Whether for shamanic or artistic purposes (or both), ancient cultures used hallucinogens. Altered states achieved through plant ingestion aided a fuller realization of the divine and have long been linked to the production of cave paintings and rock art.
While modern cultures turned to psychoactive drugs for somewhat similar reasons, theirs were arguably more personal. Mystical insights once obliged to benefit the tribe, now are designed to heal the individual. Supervised transformative experiences while under drugs like LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and recently Ketamine, are used to treat conditions like anxiety, depression, addiction and PTSD.
In maybe the most existential undertaking, artmaking, Austin-based artist Zoë Shulman taps into Ketamine-assisted psychotherapy (KAP). Her latest exhibition, “Neuroplastic” at Camiba Gallery features abstract painting, drawing, and video, based on shapes that she has given a clever name.
“I call them “ketagons,” she states. “During my KAP sessions, my brain becomes an upside-down snow globe with a flurry of new neural activity, and I begin to see four-dimensional hexagons that form like unique snowflakes.”
Familiar with Shulman’s abstraction from 2017, in which she reinterpreted “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” by Sienese Renaissance master, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, I asked the artist a few questions via email.
When exactly did you shift from political work to the KAP inspired work on view now?
Zoë Shulman: All of my work is always political. My political subjects just switched from good and bad governance to mental health and psychedelic medicine. That said, the subjects of mental health and psychedelic medicine are definitely more personal, primarily because I am working from my direct experience of healing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How do these works differ from previous abstractions?
ZS: My “Neuroplastic” works differ from my previous abstractions in that they are more medium-specified and idiosyncratic. In previous works, I had used a very mixed-media approach to create symbols packed with both political- and art historical metaphors.
With “Neuroplastic”, I wanted to simplify my process and expand my range of expression specifically within painting and drawing. My new techniques involve contrasting hard edges with thick impasto, marbled paint pours, transparent glazes, drop-shadows, smooth gradients, and colorfully woven lines.
Do psychedelics fulfill a desire to see order? Is that, in part, what you’re building on?
ZS: Psychedelics can help us regain meaning and faith within a nihilistic world. In that sense I would say that they do create order. However, I think it is important that our newfound systems of meaning and faith move beyond the limitations of binaries to embrace the full complexity of life and make space for contradiction. I think it’s okay not to have an answer for everything and embrace the big mystery that keeps us curious and engaged.
Do you consider ketagons a manifestation of a universal experience or are they purely personal?
ZS: Recently, I spoke to a handful of therapists using ketamine in a professional context who all believed they hallucinated ketagons after viewing my artwork. This was the first time anyone else had confirmed the existence of ketagons over the entire three-year span of my treatment. I jumped for joy and exclaimed, “Ah-ha, so I’m not crazy!”
There is something mysteriously universal about the fact that the human brain has a tendency to produce complex geometric visuals under the effects of hallucinogens. My theory is that it has something to do with the massive amount of new overlapping neurological connections causing synesthesia. Personally, I believe what I am seeing to be the sub-structure of my consciousness forming thoughts and feelings through neurotransmission. So perhaps the ketagons are personal to the extent that they represent my brain’s own psychology.
I was interested in the explanation of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” in your artist statement. Are there other books, writers, or even films that influence what you’re doing now?
ZS: Yes! In addition to “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the books and writers that influenced “Neuroplastic” are: “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Harold S. Kushner, “Your Art Will Save Your Life” by Beth Pickens, “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chödrön, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl, “The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine N. Aron, “The Doors of Perception” by Aldous Huxley, and “Trip” by Tao Lin.
While creating “Neuroplastic”, I also completed three online college courses on developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, and social psychology. One fantastic documentary that had a big influence on me was “Fantastic Fungi” directed by Louis Schwartzberg.
Have you experienced any visual auras or disturbances when not on ketamine?
ZS: The only sober activities that have produced any visuals remotely similar to a ketamine hallucination are meditation and walking on my treadmill to music. Like ketamine, meditation can help the mind dissociate and transcend into a more abstract state of consciousness. I have seen much milder geometric shapes like ketagons while meditating.
Moving the body to music and dancing are also wonderful for stimulating the imagination and producing interesting visuals. However, for me these visuals are more representational and narrative-driven (partly due to a song’s lyrics), but also strikingly Freudian and Jungian in that they can unearth associations and symbols.
You’re leaving Austin for Santa Fe next month to pursue a master’s degree and professional licensing in art therapy at the Southwestern College and New Earth Institute. What are your ultimate goals?
ZS: To work to help trauma patients integrate their psychedelic experiences through art therapy. I also consider this new trajectory to be a major step towards the acceptance and “resolution” (for lack of a better word) of my trauma. Closure is a myth, but maybe this is the next best thing.
“Zoë Shulman: Neuroplastic” is on view through Feb.26 at Camiba Gallery Thursdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment. camibagallery.com.