Grant Wallace: Over the Psychic Radio
at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, NYC (through 3 December 2022)
By Michael Bonesteel
Freelance writer and editor Deborah Coffin of Albany, California, was in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley in 1997 when she first encountered street musician Brian Wallace at a party. “I had a friend who knew Brian,” she recalled. “Brian was obsessing about my friend because her red hair reminded him of this drawing by his grandfather, and he wanted her to see it.”
That may sound like a rather lame variation on the old pick-up line “come up and see my etchings,” but Brian was specifically thinking about his grandfather Grant Wallace’s portrait of the ravishing celestial goddess “Zu La Zu Lé.”
“Brian took us over to his van where he kept a pile of his grandfather’s drawings in a single metal trunk that day,” Coffin continued. “I was gobsmacked. I saw image after image of automatic writing, celestial alphabets, color-washed charts and diagrams covered in mathematical equations and writing, all so beautiful and mystifying, evidence of a profound intelligence and a very deep dive into abstruse mathematics and physics. There was so much of it, showing such incredible and intense devotion. I told him they were extraordinary. But he was so distracted by my friend I couldn’t get him to focus on what I was saying.”
Coffin eventually got Brian to agree to show the artwork to Outsider art expert John MacGregor, who lived in the Bay Area. Coffin and MacGregor went to a club where Brian was performing songs with a “Hawaiian vibe” on guitar — or, she thought, maybe it was a ukulele — against the backdrop of several works by his grandfather tacked to the wall as set props.
“The works in the background were enough of a tease for MacGregor to sit through the musical set,” she said. “But then Brian wanted to go to a birthday party in Walnut Creek for the inventor of the Bell Helicopter, so MacGregor and I joined this entourage. Finally, we convinced Brian to haul out the metal trunk as well as a larger portfolio of artworks from his van. MacGregor started going through them, and it was like, holy fuck! MacGregor told Brian it was extraordinary work, and he was really excited about it, but Brian seemed to have a certain amount of disdain about letting things proceed any further.”
In any case, MacGregor at that point was deep into researching the epic output of another visionary artist from Chicago, Henry Darger, so he did not become involved any further with Grant Wallace. Meanwhile, Coffin also told her friend, Roger Manley, a folklorist and art curator from Durham, North Carolina, about her discovery, and Manley flew out to look at it. Coffin and Manley drove in her MG convertible to where Brian kept all his grandfather’s work in a tiny shack hidden deep in the redwoods off the Pacific Coast Highway, beyond the cliffs of Big Sur.
“The whole thing was very strange,” Manley remembered. “It was a musty, dark, damp, and primitive log cabin with shutters over the windows, maybe twenty feet long by twenty feet wide. The work was stacked two feet high on top of a three-by-five-foot tabletop. I rummaged through the top seven or eight inches of the pile.”
Manley was duly impressed and persuaded Brian into letting him borrow ten Grant Wallace pieces for an upcoming group exhibition called The End is Near! that he was putting together for Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in 1998. Then eight more Wallace works were curated by Susan Subtle Dintenfass for a subsequent AVAM group exhibition titled We Are Not Alone: Angels and Other Aliens, which ran from 1999 to 2000. Those eighteen works have gained legendary status over the two decades since their initial showing — so much so that the first exhibition of Grant’s work since then, Grant Wallace: Over the Psychic Radio, now on view through December 3, 2022 at Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York, has been anticipated as if it were tantamount to the holy grail of visionary art.
Grant Wallace (1868-1954) was born on a farm in Hopkins, Missouri, and earned a B.S. degree from Western Normal College in Iowa. He later briefly studied with the Art Students League of New York. Over the course of his life, he traveled constantly and worked at a variety of occupations: newspaper cartoonist, reporter and editorial columnist in St. Paul, Minnesota; war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War; short story and dime-novel writer; writers’ colony cofounder in Carmel, California following his relocation there in 1909; silent movie screenwriter; movie magazine editor; animated filmmaker with San Rafael studio; archeological explorer of the American Southwest for Everybody’s Magazine; editor of the San Francisco Esperantist; and horticulturalist working for Luther Burbank. He was acquainted with numerous writers, including Arthur Conan Doyle (who, in addition to being the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was an early psychic investigator who verified the legitimacy of Grant’s work), Mark Twain, Zane Grey (Grant actually makes a cameo appearance in his 1908 novel The Last of the Plainsmen), John Steinbeck, Jack London, Mary Austin, Sinclair Lewis, and William Burroughs.
According to Lucy Sante’s essay in the Ricco/Maresca catalogue, “He was a true citizen of California, then a distant and untamed province in the minds of the rest of the country. The flipside of California’s provincial unimportance was that it allowed the state to become a laboratory for all sorts of wild ideas and heterodox beliefs.”
It was precisely this free-thinking aspect of the California mindset that nurtured another side to Wallace’s life. Ever since he was a young boy, he professed to have had an ability to communicate with the spirit world. There is even a story from a memoir written by Grant’s son Kevin Wallace (a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and The New Yorker magazine) about young Grant exorcising his mother’s demonic possession by a monk from the Spanish Inquisition.
“He was being called [by the spirit world] repeatedly from childhood, but he would always say, ‘Not now,’” reported Coffin, who spent many years researching Grant’s life and work, as well as Kevin’s unpublished memoir. She wrote her master’s thesis about a certain episode in Grant’s life.
“In the late 1800s, he attended spiritualist seances in New York,” Coffin continued. “Then, while living in San Diego, he went down a Theosophical rabbit-hole and came up with something he called ‘The Big Work.’ His intention was to create a subscription society to support him, and members would receive installments of art work. He was interested in modern physics and the Eastern mystics. He was aware of meditation and I imagine he used meditation to quiet his mind, then open it up to other vibrations.”
Following World War I, Grant was in his 50s and decided to give in to those incessant whispers from the Great Beyond. He built a cabin near Carmel-by-the-Sea and began experimenting with psychic communications — what he termed “sublimated telepathy” or “mental radio.”
“Upton Sinclair, whose wife was a fan of automatic writing, self-published a book titled Mental Radio in 1930 about his wife’s attempts at it. I suspect the Sinclairs were influenced by Grant’s branding as they traveled in the same literary circles at the same time,” said Matt Berger in an email interview. Matt is Brian’s nephew and Grant’s great-grandson, and the owner of the work being exhibited at Ricco/Maresca Gallery. He also shared some excerpts from his grandfather Kevin’s memoir:
Grant retired abruptly to collaborate in automatic writing and drawing every morning, unlocking the secret structure of reality’s nine dimensions and in general setting mankind straight through rational scientific method… Grant generally got tuned in to the infinite before the first gray of Carmel’s foggy seashore dawn, and took down the Pleiades people’s fancy automatic writing, drawing and math until noon, when the sun came out and the malefics jammed the vibrations.
‘Do the astrals grab your hand and shove it around?’ I asked.
‘Hell’s bells son,’ Grant told me. ‘You know I wouldn’t surrender control of my process to let anyone domineer me dead or alive.’
From this exchange, it seems clear that Grant did not allow his entities to possess him or otherwise take over his consciousness as some mediums do. He likely let himself drift into a mild trance state but retained his lucidity throughout the experience. Far from being an unquestioning receiver of psychic information, Grant acknowledged that the spirits were not always who they professed themselves to be, and that they sometimes impersonated famous departed personalities.
“He did a lot of work on demons, goblins, and trickster beings,” Coffin noted. “He tried to develop a ‘truth meter’ or ‘truth table’ using numbers and abstruse mathematical formulas to understand the nature of reality and the claims made by anyone, including the spirits who contacted him.”
Initially, he received messages from the dead — Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Jefferson, Darwin, Charles Dickens, Thomas Paine — but then he came in contact with extraterrestrial entities from Mars, Venus, Saturn, the moons of Jupiter and Uranus, Neptune, the “ninth planet” Azoth, the planet “Zingomar” circling the star Altair, the Pleiades star cluster, and the Andromeda galaxy.
Before dismissing such communications as complete hooey on the grounds that there is little reason to believe that sentient life exists on other planets in our solar system, it should be noted that modern psychics acknowledge that life indeed does exist on those worlds — but in nonmaterial dimensions, or as some put it, different subatomic densities. In fact, Grant’s visions feel quite at home among contemporary New Age mediums such as Barbara Marciniak and Barbara Hand Clow, both of whom channel teachings from the highly evolved Pleiadeans; Darryl Anka, who speaks for otherworldly and other-dimensional entities hailing from the Zeta Reticuli, Sirius, and Orion star systems; and the late hypnotherapist Dolores Cannon who contacted numerous alien beings through her extensive work with hypnotically regressed clients.
For those who need more concrete proof, well, it’s in the pudding — a rich, literary/artistic mélange of automatic writing that Grant reproduced in many different calligraphic scripts (he studied calligraphy while still living in the Midwest), combined or collaged with watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, conte crayon, and ink portraits of damsels and heroic figures in a range of exotic guises that seem to amalgamate Egyptian, East Indian, Greek and Roman styles, along with the Belle Epoque, art nouveau and Edwardian fashions of his own era. One is struck, particularly in the work of the current exhibition, by figures with exceptionally prominent eyes, which some have been compared to painter Margaret Keane’s big-eyed subjects. A conscious or unconscious source for this may possibly have been Guy and Edna Ballard’s Theosophically influenced “I AM” Activity which depicted paintings of ascended masters such as Saint Germain with dramatically large peepers.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, and what lends his body of work a kind of intellectual rigor, are his more abstract scientific and mathematical charts and diagrams purporting to unlock the secrets of the universe or, as Coffin suggests, the true nature of reality. According to Kevin’s memoir, he immersed himself in the mathematical works after a failed attempt in 1929 to interest William Randolph Hearst and other New York publishers in his experiments with automatic writing and drawing. Although often beautifully rendered, these charts and diagrams are by no means polished works of art like his other occult pieces. They are convoluted blueprints filled with enigmatic hand-scrawled notations and number tables, embedded within circular schematics that sometimes make Hilma af Klint’s paintings look like child’s play. More than anything else, they resemble rough drafts for some of the more complex alchemical drawings attributed to Hermeticists Robert Fludd and Jacob Boehm. There were four of these chart-like drawings displayed in The End is Near! but none in the current exhibition. Why? Because all such works are in Brian’s collection, not Matt’s. Which brings us to an even more pertinent question: Why, until now, haven’t we seen any of Grant Wallace’s work since 2000?
“Brian Wallace has not done any favors in the way he has handled the work,” remarked Manley. “He’s sat on the work for all this time.”
Coffin concurred: “Brian doesn’t take care of business. He hasn’t made any provisions for the work. He believes there’s magic in keeping the work together and sees it all of a piece. But he’s moved [so frequently throughout the years that] the condition of the work has deteriorated.”
The backstory is complicated, but it goes something like this. Grant Wallace stopped doing all artwork after World War II and retired with his second wife, Margaret, to a home in Berkeley. When he died in 1954, his son Kevin and daughter Moira inherited several hundred pieces of art. Moira, who was a prolific artist herself, had no interest in her father’s work, so Kevin got it all. When Kevin passed in 1979, his two children, Deirdre and Brian, acquired the collection. Most of it was kept by Brian, who saw the importance of holding onto his grandfather’s entire output. Deirdre apparently only wanted 31 pieces that she personally liked. It wasn’t until after Deirdre died in 2015 that her son, Matt, came across those 31 works in her basement.
Frank Maresca, of Ricco/Maresca Gallery, initially found Matt’s website in 2020 and reached out to see if he had any of Grant’s work.
“I explained to Frank that we didn’t. We had not gotten that deep into the basement yet,” Matt recalled. “So, I introduced Frank to Brian in a series of emails and they had a phone call without me. I later learned that Brian blew Frank off and didn’t move forward with any of Frank’s requests to show the work. […] I did not call Brian [about the current Ricco/Maresca exhibition] because he is an unreliable partner and has a track record of failing at similar-scale initiatives in the past.”
“After seeing those ten works in The End is Near! curated by Roger Manley, I did research [to locate more], but it only led one closed door after closed door,” explained Maresca during the Grant Wallace Online Symposium Hosted by Morbid Anatomy on October 29. “I tried over the years to pick up the thread. And here we are twenty-four years later. Through circumstance or luck or the forces of the universe, this show came about by chance. […] Some portion of the current work will enter into private and museum collections, where it will be cared for by other people. We are all just borrowing these works. There’s nothing more I would like than to see it all together in one collection.”
While both Brian and Matt seem to have the work’s best interests at heart, they see the accomplishment of that goal very differently.
“The Berger family,” said Matt, “decided collectively that it’s our duty and responsibility to bring light to the works we discovered in our mom’s basement, share them with historians, get them in prominent museum collections, and position Grant rightfully in history as an important figure in American spiritualism and the occult.”
For his part, Brian is adamantly against the selling or dispersion of Grant Wallace’s body of work. He maintains he had no idea his sister Deirdre had kept any of Grant’s artwork and that they had had a verbal agreement that neither would sell any part of it without the other’s permission. But now that Deirdre is gone and her son Matt has inherited her comparatively small portion of the Wallace artistic estate, that agreement no longer stands.
Interviewed by email, Brian stated: “Grant’s art should stay together as the one organic entity he very clearly intended it […] to be. Its nature is as one exploration, one artwork, math and science and cosmologically poetic creative study (everything illustrating everything else in its eclectic makeup). To think we can safeguard that quality of it while casting sections of it, characters within it, out of its sphere — to be controlled by, ‘owned!’ by, someone who would not even have the chance to recognize the wry composite manner, and spiritual subtlety, of the work as a whole — is just wrong. And, by exchanging those plucked active ingredients for money, creating an effect equal to censorship of high art by those unnecessarily prioritizing mundane motivation, the work will have been perverted inexorably.”
Brian is especially disturbed that one work in the Ricco/Maresca show, titled Unveil the Face of the Unfeatured Vast (ca. 1919-1925), which he considers a sort of cornerstone, perhaps even a Rosetta Stone, to the entire collection, has been sold. Typically, the calligraphic script derived from Wallace’s automatic writing contains pithy comments, such as “Alert-minded, you must raise your thought-pitch many octaves,” “At death the cage is buried, but the bird is free and sings above the grave,” and “After death, your sunshine or your darkness originates in your mind.” However, Unveil the Face lays out a far more ambitious prescription “to solve Earth’s Scientific Riddles and Spiritual Mysteries” by completing an “Analysis, Synthesis and Geometry of the NINE AETHERS of SPACE, TIME and MOTION.” It was transmitted from an entity called L’ Zourée and transcribed through Wallace’s Pleiadean contact Zu La Zu Lé. Conceivably it is this formula that Grant was intent upon elucidating in his more methodical and systematic charts and diagrams.
While the bulk of Grant’s work in Brian’s collection is now safely ensconced in a climate-controlled storage unit, Brian himself lives in a tent, surviving day-to-day and hand-to-mouth. He can’t even afford to hire an attorney for legal advice. If he but chose to sell a small portion of his collection, he might have a far more comfortable life, yet his commitment to keeping his grandfather’s artistic legacy intact remains iron-clad and, thus far, non-negotiable.
Establishing a fruitful communication with Brian regarding his plans for the future of this inestimable collection has proven to be even more daunting and inscrutable than the communications which occurred a century ago between Grant and the Pleiadeans. Nevertheless, the fervent wish of nearly everyone who has followed this debacle over the past two decades is that they do not want to wait another twenty years to finally view the entire oeuvre of this little known and incredibly underappreciated visionary giant.
Michael Bonesteel is an independent scholar, curator, and contributing editor to Raw Vision magazine. He is the author of Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings (Rizzoli International) and was formerly an art critic for Art in America and Artforum magazines, as well as a managing editor of the New Art Examiner. His writing appears in Lisa Slominski’s recent book, Nonconformers (Quarto Publishing).