Despite growing up in the Catholic Church, Matt Barton would not call himself religious.
But that has not stopped the Colorado Springs-based artist from seeking enlightenment in some unusual places.
For the past year, Barton, who is co-director of the Visual Art Program at the University of Colorado’s Colorado Springs (UCCS) campus, has remained open-minded as he created “I Think I Feel Something,” a New Age spirituality-influenced exhibition that opens at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art on July 25.
Barton’s interactive “spiritual playground for adults” includes 10 stations that allow participants to experience first-hand the rituals of the spiritual subculture, Barton says.
A pineal gland activation station, a communal chakra stimulation area and a color and crystal therapy pyramid are among the novel spaces.
One of the more bizarre pieces is a 12-foot, metal structure that mimics “Metatron’s Cube,” a sacred, geometric figure that has its roots in the Kabbalistic branch of Judaism. Barton became fascinated with the cube while doing research on YouTube late one night.
Inside the capsule, several speakers emit vibrations and deep, relaxing sounds meant to remove participants from a state of consciousness, Barton says.
“I’m trying to make a space where you can walk in and feel like you've stumbled upon some sort of healing-retreat-slash-cult kind of experience,” Barton says.
With little to no descriptions or instructions about how to use each station, Barton intends the installations to have fun with -- as opposed to make fun of -- spirituality by encouraging participants to make their own judgements.
“I like the idea of people not knowing,” Barton says.
The artist was inspired by what he sees as the kitschy practices of the New Age movement and its inconsistencies with mainstream religious conventions.
“There’s this whole subculture of searching for spirituality and if you don’t want to join something that already exists, there’s this,” Barton says.
The New Age movement followed an influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants to the United States spurred by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
New Age art was born when people began questioning the norms, seeking spiritual alternatives, and exploring different avenues like Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American spirituality and even paganism, Aurora-based New Age artist Christopher Beikmann says.
"It is an exploration of spirituality but using art,” Beikmann says. “It’s not focusing on details like getting the color in the sunset right. It's more about trying to connect with the soul using art."
Beikmann began experimenting with New Age art in the late 1990s as a release from his corporate job. He began traveling around the world and photographing flowers, religious idols and landscapes.
“I wasn't trying to be a New Age artist,” Beikmann says. “I just needed an outlet for me that would bring me a little Zen that I wasn't getting in the corporate world.”
Beikmann isn’t entirely satisfied with the subject matter of New Age art.
“Psychedelic images are part of the New Age art scene,” Beikmann says. “But that has, unfortunately, become the stereotype for the genre, which includes some impressive and high-quality pieces beyond the generalization.”
Barton’s work incorporates conventional New Age images including skies with clouds and floating objects and colorful, blurred animations.
But UCCS art historian Elissa Auther says she would not classify the exhibition as New Age art, but rather as a collision of New Age art with contemporary art practices.
“Matt’s not a follower, so for him it's an artistic exploration,” Auther says. “His interactive experience is more than New Age images. It’s an exploration of the practices and very different from how you might experience them in their native habitat.”
As New Age practices stray from traditional religion, New Age art also strays from conventional religious art.
For example, New York artist Alex Grey’s LSD-inspired paintings combine classical draftsmanship techniques with brightly-colored, geometric patterns and mystic images.
“Grey’s pieces top the New Age art scene right now,” Beikmann says. “They prove that spirituality can merge with artistic skill.”
Beikmann admires Barton’s work for its playfulness. He says it allows traditional New Age art practitioners and contemporary artists to share a chuckle.
“I look at what he’s doing and certainly there are people who will take offense at it, but I find him quite amusing,” Beikmann says of Barton’s work. “Buddha teaches us not to take ourselves too seriously. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, then what’s the point.”
“I Think I Feel Something” runs July 25 through October 5 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. For more information, visit mcadenver.org.
Whitney Bryen lives in Westminster and writes about arts for the Colorado Springs Independent and other publications.