Representations of ritual drug use and trippy designs thought to demonstrate the visual effects of psychedelics date back to the Neolithic era, showing that art and mind-altering substances have always gone hand in hand. And in a way, art and psychedelics accomplish much the same thing: both open doors to altered perception, heightened sensations, and enlightenment.
Starting in the 19th century, however, Western art took a decidedly trippy turn. The influence of romantic figures like William Blake and the increasing recreational use of opiates and hashish were a pretext for artists like the great Polish modernist Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz to push the limits of artistic expression. In a passage that could just as easily function as a description of cubism, the theorist Walter Benjamin explained that the hash user, “experiences the power of imbibing at a glance a hundred sites from a single spot.”
Of course, the use of psychedelics is more common today than ever, and so too are “trippy” artworks a recurring theme in contemporary art. Tanja Nis-Hansen is an artist whose work evokes a spiritual, heightened subjectivity, with MC-Escher-like staircases and unending spirals that invite the contemplation of infinity. Similarly, Bridget Mullen’s paintings also evoke distorted and imagined perceptions of reality. They feature delicate hair-like tendrils that speak to the tactile, evoking altered sensations, neurological processes, and grotesque, exaggerated bodily viscera.
Other artists look outward, channeling a heightened vision of the natural world. For Jonah Koppel, this means anthropomorphized landscapes with unnatural colors engaging with the viewer. For Yulia Iosilzon, grass and plant life are rendered from the perspective of the ground, the viewpoint of a subject laying in the grass, feeling “unified” with nature. The plants sway and almost seem to talk, echoing the visual hallucinatory “movement” of psychedelic visuals.