Over the course of an hour spent with Paul Laffoley, the conversation may turn to Einstein, space voyages, chakras, living architecture, Pythagoras, levitation, Leonardo Da Vinci, and time travel. And his paintings show it.
“Paul is the only person I know who can extrapolate out of math, science, engineering, chemistry, philosophy, and literature and synthesize that all into a total gestalt,” says curator Douglas Walla. “He takes these philosophical constructs and actually develops them visually so you see what he’s talking about, kind of like an illuminated manuscript.”
Paul’s singular thought process is clearly articulated in artfully structured forms that often recall Eastern mandalas, with vivid colors and illustrations. In a single painting, any number of sources combine to form the intricately notated diagrams that have made him a distinctive artist with a devoted global following.
Paul has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his work has been shown in more than 200 exhibitions, including recently at Walla’s Kent Fine Art, the Palais de Tokyo, the Hamburger Bahnoff, and the Hayward Gallery in London.
“I’ve always been interested in diagrams,” says Paul. “If you look at the way the Symbolists worked in the nineteenth century and then the way that they took from the occult images, it’s the same thing,”
Paul, 74, is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He began painting as a child and honed his intellectual curiosity and artistic ability as a student of the classics at Brown University and of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
The GSD dismissed him, however, for what he describes as “conceptual deviance.” This was part of a pattern, as Paul struggled against the constraints of traditional education and workplaces. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as an adolescent, he was home-schooled and tutored. After college, he fell into a period of exhaustion, for which a psychiatrist prescribed eight shock treatments.
The treatments disrupted his sleep cycles, and Paul began to experience lucid dreams. In one, he felt as though the paintings on the wall of a gallery were observing him instead of the other way around, and he became inspired to create.
Walla classifies Paul as a visionary artist, whose works can be considered in a range of categories: lucid dreaming, time travel, and the Bauharoque, an artistic movement following postmodernism recalling Bauhaus and Baroque traditions.
His weighty subjects encompass life, death, time, the nature of the universe, the human condition, fate, and free will, to name a few.
One of Paul’s best-known works, “Thanaton III,” created in 1989, depicts a message from an alien in a flying saucer. Circles overlap on top of a triangular beam of light, with an eye at the center, hands on either side, and red and yellow rays branching outward. Beneath the main image and all along the painting’s border are explanations and symbols of various phenomena it represents, from the sinking of Atlantis to the future.
In the book “The Phenomenology of Revelation,” Paul describes the work in a thoughtform, or textual explanation, that he uses throughout his oeuvre. “The painting depicts an extraterrestrial’s exhortation to me,” he writes. The information includes how to travel faster than the speed of light, alter evolution at will, and exist simultaneously at every moment of time.
Through “active use of divine proportion,” he believes, a viewer can receive the information by looking where the corresponding eye is and placing his hands on the two painted hands. The idea is that it can act as a portal.
Paul is aware that his concepts can seem like science fiction, as can his inspirations. For example, the artist has said that a metallic implant shown on a CT scan prior to oral surgery is a chip implanted by extraterrestrials to motivate his ideas.
Still, from cell phones to the Internet, science fiction has often contained inklings of future discoveries, and there are often unexplained coincidences between visions and reality. In one particularly eerie instance, Paul’s works in the 1960s contain images of planes striking the World Trade Center.
“People don’t invent anything or reconstruct anything, it’s already there,” Paul says. “Your mind has this capacity to see it. That’s why Leonardo da Vinci was able to do the things he did.”
Paul draws on over 10,000 books that have traveled with him whenever he has moved, and he has created more than 250 works. He tends to use 72” square canvases and spend two or three years on each intricate painting, with no preliminary drawings, switching in and out of a few works at a time. “I do as much as a person who finishes 20 paintings,” Paul says, but “I pack it all into one.”
Walla relates the communicative organization of Paul’s works to his architectural background. “You hire an architect and you’re going to tell him, ‘This is what I need,’” he says. “They try to organize that into a way which probably has some kind of artistic, aesthetic functional dignity to it.”
In fact, some of Paul’s works seem to function as blueprints for grand architectural projects, annotated with ideas that span centuries and continents.
In “Geochromechane,” he envisions a time machine. The painting provides a detailed, color-coded structure with about a dozen insets breaking down its components as well as a progressive chart of periods of time, from an instant to eternity and beyond.
He conceives of a seven-mile cube with a new type of gyroscope that, inspired by the discovery of levitation, bridges three velocities of light—at the speed, below the speed, and above the speed.
“You can do what people call time travel, which I call exaggerating your capacity to pre-perceive the future or retro-perceive the past, which we do all the time,” he says. “Our minds aren’t stuck in the present.”
Another term Walla uses for Paul is “trans-disciplinary,” as evidenced by his shift from mathematically-oriented works to his “Das Urpflanze Haus,” which expands the idea of green architecture.
“I thought of physically alive architecture where you grow houses not with vegetation on top but that the actual house is made of live vegetation,” Paul says.
Walla also describes Paul as a terminal artist, “somebody that works in such an eccentric style that there are no followers.” But that does not mean that Paul’s art will not have a long future, or that the artist doesn’t dream of having his creations realized. “I hope that we’ll start to do some of these things,” he says, with the time machine, the living plant house, or any other conceptions in mind.
In terms of what that could mean, the possibilities are as broad and as cosmic as Paul’s work itself.
For images and additional information on Paul Laffoley visit his website http://paullaffoley.net/