Nora Keyes’ work is trippy—literally.
The Lost Gate. All images courtesy of the artist
In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how creative freedom enables LA-based artists to make spiritual work as part of their practices.
As the lead singer of post-punk experimental art-rock band the Centimeters, Fancy Space People, and most recently, Rococo Jet, Nora Keyes has been a fixture in the LA underground music scene since the mid-90s. She's also hosted a popular weekly local club with erstwhile Germs drummer Don Bolles called Club Ding-a-Ling (now Ye Olde Hushe Clubbe). But what many of Keyes’ cult followers don't realize is that she's a classically trained painter, and her art is just as awe-inspiring, transgressive, and culturally significant as her music.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Keyes earned a degree in fine art and illustration from the esteemed Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. While her rigorous education in painting is the foundation for her visual art, the themes and subjects she explores are the unconscious, perception, and the nature of reality. "I see myself as a cartographer, charting patterns of multidimensionality, mapping the fragmented layers of consciousness and creating interface patterns that can trigger in the viewer new modes of perception," she tells The Creators Project.
Her heavily layered artworks are impressive from afar, but only when they're seen up close can one truly appreciate the amount of work and detail involved. Keyes' layers upon layers of media, whether paint or collage, convey the artist's own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journey, resonating long afterwards with the viewer. "If I am able to carve out moments in sound or paint for others to delve into, examine, and hopefully leave with a slightly different perspective, then I have done my job," she says.
Part of the unique effect of Keyes' work comes from her manipulation of light—not in her art, but in her environment (which includes three black cats and a beloved muse in the form of a chihuahua). Keyes finds that working with lower levels of light, like candlelight, allows her to explore the uncharted elements of her visual lexicon. "These landscapes are made for the viewer to travel with their eye," she describes. "By traversing the terrain that I have paved for them, their perception is encouraged to explore the trails of color, organic shapes, ancient ruins, and various perspectives until new perceptions in space start appearing, not only in the picture plane, but their mind's eye as well: a topography of self-transforming metaphysics and thought."
Looking and appreciating Keyes' artworks can produce different effects upon each viewing. Seen as a whole, her compositions are impressive for the obvious application of highly skillful techniques, but then something peculiar happens: Portions of the artwork start to produce different recognizable forms, which then might fade as other previously unseen images emerge. "The painting then begins to tell a story, extracting bits of the conscious mind while allowing moments of the unconscious to seep in as well," Keyes explains. "This could be used as a hyper-dimensional meditation device. By giving a platform for the viewer to loosen, unlock, and explore the cognitive responses of the mind, these portals become a crossroads between inner and outer space. Perception becomes negotiable [...] I would not go so far as to say I am channeling, but at times it does feel as though another very real place is attempting to transplant itself into this realm. I imagine it’s maybe some sort of hybrid fugue state I enter, where my identity is transposed with another state of awareness, giving me access to these psychedelic landscapes."
Whether she's creating art or music, many of the themes in Keyes' oeuvre come from her investigation into humanistic and Jungian psychology, shamanism, alchemy, reiki, and the I Ching. At the heart of her work and her philosophy is Keyes' strong belief in the idea of a different kind of consciousness that embraces abundance versus deprivation. She feels that if we can shift our mindset to accept the notion that the universe provides from a neverending repository, then we can literally transform ourselves from rags to riches, regardless of material wealth. "This is what I believe to be the ingredient of the great alchemical dream that sits in the dung heap of civilization, as it has no place in this current system of commerce," Keyes says. "Everyone is oppressed in scarcity conciseness. The wealthiest on the planet are not truly wealthy, because they fear loss of power. They feel there is a limited amount of it to go around. We are beings of unlimited potential. Whether our potential is oppressed from our minds being focused on hoarding or being oppressed by class position, it's the same: we are not accessing our potential."
As an LA native, Keyes believes that one of the city's biggest creative forces is its nature. While a budding artist, her work was influenced by frequent visits to the Angeles National Forest and appreciation of its ecosystem, natural history, and numerous wilderness areas. Her relationship to her artwork, however, has evolved through the years, consistently paving the way for new, unexplored terrain. Right now, that terrain is more of a portal or a gateway into the unconscious, a window into the unseen forces that drive us as human beings. "That's what the portals function as: hallucination devices developed by a psychonaut to help push perception along into lesser traveled spaces," Keyes says.
Through the process of becoming the artist she is now, Keyes has learned not to dismiss any mistakes she's made in her work over the years, either. "I believe that mistakes are oftentimes gateways to new ways of working. All mistakes contain elements that can be utilized and are beyond my original impetus."
Today, Keyes' appreciation of her hometown is amplified by the work of Maja D'Aoust as well as fellow artist Astral Eyes, among many others. Including Keyes, these artists and other influential figures in LA's spiritually-based arts renaissance believe that each one of us can successfully discover and express ourselves, thereby weaving an invisible, universal fabric of collective thought and experience that is created by and accessible to everyone.
"We are very capable as a species to evolve our consciousness to solve all tribulations plaguing earth right now," Keyes says. "We are the inheritors of millennia of great innovations, many that are not being utilized currently because they challenge our current economic systems. These innovations in all areas of discipline can not only can save us, but evolve us into conscious states that are beyond what any of us can imagine."