Los Angeles, CA, Sept. 2008 - ArtSlant's writer, Ed Schad, talked with Alexandra Grant about her recent work on view at Honor Fraser Gallery.
Alexandra Grant’s new work involves a mixture of the senses, the development of one sense (the visuality of painting) to stand in for taste, smell, touch, and hearing. Grant adds the mind to the mix, the central switching station or unification of the senses. Grant presents each sense as a different “portal,” and each portal is an interpretation of texts by hypertext author and Grant collaborator Michael Joyce. In addition to the portals, Grant expands her logic of language and image into video. The following interview discusses Grant’s innovative approach to language, collaboration, and to the connection between language and image.
Alexandra Grant lives and works in Los Angeles. In 2007, Grant’s work was shown in a MOCA Focus show curated by Alma Ruiz.
"babel (after Michael Joyce's "Was," 2006)", 2006, Mixed media on paper, 80 x 264 inches; Courtesy Honor Fraser
Ed Schad: The first thing I noticed in your work is its clever use of language, written backwards and forward, up and down. Could you describe your path into a love of language? You mentioned that you were trilingual.
Alexandra Grant: Moving between cultures and languages as a child, I was aware of how meaning is gained and lost, how ideas are translated or misunderstood from one context to another. I have always been a literary minded, bookish person, and curious about how “language” works in writing as well as in art. I went into to art as a PhD candidate goes into research, asking myself what areas are still open for investigation, what work could still be done. As a student I was interested in artists that worked language into painting, and came upon the idea of introducing interlinked words into the picture plane. I wanted to create a practice, a space really, where there was enough room for my diverse interests. I also knew I wanted to make art where the hand was heavily involved in thinking about the present moment.
Courtesy Honor Fraser
ES: You mentioned specifically 2-D work and painting. Could you talk a little more about painting? Why painting?
AG: Painting is both the simplest art form (in that it consists of a surface, paint, and a brush) and the most difficult (in the painter’s motivation, ambition and intellect). On one hand, it is a record of the artist’s emotional state. A painting is a membrane that reflects back what the artist is feeling while painting. Language, on the other hand, is rational: in order to write, you have to think in words. So between the physical act of painting and the controlling aspects of writing down thoughts there is already a tension of representation. A drama between the emotion of painting versus the rationality of writing. For that reason, painting is one of the most difficult spaces in which to insert words. In my work it is as though the words, the ideas themselves are the protagonists, and the medium of paint itself, the very materials antagonize them. Every one of my 2-D works starts out as writing, handwriting which in fact is a kind of drawing. As layers build and are erased, my work becomes more painterly: about addition and subtraction of information. The painting is finished when there is a balance between the emotional and rational aspects of the work.
ES: You mention this drama, a protagonist and an antagonist. A lot of your work is in collaboration. How does the collaborative effort contribute to the drama?
AG: The reason I collaborate with a writer – for many years now that has been the hypertext pioneer Michael Joyce -- is that I became concerned that my work would be too personal, too solipsistic, if I used my own texts. That the personal would spiral in and affect the formal qualities of the work – my own texts weren’t very good protagonists, to continue the metaphor. I searched for a living writer with whom to work, but the problem I encountered was that writers always wanted to protect their work rather than be open to the transformations of collaboration. I had worked with dead poets, but I wanted a conversation. Michael has a background in internet culture and is comfortable with openness. His generosity was ideal for collaboration. The formal aspects of the work are interconnected to his idea of the hypertext, how his fictions work as openings and links to various different ideas. As a reader of his text, I am forced to research to track down his references. When he mentions a line by Phillip Larkin or a specific species of crab, I turn to find the references and the references lead to other discoveries. Michael’s texts open the conversation.
"A Love That Should Have Lasted (in memory of a Diasporist Painter)", 2008, Paper mache, 136 x 112 x 127 inches; Courtesy Honor Fraser
ES: Joyce’s work is performative, words linking to other words where meaning chains spiral and burst in different ways. Why you think that way of looking at language is important? What is the important lineage for you in that?
AG: I think about artists alive and working, many here in Los Angeles -- Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger, John Baldessari, Lawrence Weiner. There is no way to summarize all their different practices, but formally there are commonalities: a tension between machine-based, or Swiss, fonts in cahoots with an image. John Baldessari’s early paintings, for example. Kruger’s manipulations of advertising. I wanted to make images that weren’t about dialectical ‘reading’ between image and text. I was curious about what would happen when the text became the image, a conflation of sign and signifier. There are key differences in my choice of words, too: I didn’t want to work with aphorisms. I wanted to work with literary language – texts written with a poetic sensibility.
ES: You often mention having a sort of un-font. Tell me about the un-font?
AG: I wanted to create an un-font – a handwriting that was clear to read and did not suggest much about me, the artist, in terms of gender, or age, or culture. In the 60s and 70s, radical image/text work was being done in graphic design and advertising with new fonts from Switzerland, like Helvetica and Geneva. Volkswagon Beetle ads were famous for introducing this new vocabulary: a picture of the Beetle above the word “Lemon” and a new kind of dialectical reading of the whole. As I mentioned before, there are many talented artists who have used this kind of relationship between image and text. I wanted to create a font with no style, that wasn’t loaded with cultural ideas, however subtle. My un-font is recognizable as writing that could be made by anyone – open, in that sense. But it is also mirror writing, or backwards. That distancing forces the viewer to look at the work as an image as well as struggle to read it.
ES: I think of Jenny Holzer here, but she eventually felt the need to move past her anonymity and into a more loaded meanings. Do you have to resist that impulse?
AG: Not yet. One of the things that Michael and I talk about is the goal of working to keep language alive. When I met him, he was leaving electronic media because web-based work was becoming more focused on the image rather than the qualities of language. Michael’s language is anything but anonymous, rather polyvocal and polyrhythmic. I am interested in a syntax that can reflect the complexity of the ideas involved. I love works that are symphonic in the way there were imagined. When I made babel for MoCA, it was in many ways a simple panorama but it was also symphonic in that it was based on Michael’s work “was.” So much art is a punch-line. And I believe the art audience is open to more complex work. I think of a moment at the MoCA show: I entered the gallery when a school group was standing in front of babel. Nobody knew I was the artist. The teacher asked why the words were backwards in the paintings. A young student raised his hand and said “The artist is trying to teach us the difference between seeing and perceiving.”
ES: Describe your entrance in video? Why did you feel it was a necessary jump?
AG: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Sergei Eisenstein. My background was academic and grounded in looking at modernist film, especially montage. The period that I studied was when Eisenstein was working in L.A. on a script with Upon Sinclair. He went to Mexico to do a film and fell in love with the people, the landscape. He never was able to finish his work, “Que Viva Mexico” -- Stalin sent henchmen to bring Eisenstein back to the Soviet Union to make films in the academy. So I had an interest in film editing and ideology before I dreamt of making my own work in video. I came to video art first as a viewer in art galleries and museums, which allowed me to ask what held my interest and what did not. At CCA I studied film and video with Lynn Marie Kirby. Although I never made a film during graduate school, Lynn introduced me to Michael Snow’s work and the idea of duration, and the sensibility of working with the material of film itself.
ES: Could you talk about your first video?
AG: The first video, “Motion,” was an X-Tra Magazine project. The idea was to produce a project that bridged four printed pages in the hardcopy magazine with an online project. I asked myself “How do I use that space in a compelling way?” The project became about my process and translation: taking a seed text, then drawing it, sculpting it, turning it into a kinetic form. Video became a way of presenting each additional dimension, including the dimension of time.
ES: How did the video work add to your practice?
AG: I have a “sourdough” methodology, which means that I take something from an old piece and use it as the starter for the next. It excited me to be able to use the video camera to document painting and sculpture in time. A detail of a painting, using a high definition camera, can become a projected image the size of the original painting. The new suite of videos I created for my show at Honor Fraser gallery take other works as subjects and change them through montage and duration. With video the other thing gained is sound. My first experiment with sound was at MoCA. I wanted to integrate Michael’s original texts into the installation, without printing them. I worked with the Pig Iron Theater Company to create sound-scapes of the seed texts for each piece – beyond simple readings. Visitors could listen to these on their cell phones in the gallery. So, for the recent suite of videos I could harvest both the video images I had taken as well as the sound pieces.
Of course the videos had to be artworks on their own right, independent of their sources. My goal was to experiment with how language is perceived differently when it is heard and seen. In this respect, the videos seem like a real continuation of my 2 and 3-D experiments with image/text.
ES: Take me through some of the reasons why montage and slowing people down is a virtue. It seems like the arts have that as a plot point, that we have to make people look. Society at large is more about fitting as much in as possible, speeding things up. Why is it important to praise the small, praise the slow, praise close looking?
AG: Speed can be a virtue. I just saw Marlene Dumas’ works on paper at her MoCA show -- bodies made in a single pour, one gesture, full of confidence. I am not convinced that things done quickly don’t have value. When looking at art in any medium, I am interested in seeing that the artist is engaged, that they are really involved in both making and seeing their work, that they are committed. How I make that commitment in my work is through getting involved physically and intellectually. It can be seen as obsession -- layering, erasing, sometimes taking a long time to create, sometimes just knowing when to stop. I don’t see duration as a negative or positive value. There was a moment when the idea of duration was radical – a sort of “How far can I push your tedium.” Artists have to be aware of a historical lineage. Now duration is just a choice amongst many. I found in my video work that I was very aware of rhythm – long and short durations. My goal was to keep my own interest. If I am not interested, how can I expect anyone else to be?
"My Self of Loss", 2007, Oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches; Courtesy Honor Fraser
ES: Talk about that moment of engagement and commitment. I’m interested about “authenticity” and want to hear your point of view.
AG: What comes to mind is an experience I had as a TA in graduate school. The students seemed more concerned with looking like artists, or the artist “lifestyle,” than with actually thinking through what it meant to be an artist, to be radical. I held up a picture of the Italian Futurists in class. “Who are these men?” In the photograph were Marinetti, Boccioni, et al in suits, dapperly dressed. The students said that they were business people, bourgeois, conservatives. They were surprised to learn the group were the Futurists. The point was to get them to stop thinking about the outside package of “artist.” Radical artists look like the Futurists of today, they look like normal people. We live in a world of conformity, in a world where exterior difference doesn’t necessarily signify interior difference. How can schools that foster ideas of conformity create real artists?
ES: So it seems that you are talking about a kind of expansive humanism that allows detachment and study but is also open to personal, associative pursuits?
AG: By working text into the spaces of visual art, I’ve created a way of working that has allowed me the freedom to do almost anything I can think of within the limits of my own resources and talents. My goal was to create a practice, to pitch the biggest tent with the twin tent poles being image and language, so that within the “tent” I could work with ideas from many disciplines and methodologies. Most importantly there is room for me to continue to learn, to take risks, and to fail.
ES: I wanted to ask you about synesthesia. Considering that your Honor Fraser show involves “portals” expressing of the five senses in visual terms. I started to think about the various ways you could think about synesthesia in contemporary times. Perhaps the least likely way to think about synesthesia seems to be the Kandinsky version, the idea that since music is not bound in physical form, that painting should aspire to music and that aspiring to music is a way for painting to transcend the physical world and enter the spiritual world.
Another way to think about synesthesia is in purely scientific terms, clinical tests determining how certain senses change and mix together under certain conditions. Still another way is what I would call the Steve Roden method, basically handmade synesthesia -- placing different vehicles for different senses together into clumsy systems, on one hand following the system but at the same time leaving oneself open to intuitive interpretation. I would ask how you see your project in a history of mixing the senses, what the particular projects and your approach to it.
AG: I would have to give a little personal history. My father was a geologist but also an Anthroposophist, a follower of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner theorized about color, and in part Kandinky’s exercises in synesthesia were in response to these writings. I don’t work in response to Steiner or in the way Kandinsky did, but I understand the motivation, the exploration of the esoteric. The science of synethesia is very exact – there are conditions that are diagnosable and specific. For example, there is a recognizable alphabet of color that many synesthetics share. And I appreciate Steve Roden with his clever/clumsy systems. So I have given thought to each one of the types of synethesia you suggest, but I don’t feel like they encompass what I am trying to do. What comes to mind in my work is exploring the nature of metaphor. In this case, the nature of language itself seems synesthetic: we are always describing our sense experiences in terms of other senses.
"¿dónde está la escalera al cielo?", 2007, Standard American and Italian coated glass, Argon gas with transformer, 55 x 19 inches, Edition of 7; Courtesy Honor Fraser
ES: Could you describe the metaphoric mechanisms of your work?
AG: In the large scale work “The Third Portal (ear)” I was faced with the challenge: how do I show sound? My first idea was to line the paper and lay Michael’s words out as musical notes, as a form of musical notation, but that only got me so far. The surface did not look like “sound.” Next, I used black paint to play a rhythm on the surface of the work, turning the painting into an instrument or drum. Though I may have created sound with my fingers, the resulting image suggested simple finger painting. Another idea was to think about sound in terms of structure and rhythm. I blacked out every other line. I thought of a favorite building in Barcelona where the rhythmic structure of its lines is broken up by flowers and plants growing in its windows, and so “overgrew” the lines of the work with words using a vibrant green. In a recent show at LACMA of Latin American colonial painting, there was a work that showed the word of God, literally painted diagonally across the sky as it emerged from a cloud. This painting was trying to show the word of god, the spoken word. So I chose to emulate – at least in concept – this diagonal composition. The last approach I took was one of scale: I wanted to make the largest scale word I’d ever painted to suggest volume, and chose the most spoken word I could think of: hi or “hola.” The piece becomes an accretion of all these different strategies (many of them failed) to represent sound.
ArtSlant would like to thank Alexandra Grant for her assistance in making this interview possible.
-- Ed Schad
(Image at top: "Fourth Portal (tongue) (after Michael Joyce's "Six Portals," 2007)", 2008, Mixed media on paper, 117 ¼ x 80 inches; Courtesy Honor Fraser)