PRINT March 1999


Glenn McKay

GLENN MCKAY PIONEERED the ’60s psychedelic light show, a somehow instantly tacky “art form” responsible for everything from Tom Wolfe having images “projected . . . on the back of [his] eyelids” while researching The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to the Pink Floyd–scored Laserock freakouts I attended at the Hayden Planetarium as a seventh-grader. Like a creaky wave machine dusted off and set Into motion again, McKay’s work has been resurrected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art under the rubric “Altered States” (until June 1). McKay, who founded his company Head Lights (get it, man?) In 1967, took noir cinematographer John Alton’s notion of “painting with light” literally after witnessing the multimedia experiments at Ken Kesey’s acid tests, and set about formulating a visual correlative to the free-form music of the era, using hand-painted slides, biological stains, aniline dyes, and oil-resistant watercolors.

McKay’s earliest work on exhibit, from 1966, pulsates to the sounds of Jefferson Airplane’s “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” (“Embryonic Journey” might have been the more apposite choice, as McKay’s twitching, yolky amoebas suggest nothing more strongly than cellular mitosis In giant watercolor wombs.)

“In the 1970s,” the press release to the show proclaims, “McKay . . . began incorporating images of contemporary cultural icons and newsmakers.” I’m thinking, cool: Nixon, Vietnam, Kent State, stark snapshots of social unrest. That is, until the copy continues: “The piece from 1973 . . . contains images of pills, marijuana leaves, and the Zig Zag Man (an advertising figure).” The Zig Zag Man. Advertising figure? Sure, for rolling papers. Cultural icon and newsmaker? Hmmm. This is exactly the sort of thing that led Hunter S. Thompson to quip that the revolutionary tidal wave of the ’60s crested at the California coastline and subsided back into a sea of liquid acid and hash oil at the turn of the decade.

It is appropriate that McKay would score his late-’80s and early-’90s work to bloop-bleep electronica and synth-driven worldbeat, as ambient and trance are the psychedelic strains of our time. Featuring bold, fat brushstrokes subdividing the multicolored miasma, McKay’s more recent efforts bring to mind a real-time video of someone making a mess of a Rothko before it’s had a chance to dry.

Doubtless McKay is something of an avatar of multimedia, music video, and abstract animation, but his innovations are as frozen in time as “In A Gadda Da Vida.” In their dated attempts to eff the ineffable, McKay’s light manipulations function better as eye candy than artworks.

Andrew Hultkrans is editor of Bookforum.