year partaking in Michaux's mescaline-driven experimentations into human consciousness. While artistically productive, their liaison sent her already fragile mental health into a downward spiral. She spent the rest of her life in and out of psychiatric clinics, and jumped from the balcony of her apartment in 1970. Zürn's story is dark, and the work she made during her time with Michaux, and during her subsequent hospital stays, shows the struggle of an artist holding on for dear life by the tip of her brush.

Peyote Cactus, via

To see more of Tofer Chin's work, go here. Lose yourself in Henri Michaux's frenetic squiggles here, and read an extensive account of Unica Zürn's life and work here. Stay tuned for more High Art, only on Creators.

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