The Psychodelic: Phong Bui Discusses What He Curated and How He Curated It

Narration by Daniel Maidman
Text in quotation marks by Phong Bui

Although I have done a bit of curating myself, I've never given much thought to what curators do. I haven't read any curating analysis or theory, if such things exist. As in the case of painting, I like to feel my way around by doing, and occasionally by talking with someone who has put in time and passion in the field.

I sat down the other day with artist, writer, and publisher/editor Phong Bui, of The Brooklyn Rail, to discuss a show he curated which is opening this week at Red Bull Studios New York (details at bottom). Spaced Out: Migration to the Interior is Bui's compendium of psychedelic-related art. I cannot tell you if how he curates is how curating is done. But I can dissect his process by means of our conversation, and perhaps that will be interesting or useful.


In my experience, no truly creative project is a new idea in the life of its creator. They take a long time to germinate. For Bui, Spaced Out presents an idea which planted itself in him as a child. He was born in Hué, Vietnam in 1964, and describes his earliest memory of exposure to the category of art which he came to identify with the psychedelic:

"As a child, I must have been four or five, my grandparents always had Vogue and L'œil magazines in their home. I remember seeing reproductions of Bosch paintings, 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' in particular, and also wonderful etchings by Jacques Callot, a 16th century engraver, who was hired to make maps for Lorraine's military purposes, but he had a second life in which he made fantastical etchings of biblical scenes, circus performers, the miseries of war, and so on. The one I remember seeing was of his version of 'The Temptation of Saint Anthony' in the desert. You have to look a while until you identify where Saint Anthony is in the picture. Otherwise, it's a theatrical display, a happening, of fantastical creatures and all kinds of creepy objects, hybrids of animal and human bodies flying in the air; there's a serpent-like dragon presiding in the middle and upper half breathing out endless other smaller creatures instead of breathing fire."

Jacques Callot, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 18"x26", etching, 1630

"These are the kinds of things that got me started thinking about how cool artists could just imagine all of these things."

This is technically far off from the visual and auditory tics linked to LSD or mushrooms, and yet Bui has made a fairly common connection between the hallucinatory surrealism of early modern Europe and the psychedelic experience. Having made the connection intuitively, he seeks to identify the commonality from an analytic perspective.


Humphry Osmond was a British psychiatrist who explored the medicinal use of hallucinogens, and coined the term "psychedelic" in 1956 or 1957. He and Aldous Huxley were one-upping each other on making up Greek words.

"According to Osmond, the word psychodelic [Bui uses the alternate pronunciation] means 'mind manifesting,' 'soul manifesting,' so it really generates from an inner source of the human spirit as an aspiration for images that are differed from actual reality. One may say that the minute you see something that's beyond the physical appearance, it becomes psychodelic."

This is a very neat side-stepping of the obvious limit of the show in the experience of psychedelic drugs. Bui redefines his subject, shifting it from a chemical phenomenon to a philosophical principle.


"This is not a survey but rather a playful experiment that may invoke mutual dialogues between the selection of works, which hopefully would amplify aspects of psychodelia, instead of being labeled psychodelic art. I think that's what makes it interesting for me as well as for the participating artists. It's not often a Jim Lambie floor installation (which is usually visually dominant-- wherever the environment--with its viscerally over-the-top patterns) is made to welcome equally compelling works such as Rona Pondick's Kafkaesque self-portrait in the tree, or Ugo Rondinone's enigmatic and massive head of an identifiable creature. Then there's Lisa Yuskavage's scene of her internal mindscape that reveals her sophisticated art historical knowledge that unifies Renaissance art, cubism, surrealist art, pop art, whatever images that spring from past to popular contemporary culture."

Lisa Yuskavage, Given, 50"x26", oil on linen, 2009

"In the case of Peter Saul and Lisa (Yuskavage), we're reminded of two kinds of surrealism: one is more inclined to use traditional techniques including sfumato, chiaroscuro, modeling: everything we are taught in school to create illusionistic space. Lisa can be seen as an extension of that tradition that had been associated with Freudian dream-like sequences of imagery that had been explored by Tanguy, Dali, de Chirico, Max Ernst. On the other hand if you look at Miro's or Masson's paintings, they were products of automatism, which yields to emphatic flatness and allover gestures. One can readily see those attributes in Pollock's paintings. In other words, there are two ways of mediating spatial depth and flatness: Lisa is more invested with the former while Peter is with the latter. Also, Peter's painting of a bunch of raccoons re-enacting Pollock's painting is another classic example of his caustic humor, which is admired by young artists."

Peter Saul, Raccoons Paint a Picture, 72"x96", acrylic on canvas, 2011-2012

"This may similarly describe how the dissonant passages of colors correspond to blurred edges in Keltie Ferris's paintings, which actually have more commonality to the graphic depiction of circles seen in graduate shifts to perspective of Sylvie Fleury than we would like to admit. Or the hypnotic effect in Will Ryman's red room filled with children's shoes that is no less weird than Fred Tomaselli's table of up-turned speakers filled with kitty litter, in which once the viewer is sitting down on the chair and his or her foot presses the pedal on the floor the rattling sound will slowly emerge from low to high, which vibrates the kitty litter. It's spooky, thrilling, and strangely meditative.

"On the other hand, just referring back to the notion of the 'rabbit hole' and 'Lilliputian perception,' the selected works of Charles LeDray, Bob Gober, Mika Rottenberg, and Kazumi Tanaka provide subtle and not-so subtle visual renditions of three-dimensional forms that seem to be the most natural extensions of their vision of how they each relate to the world in terms of materials, psychological vistas, as well as alchemical, religious or spiritual references, sexual or asexual implications. Would Jon Kessler's mechanical apparatus with a boy who is blowing bubbles from behind the rectangular pedestal be any more surreal than Alex Ross's hybridized creature that lives between abstraction and representation that none of us have ever seen before? Or how Philip Taaffe's ingenious placement of no more than two or three types of faces, two frontal, one in 3/4 profile--and there must be nearly 70 of them--yet because of the fact that they are placed on and off the grid formation our perception is caught between familiar faces by the use of repetition and the disturbing occurrence of irregularity. It's hard to say how real Roxy Paine's mushrooms are when they migrate on the wall.

"Finally, the idea is there shouldn't be a problem per se, but the mystery that seduces the artist to embark on an endless exploration that always lies in between the self and the not-self, between the imaginable and the unimaginable, the real and the unreal, between order and chaos, and whatever the pair of the opposite that appeal to each of the artist's calling. Remarkable artists are the ones who know how to generate the fire that sparks from this collision.

"The show is designed to invite and welcome the viewer into the space as one singular yet immersive visual experience. Instead of presenting the normally expected impeccable installation inside of a white-cube space. This particular space calls out for a different spatial response-one that offers all of us a chance to be playful."

I have thought a lot about what Bui is getting at with this meandering description of what he's done. I walked into the interview assuming that the show might as well be called "Psychedelic Art." Bui went to great pains to express his opposition to this model. And yet it is a show of psychedelic art. I think we get here to the heart of his particular mode of curation.

In organizing my thoughts before the interview, I listed to myself characteristics of psychedelic art as I understand both the art and the experience of psychedelic drugs: distorted spaces and objects, uncannily familiar strange images, intense colors, proliferating and dense visual fields. And indeed, one can find items matching some or other of these criteria in Bui's selections.

Kazumi Tanaka, Door, 73"x38"x18", polished walnut, 2009

But it absolutely drove Bui up the wall when I attempted to phrase his show in these terms. I was describing a closed system. I had identified a set of criteria formally qualifying a work of art for the show in question. Under my regime, one might collect an unlimited set of works matching the criteria, then reduce them to the appropriate number by comparing them for quality.

This is not Bui's approach at all. He recognizes the existence of the criteria I listed. He recognizes the basis of the concept of the psychedelic in a specific set of drug-related experiences. But at every step he invokes some opposing factor or force. Psychedelic visuals are not enough; surrealism comes into play. Representational depth is not enough; gestural flatness opens another field. Psychedelia itself is not enough; its etymological roots in spiritualism override the narrowness of its pharmacological form.

Definitions seek to close systems. Bui seeks to open his. He breaks borders by undermining definition every time he senses it. Having asserted a single concept, "the psychedelic," he trusts, or hopes, that it will be enough to anchor a willful chaos. Each chosen thing struck him one way or another as psychedelic, but he rejected any rule that might determine a priori what could or could not qualify. He is seeking an immediate and intense relationship with the work, and seeking also to produce this immediacy and intensity in the viewer. This is, of course, another facet of the psychedelic, but at a certain point, one might say that about everything interesting.


Proceeding from my assumption of Bui's project as a closed-system curation, I had written down a set of questions: did he think that work arising from the psychedelic drug experience could move beyond its context? Could it speak to people who did not share that experience? Could it discuss anything beyond the cognitive re-ordering unique to hallucination?

I didn't ask these questions, because they followed so many assumptions in which I was mistaken. To the extent they apply at all, surely Bui never sees his personal psychodelia--the ability of art to redeem and transcend experience by incarnating imagination--as anything but an address to all people, which all people may understand and benefit from.

For my part, I have not seen the show; we're discussing the theory of curation here, not this show in particular. But I did see some work in the show too. Some moved me, some didn't. This is the case with all art. For me, Rona Pondick's "Head in Tree" in particular seemed to validate Bui's contention.

Rona Pondick, Head in Tree, 105"x42"x37", stainless steel, 2006-2008

The head is beheaded, its skin cold, its eyes closed. It is such a dead thing in a wintry tree. And yet it is is also a living thing, there in its tree. It suggests life, that goes on, transformed, beyond the cramped domain of our human interval. It recalls to me the gloomy soul of Polydorus in the myrtle bush in book 3 of the Aeneid:

From the first bush, its broken roots torn from the ground,
drops of dark blood dripped, and stained the earth with fluid.
... when I attacked the third [bush]
with greater effort, straining with my knees against the sand,
a mournful groan was audible
from deep in the mound, and a voice came to my ears:
'Why do you wound a poor wretch, Aeneas?'

Strange and troubling images have always been the messengers of certain essential truths. Bui's concept for the show mines this rich and ancient seam. His active method is a fascinating thing to consider. I have no idea if this instance will work. You can go and see for yourself. Details below.


Spaced Out: Migration to the Interior
curated by Phong Bui
Red Bull Studios New York, 220 W 18th St, New York, NY
October 10 - December 14
gallery hours: Wed-Sun 10am-6pm