Loving the alien

It's the craze of the New York art scene: painting pictures of aliens - from the life. People who claim to have been abducted by UFOs are making a buck out of it. Be careful out there. By Edward Williams. Photographs by Barry Bland
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The Independent Culture
"The first one I saw was the insect guy. He looked like a praying mantis, but he was between five and six feet tall. There are different ones. They aren't all the same size. I saw him behind our barn. He sprayed me with a blue liquid which then e vaporated very quickly. I think he was marking me." David Huggins claims that he was first contacted by alien beings when he was only eight years old and living on a farm in rural Georgia. He alleges they abducted him from his bed and took him, semi-conscious, up into a space craft, where they subjected h im to a battery of tests that included removing a circle of skin from one of his knees. Now 53, Huggins, from New Jersey, maintains that he has experienced regular visits from aliens and believes that he was involved in an extra-terrestrial geneticsproj ect which resulted in him fathering more than 200 alien babies. "To be honest with you," he says, "I think I lost my virginity to these guys." Huggins, who works for a bank on Wall Street, started to paint his bizarre experiences eight years ago. "One night I am with the beings and one of them says, `Let David do paintings'." The results are graphic depictions of experiences he claims have occurred over a 45-year period. One painting shows a naked Huggins cradling his first alien son. In another, he is lying paralysed on his bed wi th a female alien on top of him. Six of his paintings are now hanging on the walls of a respected New York art gallery. But David Huggins's artistic success is not unique. No fewer than three New York galleries are currently exhibiting UFO and alien-abduction art. "There has been a cultural glasnost," says Aarne Anton, curator and owner of the American Primitive Gallery i n SoHo, New York. "I am amazed by how much interest there is. It signals that something is happening culturally. Something is emerging in the public consciousness which is inspiring these people to create." UFOs have cropped up in popular culture since the early Fifties, when American B-movies brought flying saucers and little grey men to Saturday morning matinees. In recent years, television serials such as the X-Files, Hollywood blockbusters such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and this summer's biggest box office hit, Independence Day, have all contributed to a growing public appetite. And now, it seems, the spindly, probing fingers of the little grey men are penetrating the world of highbrow art.

Aarne Anton has been putting together his exhibition, "Visions of Space & UFOs in Art", for the past four years. He was inspired by the book In Advance of The Landing, which documents folk concepts of outer space. "There were people who felt compelled to make things, expressing their desire to contact whatever is out there," he says. "That got me thinking that there must be a whole range of folk art by people who are not trained artists but who feel an urge to create things that anticipate the unknown."

When word got out that Anton was assembling his themed show, he was deluged by artists eager to exhibit their work. "I think we are really only touching the tip of an iceberg as far as this type of material goes," he says. His exhibition displays the work of 18 individuals, with prices starting at $200 and rising to an astonishing $25,000 for the work of Paul Lafoley, a graduate of Harvard School of Architecture. Lafoley insists he has a metal implant in his brain, a claim which echoes that of many other abductees, who maintain that extra-terrestrials have planted mental tracking devices in either their noses or brain, during experiments on their bodies. They believe that the tracking device allows the aliens to monitor t heir whereabouts on Earth and, therefore, retrieve them easily when further tests are required. Another main contributor to the exhibition is the Romanian artist Ionel Talpazon, who believes that his colourful sketches of flying saucers will be of more interest to scientists than to art lovers. This East European emigre, who had spells sleeping rou gh, and selling his work on the sidewalk, was "discovered" by Anton while living in a cramped apartment in Harlem. "His room was covered with drawings and paintings. The one table overflowed with plaster saucers which he had made in his bath tub," explai ns Anton. "It was total immersion." Talpazon only paints and sculpts flying saucers, drawing complex and detailed three-dimensional sketches of alien crafts, as well as painting grander, more fantastic scenes involving speeding saucers. He traces his interest in spaceships to an encounter as a boy with a "blue energy". "My ultimate goal is to have my UFO art come to the attention of art collectors and be understood by everyone," he says. "I started to draw UFOs about 25 years ago. I felt that by drawing them, I might penetrate their mystery." Two years ago, most people would have dismissed Talpazon as mad, but his work now commands prices ranging from $200 to $10,000. His paintings are bought by collectors and ufologists. Four blocks south on Sixth Avenue, Phil Demise Smith, curator of "Spatial Relationships: The UFO Experience", ponders why alien art work is currently so popular. "This type of art is significant in a metaphorical way. It represents what human beingsare always looking for - something greater than themselves. Also, more people are coming out of the closet and saying, `yes, I've had experiences, too'. It's like the whole notion of life on other planets has become more acceptable, particularly in the light of the life on Mars thing." Smith's exhibition, at the Ware For Art Gallery in Greenwich Village, attempts to assemble a broad collection of pieces that give an overall impression of the UFO experience. Familiar sci-fi air-brushed scenes hang next to more expressive works thatreve al the artist's inner turmoil and longing for answers. There are pieces by a woman who claims that she and her six children were abducted by aliens, as well as a 4ft latex model of an extra-terrestrial. Another painting is by a woman who says she was lev itated out of her window into a UFO which then flew over the Brooklyn Bridge before diving into the East River. It shows an impressionistic beach scene with a luminous white being breaking the tranquillity. Smith believes that in painting their traumatic experiences, abductees journey down a road of personal therapy. He says: "For abductees, it is a traumatic gesture to get this on paper. In a way, it is a cathartic process." David Huggins concurs. "For me, painting what I experienced was a way of accepting it. It allowed me to explore what had gone on and it gave me a good night's sleep. I was no longer bottling up my experiences." Like all art movements, alien art has its own specific iconography. "The flying saucer shape appears over and over again," says Aarne Anton, "and there are alien types." Phil Smith agrees: "The aliens depicted are pretty similar. There are the Greys, who have a very distinct look - the large head with almond eyes, long limbs and long fingers. And there is another alien group called the Nordics. They arehuman-looking, with long, blond hair and blue eyes." The Grey alien form is the main inspiration for artist John Sheldon. He says: "I try to base them on other people's descriptions. That is not to say I haven't had my own strange experiences." In 1952, Sheldon and his father witnessed an unusual light in the sky during a fishing trip. On another occasion, Sheldon woke to find a Nordic-type alien at the foot of his bed. "You think you're the only one," Sheldon, 56, says, "but I'm finding out there's a whole network of people doing this." Sheldon also believes that the synchronicity of the New York exhibitions is a sign from the aliens of their existence. "I don't think they have to fly down and shake hands to show they exist. Maybe motivation to do the art work is the contact." Huggins a grees: "About three or four weeks before I even heard about this show, I had thoughts about a gallery exhibiting UFO art. I am convinced that the visitors had something to do with me being in the show." The shows have been so successful that both gallery owners plan similar exhibitions in the near future. Phil Smith says: "People read about UFOs in newspapers, they watch films about UFOs at the cinema and on television, and so when they hear about exhib itions of alien art, they are, of course, interested. It's not only men in dark trenchcoats - we get families, too. We've even had people come from New Jersey, home of conservatism, just to see the pictures. It has been such an unmitigated success that I am already planning another UFO exhibition for the start of next year." Aarne Anton feels the same: "We had a review in The New York Times and a feature on CNN. The response is just amazing. It won't be a problem to put on shows in the future because there is a rich vein of material to be mined and I know people want it." One visitor to the American Primitive Gallery was more cynical. "It's like Andy Warhol once said- everyone will have 15 minutes of fame," said Ariel Cannon, a book editor for Macmillan. "It's just these people seem to all be riding on the same bandwagon. It's a fashion, a trend, a vogue. Next month, we will have moved onto something else... well, at least, I hope so."