Los Angeles

Leigh McCloskey: Deciphering the Hieroglyphs of the Human Soul


It would have to be inside his home, where Leigh J. McCloskey would create his own Land of Oz. In the upstairs of the Malibu house where he grew up -- and later raised two daughters -- the 58-year-old painter, actor, author, lecturer and philosopher has transformed the library into an impulsive art exhibit that is just as difficult to peg down as is its multifaceted creator. "How do we make sense of this dark morass that we find ourselves in?" McCloskey says. For McCloskey, his questions are not rhetorical; they're a zen koan -- a question for the universe -- and through his art, he searches for answers.

"If the conversation is missing in the outer world, then cultivate the conversation that nourishes you where you live." McCloskey's work "Hieroglyph of the Human Soul" is a continuing conversation on canvas, it swells with, and spills out, meticulously-laid acrylics in finely-detailed strokes of cosmic colors and theological symbolism to explain mankind's history with a glimpse of the future. It's as much of a teaching aid as an art piece woven through metaphors of divination cultivated over 12 years.

Leigh J. McCloskey's "Hieroglyph of the Human Soul"

"The key here is the domestic footprint," says McCloskey, walking through his living room that's decorated with a curated collection of artwork and antique tchotchkes lining the walls. In the downstairs sunroom studio McCloskey originally designed for his painter father, he has hosted philosophical discussions over Western and Eastern traditions for the past 33 years. Among couches, chairs and a large projection screen, on display are the drawings from his book "Tarot Re-visioned" where he, in 1986, began a project depicting the Major Arcana Tarot archetypes. Intricate images of the The Magus, The High Priestess, Strength, The Hierophant and others all line the room, giving reason for the nature our psyche -- why we are wired as we are.

"Most artists create to impress the art world, to impress one another," he continues, prefacing the upstairs tour that awaits. "And this, I say, isn't even created to impress the neighbor. He might not even know it exists. And that's a different level of intimacy... This has really been the attracting principal, which creates the residence for the story you that to share with your family."

As he speaks, McCloskey's passion is engaging. Each word is delivered with a decided clarity deserving of his classical Juilliard education and career of dramatic television one-offs and regular roles, including "Dallas," "Santa Barbara" and, recently, "The Young and the Restless." He is handsome and engaging with clear blue eyes and a full head of wavy brown hair easing towards salt-and-pepper. His charisma is palpable in an energy he exudes through excited explanations touring his work.

Photo: Cristina Dunlap

Those 22 black and white pen-drawn pieces of the Tarot archetypes "re-visioned" that line the walls, McCloskey explains is a wheel that shows we have traveled a full circle in our human history and are now returning home. He likens this downstairs studio to Dorthy's Kansas in "The Wizard of Oz". Previewing what's to come, he says, "We will ascend literally into the living library and it will become color and multi-dimensionality a bit like Oz. Then we will descend because you can't stay, you have to return... For the mythic perspective it couldn't be structured better."

The ascending journey begins in a "psychologically claustrophobic state" says McCloskey, leading to the bottom of an underlit stairwell. There hangs a dark pen-on-paper drawing from the late 1970s titled "Babel On" showing demonic creatures tangled into the form of a tower. (Such puns inhabit throughout, revealing a playful smirk to much of his work.) It's the story of the "tomb of psyche," says McCloskey.

Story Continues Below
Support KCET

That which follows, McCloskey compares to unraveling a ball of yarn, "trying to pull out the wiring" from this state of psychological darkness in which mankind began, without history's mythic tools to provide any understanding. And that he claims to have never planned to create the hieroglyph, nor the Tarot archetypes or the "Bable On" drawing shows no connecting intent between his works. However, one innately informed the next. Without any explicate purpose, he says, "I needed to do it."

In the feeling of awe that washes over as one ascends the stairs, therein lays the divinity of creation and the powerful feeling such as in, say, the Scrovegni Chapel, that God lives here. Nearly every inch of the room is painted in acrylic, swirling through immeasurable themes. Shoes off, McCloskey walks over a linoleum floor coated with radiant colors. The paint climbs to absorb walls and lamps, shelves of books, chairs and a couch. The room is all-engrossing.

Kneeling down to a point on the floor, he explains this is where his work began, following the Twin Towers' crashing to the ground on Sept. 11, 2001. A figure came to him in form alone -- the Watcher, McCloskey calls him -- with an elongated body much like a keyhole with broad shoulders and a small cloaked head. Here he started painting this Watcher that would serve as a guide through his creative journey, illustrating the outline repeatedly in thin lines that weave around the room in a patterned fluid movement. Wearing a pair of ChromaDepth 3D Glasses that sit on a desk, the colors pop in different dimensions creating an endless abyss of blue below and instilling a weightless sense of wading through cosmic prophecy.

Photo: Cristina Dunlap

"I start following this very much like a musical riff," says McCloskey, retracing his lines. "I don't know where it's going. But what it's doing as it's unfolding is telling me a remarkable story."

An image of the Chinese mother goddess Kwan Yin first developed. Adam and Eve followed, and as his painting moved upward onto the walls it covered the spines of the books of all the worlds' religions with a "Grail Chalice", revealing that the greater knowledge cannot be assumed by following just one system or tradition.

The density to McCloskey's creation is staggering. For three and a half years he would focus downward, which changed his perception of everything, he says, "Because when you look away you think the future holds the key."

Leigh J. McCloskey's "Hieroglyph of the Human Soul"

The story he depicts leads from early humanity's confused chaos through the ages and mankind's developing its unconscious capacities through all its historical pursuits: Like a Mayan stepped pyramid, our history builds upward until there is no further to build, creating the foundation for modern man to stand upon and view with a new quantum perspective. This is opening of the fifth world that the Maya predicted with its calendar ending at the 2012 winter solstice, often misinterpreted to mean the end of the world. Rather, McCloskey says, this is when we begin to "stand erect" and enter from the budding Piscean age to that of the blossoming Aquarian.

The metaphor McCloskey found in the World Trade Center buildings harkens back to the Tarot World archetype he drew exactly 15 years before the September 11 attacks that illustrates two towers -- one of religion and another of economics, he says, "One who's rich with worldly wealth and the other with godly wealth, and they both say be obedient." As the towers fall, he says, we return toward the knowledge of our feminine mother to find ourselves at the "right angle of the human heart."

Like the two hemispheres of our brain, our hearts too have two sides, he explains: the institutional and unreachable laws of the father god, the love of the mother that we will find within.

Photo: Cristina Dunlap

"The knowledge of the father is I think therefore I am, and the knowledge of the mother is I love therefore I am," McCloskey says. "That is the right angle of the human heart: When I think, I think I am not you. When I love, I know we are one."

In the library from a position portraying that right angle of the human heart, to the right is the Great Mother Sophia goddess of wisdom with an infant in her belly and a blossoming flower of wisdom at her chest, her breasts flowing with the milk of the universe. To the left, westward, is a mirror that leads one forth in a futile attempt to reach the father god -- and as one walks further that direction, he loses sight of Sophia and from whence we came.

Leigh McCloskey's Flying Lotus cover

"Think of the alchemy," says McCloskey. "Here we're transforming the linoleum of our assumptions into our ancient depths."

McCloskey's work and theories are based in laws of alchemy, he says, which in contrast to modern the mathematical sciences is a tradition based in the renaissance model of the holistic self. He says, "When something becomes beautiful it's principals are eternal and therefore it will nourish not just your generation but all generation."

Photo: Cristina Dunlap

With each detail of McCloskey's study seeped in reason, at a certain point to explain his creation through words futilely betrays its intent.

"This is all like following an emerging wave and in the process of the gesture -- a bit like a dance -- comes the informing step," he says. "So it's not the illustration of something. There's no illustration here. That's important to understand, because we think in Western terms that art is about illustrating. All ancient artists were about residence, they were about invocation, they were about creating an in-dwelling... They were literally invoking, creating worthy residence like an antennae so that these energies resided with them."

One phrase McCloskey repeats many times through the tour is that he calls our commonly established Western beliefs "bad theater".

"I've reached that beautiful age where I go, this is the story I'm going to tell my kids," he says, explaining. "Because the earth has taught me everyone is making it up. And if everyone is making it up, then make it up in a way that you can live with and lets you say, yes, rather than, yikes."

Leigh J. McCloskey's "Hieroglyph of the Human Soul"

Leigh J. McCloskey's "Hieroglyph of the Human Soul"

Leigh J. McCloskey's "Hieroglyph of the Human Soul"

Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook and Twitter.

Top Image: Leigh McCloskey | Photo: Cristina Dunlap.

Previous Post
Next Post

LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment  

section header: disciplines
icon, Architecture/ Design discipline

Architecture/ Design

California becomes an international export by redefining the concept of city and home.

icon, Community Arts discipline

Community Arts

Through workshops, education and placed based projects, art is the connective tissue of a community.

icon, Cultural Politics discipline

Cultural Politics

Funding bubbles, cultural deserts and the politics of access to the arts in the 21st century.

icon, Film & Media Arts discipline

Film & Media Arts

At the shadow of the entertainment industry, video artists and underground filmmakers take a stand.

icon, Literature discipline


Noir, sunshine and dystopia create a multi-ethnic narrative that is read, watched and admired around the globe.

icon, Multi-Disciplinary discipline


Multi-hyphenate works that combine disciplines, remix dogmas, and reinvent the wheel.

icon, Music discipline


A dialogue between cultures, the music of our state serves up the California dream like no other artform.

icon, Performance discipline


Staging the drama of California through dance, music and theater.

icon, Visual Arts discipline

Visual Arts

Breaking away from the European and New York vanguard, California reinvents the art world.

Featured • More Columnists
Loading Columnists...