Our eyes have met the eyes of the numb looking, distracted characters on Alex Gross’ paintings, and we asked the artist our questions. Here’s a chat on political expressions of art and music, symbolism, her movie, Thom Yorke and the psychology of living in Los Angeles.
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The characters with smart phones, tablets, frappuccinos in your work look rather numb, and uninvolved in what’s around. They’re physically there at that time, but always distracted, almost possessed. It’s a common feeling to most of us too. Can you walk us through how this tone relates to the name of the series, Future Tense?
It took me some time to brainstorm a proper name for my most recent book of work, and exhibition. I wanted something that would convey our current state of apathy, awkwardness, and tech-obsessiveness. Somehow I came up with Future Tense, I don’t really know how. Of course it has a bit of wordplay in it, but ultimately I think that it conveys this feeling that we all are aware of when we are in urban settings, of disconnection, and of both government and corporate surveillance.
The themes related to mass consumption, advertisement, corporate power and technology in your recent work are conscious of how awful a lot of things are in the modern world. Does that make you feel hopeless at times? Where do you find hope these days?
I think that one of the things that helps me keep going is the fact that many people share these feelings, that the corporations have not completely won yet. Of course, it seems to be a losing battle, if I can be a bit cynical here. Younger generations today are not nearly as bothered by corporate intrusion into their lives as people my age and older are. Its stomething they have grown up with, and they have never known another way. Still, I find many people in all walks of life are concerned about these same things, and are trying to do things in their lives to help mitigate some of it. There is more awareness of local community culture today than there has been in decades, many people do not consume products from some of the worst corporations, and there are some positive uses for technology that have come about recently as well. So, it’s not all completely hopeless. And perhaps people like us can raise the next generation to be aware of this too and not to passively accept how things are.
It’s annoying how most of us cannot keep clear off the corporate influence. How do you cope with this on a personal level? Do you feel the need to?
It’s impossible to avoid corporate influence, for sure. Especially if you live in a large city like Los Angeles, which is where I am. I do avoid certain things, like television commercials. I almost never watch live tv, I watch recorded shows and I can skip the ads. When I do watch something live, I always mute the tv during the commercials. I find the brainwashing aspect of commercials to be most insidious. Commercials seem harmless enough, until you stop watching them for awhile. Then, the next time you see one, you feel more deeply how disgusting they are, and how every single aspect of them is designed to brainwash you into feeling that you want or need something, that you are not good enough as you are, and ultimately to make you feel unhappy. Its quite remarkable how easily we overlook this, because many of us grew up in front of televisions, and commercials have been part of our lives forever. But I find that trying to isolate myself from them helps me not feel quite as awful as I might.
Other than that, there are certain brands and corporations that I do not give my business to, such as Wal-Mart, but ultimately this is a very tough approach to take, because most brands are owned by larger conglomerates that most people are not aware of. So, you might think you are boycotting Monsanto or Philip Morris, but the list of companies and products that they either own or in Monsanto’s case, supply, is extremely long and very rough to keep track of.
You seem to work hard and carefully on how to balance ambiguity and direct references in your paintings. Your idiosyncratic touch of weirdness and surrealism detroys the in-your-face realism. This is a common discussion with art that involves sociopolitical concerns. What are your thoughts and feelings on political work that directly speaks? Not just on works of art, but maybe on songs and music as well?
I generally try to steer clear of being overly political in my work. That can be tricky too. In the new show, I have a few pieces, “Drones,” and “Disrespect,” which are both semi-political, although I think in a broad way. I consider it important to balance any political or social statement with enough creative ambiguity so that the work is not simple propaganda. There’s nothing wrong with propaganda, but its not what I am trying to do—it’s essentially just advertising. Music has a great natural ability to be both political and creative because of the combination of lyrics and music. Often, the music in a song is so beautiful, that even if the lyrics are political, and something you don’t agree with, it’s possible to still enjoy the song. I suppose that’s what I try to do in most artwork too, although it can be hard.
Symbolism is also involved in your work to some extent. How do you approach symbolism?
I approach symbolism in a very intuitive way. When I am working on my comps, I experiment with different elements, often trying multiple combinations of things, until I feel that something finally works. Of couse, sometimes a symbol is more obvious, like a city full of sheep. But other times, it is much more subjective, and that’s intentional. Again, I want to leave space for the viewer to feel the painting, and draw their own conclusions about what a particular piece might be saying to them thematically. So, symbols that are open to some interpretation are most interesting to me.
Does Thom Yorke know about you? Have you ever been in contact? I read you have been a huge fan of his work and he surprisingly shows up from the side in one of your works: “Distractions”?
You’d have to ask Thom if he knows about me. We have not been in contact. I simply wanted to include him in a painting since I am such a great fan of his work. I thought it would be funny to have him holding a Starbucks, a brand that I am pretty sure he would object to.
How do you include corporate logos in your work? Shouldn’t you be getting paid?
Yes I should be getting paid! Ha, not I am not interested in getting paid by large corporations to promote their brands. The reason I sometimes incorporate brand names, logos and other identifying marks into my work is because they are omnipresent in the world around us, and I feel that using them in my work is a reflection of our times. Its not necessarily a statement about the legitimacy of a particular brand all the time. Some of the brands I include are brands that I myself consume, like apple, or RVCA.
How would you compare today’s art market to the one where you started in?
It’s very hard to make a comparison, because my work is so different now, and I am also a mid-career artist, rather than a beginning artist, so my prices are higher and my work is often larger. I also work with galleries now that I did not work with 15 years ago. So its really hard to say. I hear that the art market has never fully recovered from the 2008 recession, but I have been able to make a living since then, and my career has done pretty well, so regardless, there is still a very active and vibrant community out there.
As far as I understand, you quit teaching in university after quite some while. How has being an educator affected you in terms of both your perception of the current scene and finding your artistic point of view?
I liked teaching very much. I would be open to teaching again in the future. The hard thing about teaching is that it takes time and energy away from my work. But the rewards of teaching are many. One of the best things about it is that teachers are able to stay in touch with what younger generations are interested in, whats new, whats cool, etc. It helps keep the teacher fresh. So, in this way, I do miss teaching. And its also rewarding to have a student who is hard working and just needs help in what direction to go, and sometimes I have been able to provide that.
Do you have bulks of unshared work (in any sorts of format) that we don’t see online on your personal website, elsewhere or in your exhibits?
I dont show my comps and studies for my paintings. But all of my paintings have been shown in exhibitions. My website does not have space for everything I have done, so it is limited to a selection of more recent works. I have four books of my work in the world now and they contain just about everything I have ever done for gallery sale, in my life.
How has your working process changed over the years?
The biggest change for me was moving from pencil and paper to the computer for my comps and sketches. I use photoshop exclusively now to make my comps. I still draw some, using the Wacom tablet on the computer. But even when I was drawing with pencil, I would often use tracing paper to collage different ideas together, and photoshop makes this so much easier and faster. This process has also resulted in my taking more photos for reference for my work, and I got a pretty good camera a few years ago to help with this.
Where do you find inspiration nowadays?
It can be hard sometimes to feel inspired. I like to take pictures of friends who have a look that I like, this often inspires me. In my latest show, I painted a friend and young artist named Jillian Solotes in three different paintings. She was interning for me last year, and I thought she had a beautiful sadness in her face, and I wanted to paint her. She ended up being very inspirational, and the paintings “Daydreamer,” “Approaching Storm,” and “Impremanence” all came from her modeling for me several times.
Other than that, sometimes I am inspired by advertisements I see in magazines or on billboards. On occasion, I see a film or tv show that can be inspirational. The movie “Her,” was very exciting for me, although I can’t say it specifically inspired me. But I was excited to see another creative person, in this case Spike Jonze, talking about many of the same themes I am interested in. Its success encourages me to carry on with what I’m doing, I suppose.