The paintings of Ken Grimes emerge from a sincere—and urgent—need to know
Based on writings about the artist by Charles Russell, a professor of English and American Studies at the Newark campus of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
Is there really something or someone out there—way out there, in outer space?
If the federal government’s defense and national-security agencies possess significant data about alien life forms, would they ever willingly—or believably—make such provocative and maybe even alarming information public?
These are some of the questions that have long percolated as central themes in the work of the Connecticut-based artist Ken Grimes. Born in 1947, Grimes has long been fascinated by the idea of life existing in other parts of the universe—and by the possibility that aliens may have had and still may exert some kind of influence on the thinking and actions of humans here on Earth.His paintings refer to these themes and suggest that, in fact, humans have had a long history of contact with outer-space creatures. His art seeks to prove that aliens have exerted a continuing influence in and on our earthly world.
With these concerns in mind, Grimes depicts or refers to such familiar subject matter as unidentified flying objects, crop circles and extraterrestrial figures. In their own ways, his art and writings have documented his extensive study of what is known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or “SETI,” a field of scientific investigation that searches for signs of life elsewhere in the universe by looking for evidence of its technology. Specifically, for example, it looks for electromagnetic transmissions from outer space that could suggest that other forms of life and their civilizations might exist elsewhere in the cosmos.
Although Grimes briefly attended college and received some art training, as an artist, he is primarily self-taught. In the past, he held a variety of relatively menial jobs but in recent years he has been a resident at Fellowship Place, a mental-health program and living facility in New Haven, Connecticut, that encourages intuitive artistic creativity. Earlier in his life, Grimes had displayed an interest in the occult and the paranormal, but his personal quest came into sharper focus for him when he became fascinated by a remarkable series of coincidences that appeared to link his own life to the lives of certain other people and to certain events and phenomena in other parts of the world.
In 1971, for example, he attempted telepathically to influence the outcome of a state lottery in his favor by walking around a crowd gathered to witness this contest’s prize drawing in the town of Cheshire, Connecticut. A week later, he learned that another Ken Grimes, who was based in Cheshire, England, had just won a prize worth the equivalent of more than $1 million in a soccer pool. Subsequently, the artist began to notice and investigate what appeared to be rather unusual links between his life and the lives of certain individuals in other places. In turn, he came to suspect that such unlikely coincidences and our general tendency not to notice them or understand their true meanings could be seen as evidence of alien influences in our lives and of their ability to effectively obscure our vision and control our minds.
Since the mid-1980s, Grimes has used to his art to document, depict and convey his discoveries and speculations about the space-related subjects that have intrigued him to a broad audience. His paintings are dramatic. Working almost exclusively in black and white acrylic paint on canvas or wood, or in black ink on white paper, Grimes presents bold, sparsely drawn symbols and texts (complete with spelling and grammatical errors, which may or may not, in themselves, be seen as the evidence of interstellar intervention). His paintings illustrate and describe mysterious occurrences, troubling questions or speculative arguments about extraterrestrial phenomena that have become part of the public discourse or that the artist has investigated on his own. Very often, a Grimes painting may consist primarily or entirely of a text rendered in his signature white block letters; typically, such a work might describe unusual, space-related phenomena or summarize narratives about strange incidents, which, the artist may believe or may suggest, could have had some kind of space-alien connection.
With their minimalist palette and styling, Grimes’s paintings are visually sophisticated works. To create them, the painter initially sketches his design and the text of a new work in pencil on a white ground, then fills in the surrounding spaces in black. He intentionally pursues a high-contrast look. Past experiments taught Grimes that, if he painted white letters on top of a black ground, his words and images would not turn out to be as visibly distinct and prominent as he had wanted them to appear.
Some of Grimes’s works refer to certain experiences of his own, offering evidence from his own life to affirm the reality of supposedly supernatural occurrences. In such paintings, his images often focus on images of great personal significance to the artist. A frequent Grimes motif: Satellite dishes, which he believes may provide channels for the interstellar transmission of thought.
Other Grimes paintings refer to pop-culture depictions of alien contacts or detail similarities and differences between media-distributed images of aliens, space ships or crop circles. In other works, Grimes invites—or perhaps even commands—viewers to join him in his quest for reliable, believable explanations of the phenomena that have seized his imagination.
Many of Grimes’s works have pondered the possible meanings of apparently changed testimony about, conflicting interpretations of and typographical errors in printed accounts concerning a radio transmission that presumably was sent out in 1960 from the vicinity of the star Epsilon Eridani. (The third-closest star to Earth that is visible to the naked eye, Epsilon Eridani is located some 10.5 light years away.) Grimes’s paintings also often examine aspects of Project Ozma, a 1960 attempt by the radioastronomer Frank D. Drake, who was then associated with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, to detect interstellar radio transmissions.
As material published by the independent Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in Mountain View, California, has pointed out, Project Ozma was named after the character of the Queen of the Land of Oz in author L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Notes the SETI Institute: “From April to July 1960,…Project Ozma’s…radio telescope was tuned to the…emission (1420 MHz) coming from cold hydrogen gas in interstellar space….With the exception of an early false alarm caused by a secret military experiment, the only sound that came from the loudspeaker was static and no meaningful bumps superimposed themselves on the formless wiggles on the recording paper.”
Grimes has seized upon the suggestion that a “secret military experiment” was somehow involved in the mysterious confusion about whether or not an alien transmission really took place during the Project Ozma period; Grimes believes that a transmission did occur. References to the supposed 1960 transmission from Epsilon Eridani and to Project Ozma regularly turn up in Grimes’s artworks.
Indeed, his paintings reveal a passion about his subject matter that may be closer to religious inspiration, making his works something other than exercises in political dogmatism or merely obsessive, personal rants. He is driven to create his work through his sincere—and determined—search for signs of a cosmic connection with Earth, by his belief in the imminent confirmation of unsettling truths and by his confident belief that art can be an agent of revelation. Implicitly, his is an apocalyptic vision.
If Grimes can be seen as an apostle of an alien apocalypse, he must also be recognized as a visionary, passionate artist and as a dedicated and obsessive researcher who continues to explore myriad bits of arcane data in the conviction that he—and perhaps only he—can and will be able to identify significant patterns and interpret elusive meanings in the collective record and in his personal experience with regard to space-alien contact with Earth.
With this in mind, Grimes is fully aware of the magnitude and potential consequences of his research and art-making project. At the same time, as he has tapped into a widespread, collective fascination with the possibility of alien contact, he recognizes that the knowledge he has been seeking and continues to seek has eluded him—and might always remain beyond his grasp. Still, his art may be seen as one man’s emphatic form of awareness of and attraction to a compelling, enduring mystery.