Dreams are fertile territory for the creatively inclined, but much of creation actually occurs in the hypnagogic state. First used by 19th-century French psychologist LF Alfred Maury, the term hypnagogic — derived from the Greek, hypnos meaning sleep and agogeus, guide, or leader — refers to the limbo between wakefulness and sleep. It’s a curious realm that has inspired many creative minds, including Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Beethoven, Edgar Allan Poe and, unsurprisingly, Salvador Dali.
It continues to inspire. For the past several months, extending through October 15, Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum has exhibited a collection of art under the banner Opus Hypnagogia: Sacred Spaces of the Visionary and Vernacular. Taken together, the numerous works, spanning several centuries and including Charles Dellschau, William Mortensen and William Blayney, aim to reveal work influenced by the hynagogic realm.
“I’m trying to draw out particular affinities that these works share,” explained curator and gallery owner Stephen Romano. He’s spent much of the past decade collecting the artwork on display.
These affinities, described by Romano as “visionary,” come down to the subjective experience of the artist meeting their technical proficiency. In other words, artists in the business of bringing dreamscapes into reality.
“If I can somehow draw the viewer into a similar space that these artists were in, in their creative mode, and by making all these juxtapositions, then somehow the viewer can divine that, and go into that space themselves.”
We spoke to Romano more about this “space“ and why it makes for such a captivating collection.
Where did your interest in hypnagogia originate?
I first heard the term [hypnagogia] as a young kid. In the midst of suffering from a bad fever, my aunt gave me a book on Salvador Dali. I remember being fascinated by the images, which could have partially been due to the fevered state I was in, but I was so struck with the atmosphere of the paintings and the weight of the space. It was absolutely astonishing. I remember, after that, reading Dali’s talk about the hypnagogic state. So, from a very early age I was interested in the sleep state.
How did your understanding of that state deepen as you got older?
In my early 20s, when I began to study art, my first real teacher was a guy named Ray Robinson. He gave us a textbook to read called Journey to Ixtland by Carlos Castaneda, which is all about how to live as a warrior, like the Yaqui of Mexico. In the book, they talk about lucid dreaming as a means by which the warrior is a hunter of personal power. This strengthens your will and stamina. Thinking of dreaming, then in terms of art, the artist can be thought of as a warrior who dreams to accumulate power.
So going into a hypnagogic state is like taking the creative mind to a gym?
The hypnagogic state becomes the crack between two worlds: The world of the mundane, secular reality, and the world of, well, fill-in-the-blank, really. There are so many different ideas about what that is. For me, the idea of the hypnagogic state is largely metaphoric. It’s the parallel equivalent to...where the artist’s act of creation comes from, or goes to.
You’re referring to inspiration, then.
Inspiration is an interesting word. It’s part of an artist’s pragmatic toolkit to be able to divine inspiration, or creative ideas, and they need to have a means of accessing that in the same way that they need an arts supplies store.
Once you get to the point where an artist has a professional practice, it doesn’t so much become a question of where they divine their inspiration from. Instead, it becomes more a question of what it is they can make, given the means that they have. Probably, the richer in spirit that the artist is, the more serious and higher priority they put toward accessing that wellspring of information.
It could be argued, then, that there could almost be no purer art than that which comes through artists who stay true to their inspiration. Say, through a source such as the hypnagogic state?
I couldn’t have said it better. For me, the true artist is a seeker and always has been throughout history. Take Cézanne, Turner, Hieronymus Bosch — they’ve all been seekers. Questioning the hegemony — aristocracy or not — there is always that edge of social criticism, an itch they were trying to scratch. As a result, what is it that endures about their work? It’s technically proficient and beautiful and groundbreaking in its own right. But what makes it great? What allows for it to be kept in a room in the Met? For me, it comes from looking and seeing, questioning and turning things around.
There’s interesting thought around the psychology of hypnagogia, and where images and ideas specifically come from in this state. How do you think this contributes to the act of creation?
True artists are very good at unseeing. We’re taught how to see the world, right? We’re given a consensus by which we’re told, this is a tree and we have generalizations about what’s in front of us. But, when we see that tree, are we really seeing it or are we seeing a generalized, memory-ordered version? The way we construct the world, in my experience and view, is that we order it through memory.
An artist who looks at the world by unseeing it — they’re letting go of the memory-ordered construct and seeing what’s actually in front of them.