Exclusive Interview—Alex Pardee and his newest solo show VERTIGOJuxtapoz // Monday, 03 Jan 2011
On the near eve of his major solo show at Corey Helford Gallery in Culver City, California, Alex Pardee (cover, August 2007) speaks exclusively to Juxtapoz about the work that has gone into Vertigo. The show opens this Saturday night, January 8th, and as Alex says in the interview below, "My ‘VERTIGO’ show is inspired by a famous big game hunter from Kenya named Caleb “Verti” Parker."Already amazing.
Without further ado, here is Darren and Alex Pardee on Vertigo.
Darren: You’ve been very busy preparing for your upcoming art show. When and where will it be taking place?
Alex: My new exhibition, called ‘VERTIGO,’ will be opening at the Corey Helford Gallery in Culver City, CA on January 8 and running until around January 29. The Corey Helford Gallery is a really prestigious gallery, and the artists they show there are insanely talented, so I’m excited to be amongst that company. It’s crazy.
Darren: For ‘VERTIGO’ you decided to write a story before you started to paint. Can you give us us, in a paragraph or two, a synopsis of the story?
Alex: I’m a huge fan of the idea of allowing viewers to fully immerse themselves inside the art if they choose to. So supplying additional text and stories to my work has been something I have done consistently in my art for years, in varying levels of intricacy, but I always make sure that the art can stand alone as simply a painting or a drawing. The addition of my personal story that I add to it is a bonus that the viewer can choose to dive into or not.
My ‘VERTIGO’ show is inspired by a famous big game hunter from Kenya named Caleb “Verti” Parker. Verti had traveled the world, working with various tribes while hunting game, and had come across a particular tribe called the Taki in Brazil, who believed that patterns of sound, tone, and music were what controlled all aspects of the world. While Verti initially did not believe these claims, he witnessed some strange things while living with the tribe that made their theories very convincing. Over the following years, after Verti had eventually given up hunting out of guilt, he became obsessed with this belief and eventually stumbled upon a musical composition that, when played at the correct pitch, could do something very, very strange: it could lure nightmares out of people’s minds as they slept, bringing the visions out into the physical world so that they could be exorcised from the minds of the dreamers. However, this meant that there would now be a nightmare running around in the real world that needed to be dealt with. So, equipped with the hunting skills he had acquired throughout his life and a special music box he had created to play the necessary tune, Verti would travel the world, exorcising people of their nightmares and then hunting and killing the physical manifestations of their dreams. In a sense, Verti became an exorcist, a hunter, and a hero—all through the power of music.
The art exhibition, inspired by Verti’s story, will feature my painted renditions of some of the more intriguing nightmares that Verti encountered and killed over the last ten years of his hunting career. A small selection of some important artifacts from Verti’s history will be on display at the show as well.
Darren: You have had narrative shows in the past like the ‘Hiding from the Normals’ show and the ‘Digested Children’ show. What sets ‘VERTIGO’ apart from these previous shows?
Alex: The major difference between this show and ‘Hiding from the Normals’ and ‘Digested Children’ is that the scope and approach of ‘VERTIGO’ are a lot more ambitious and deliberate. The last few shows I have done have consisted of me trying to discover the best way to introduce a new world, or share a narrative theme with a new audience, and those shows came together more organically as I painted. For both ‘Normals’ and ‘Digested Children,’ I came up with a very loose theme, and then discovered the narrative during the creation of the artwork as the show came together. With both of those shows, I was able to see what worked and what didn’t as far as the final outcome of the exhibition. I didn’t start with any particular visual direction; I simply painted whatever came to mind based on my chosen theme and tied everything together at the end with a re-written narrative inspired by the visuals. What happened, however, was that all of the paintings ended up being very similar in subject matter and shape because I would just paint what felt comfortable with at that time. If I was into tentacles, then all of the pieces had tentacles somewhere in there. If I liked painting spider-eyed monsters, then all of the monsters had spider eyes.
With ‘VERTIGO,’ my approach was more mathematical than organic. For this exhibition, I wanted all of the paintings to be very different in subject matter, which I knew would be challenging if I didn’t discipline myself. So before even thinking about the visuals, I wrote fifteen different stories, all revolving around different “nightmare” monsters from all over the world. That way, I knew ahead of time that I was going to be drawing a giant fish monster from Japan, and then painting a giant brick building that had come to life, and then a goblin from Costa Rica, etcetera. This added a huge challenge to my process and forced me to explore shapes and textures and characters that I have never explored before. So throughout this entire process, I was basically learning how to draw all over again, because the territory was so new.
Darren: You talk about having to discipline yourself with this show more so than with your shows in the past. How would you say this heightened discipline helped you grow as an artist?
Alex: I never had any formal art training outside of general high school classes and some books I had read years ago. The little I know about drawing and painting has all come from experimentation, trial and error, and tips from other artists. I’m a pretty strong believer in this method of learning because it has allowed me to excel in the specifics that I have been interested in at the pace I have been able to handle. I learned through passion and willingness to be frustrated for years. The downside to this way of learning, however, has been that I have developed this certain style or comfort zone with drawing and painting a certain way, or painting a certain subject matter, but outside of those specific areas that I have taught myself along the way, I have zero confidence in areas that are probably taught the first year of art school. So because of that, taking on commercial jobs is always a real challenge for me. Nothing scares me more than someone saying, “hey, we will pay you to draw something you have no idea how to draw.”
I recently finished a lot of design work and marketing art for Zack Snyder’s new film Sucker Punch, and that process was a great example of what I just mentioned. That entire movie is full of two things that I have always avoided drawing because I was afraid to try: girls and guns! But I am a HUGE Zack Snyder fan and a huge fantasy movie fan in general so there was no way in hell that I was going to back down from this job. But lacking those basic skills that I could have possibly applied to this job scared me.
Regardless, I studied and studied and crammed as much trial and error as possible into the short amount of time I had to work on the Sucker Punch art, and I did force myself to expand my technical abilities. And in the end, I was extremely happy with the feeling that I got by disciplining myself and forcing myself to evolve, but going forward I decided that I was sick of feeling that fear in the first place, because it added stress to an already stressful job doing something that I LOVE to do. It didn’t make sense. So finishing Sucker Punch gave me the confidence to try to continue to challenge myself and not be afraid to try new directions, new subject matter, new perspectives, or new materials, all of which I stepped up and tried to utilize for my ‘VERTIGO’ show. And now that I am pretty much finished with all of the art for ‘VERTIGO,’ although it was devastatingly frustrating at points and I repeatedly doubted myself throughout the process, I never gave up and I can say with confidence that I think I leveled up again, at least in terms of not being as afraid to just attack a creative project head-on regardless of the terms or direction.
Darren: Verti Parker is a nightmare hunter and you have created a number of nightmares that are hunted by him. Do you have a lot of nightmares that you wish someone like Verti would take care of?
Alex: You know, I rarely have nightmares, at least that I can remember. My first nightmare didn’t even occur until I was fourteen and I dreamed that I got trapped inside an elevator on a diagonal track and it slammed into the ground and I saw myself die. But in general, my dreams are mundane, and while they often have very subtle disturbing elements to them, a lot of them are grounded in reality. I do have car accident dreams sometimes, though. I just had one last night actually. No monsters though. But a part of me wishes that I did because I LOVE feeling scared, you know, as long as I know that there’s no real danger.
Darren: Most people would say they don’t like to feel scared. What is it about feeling scared that you like?
Alex: The short answer, I guess, is that I like the relief of not being scared anymore rather than the fear itself. I like the reflection after the fact—saying to myself , “oh my god that was crazy, I’m glad I’m okay!”
The long answer probably stems from me being a masochist which, though not a conscious effort, has pretty much been consistent throughout my life since I seem to have no problem putting myself in the worst situations physically, mentally, or emotionally. I think in order to have any kind of self-motivated business or passion you have to be some kind of a masochist because the process does require a tolerance to getting beaten down for a long time with only little glimpses of reward. The rewards are so exhilarating though, and they increase in potency, of course, as you work harder, but nonetheless there are always going to be those little emotional gunshots to the chest every now and then.
Darren: All of the pieces in ‘VERTIGO’ represent nightmares that Verti hunts. However none of the pieces includes a depiction of Verti himself. Why did you decide not to paint Verti?
Alex: Well, first off, there are no known photos of Verti, himself, and very few physical descriptions of him or documents relating to his life anywhere. His nightmare-hunting was a fairly clandestine operation. So I didn’t want to assume that he looked a certain way. Additionally, I think that without me supplying my vision of Verti, his persona is left open to interpretation, so he can become whomever the viewer or reader wants him to be. Something that I struggle with is having a strong interest in both painting and writing. I’m draw pictures for a living, but I love that books with no illustrations force the reader to utilize his or her imagination. As cliché as it sounds, our imaginations are so powerful that no physical representation of something that we imagine will do it justice, which is why it’s rare that movies are as good as the books they are inspired by. I love reading and writing simply for the fact that it forces my imagination to be put to use. But on the other hand, throughout my life I have always been so inspired upon seeing visual representations of creative people’s imaginations—Guillermo Del Toro, Hayao Miyazaki, Tim Burton, Jim Henson, Gerald Scarfe, HR Giger, Frank Frazetta, and Walt Disney to name a few—pour out, and seeing how they take their own ideas and re-create them visually.
Darren: Each nightmare that Verti hunts is in a different part of the world. Is there a reason that each nightmare takes place where it does or was the geographic location of the nightmare arbitrary?
Alex: The specific locations are arbitrary, but the variation in location serves a number of purposes. First and foremost, nightmares and fears are universal. I wanted to research and imagine the possible subjects of nightmares in other cultures. What kind of boogeymen would haunt a child who lives in an orphanage in a desert in Central America? What fears would keep an ice fisherman from Finland up at night? Those kinds of questions excited me. Plus, I loved the idea of Verti being a worldwide hero.
Darren: In ‘Hiding from the Normals’ you had the detective that was hunting the underground mutants and in ‘Digested Children’ you had the detective that was searching for kids that had been eaten by monsters. Now in Vertigo you have Verti who hunts nightmares. What is it about the idea of detectives and hunting that is so intriguing to you?
Alex: Being a detective, or a police officer, or a vigilante, or a combination of all three, is the closest thing to being a real-life superhero, which I always fantasized about being when I was a kid. Also, with a lot of my stories, I like to blur the line between reality and fantasy, so a lot of the stories, despite including whimsical elements, are grounded in some type of reality. Being a detective involves discovery, which, in my mind, is the best way to make these new worlds believable—having the viewer discover them along with a character who is also discovering them. So the detectives, cops, vigilantes or general weirdoes and independent thinkers are usually the vehicles by which the world is unveiled to the viewer.
Darren: Let’s step away from the story aspect of your show and talk a little about the technical painting side of the show. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of painting each of these pieces and explain how that process compared to how you have painted in the past?
Alex: This show features all acrylic paintings, which are basically the first acrylic paintings that I have created in my life. I have done maybe a total of five acrylic paintings before this collection so this is an entirely new medium to me. I wanted to up my game in every aspect when conceptualizing the show, and I had been working with consistent mediums (watercolor and inks) for the last couple of years so I wanted to try something new, in addition to the new approach I was taking with the narrative. The process was very mathematical. I wrote out a description of what I wanted to attempt to draw. Then I scribbled for hours and hours until I figured out a rough direction in which I wanted to take the initial drawing. I did all of the drawings first, then basically just had an assembly line going with translating them in acrylics to the boards.
Darren: What struggles did you find you had in painting these pieces and how did you overcome them?
Alex: The first struggle was creating the initial drawings and sketches of the pieces. My confidence in executing other people’s ideas has always been a little low, which is why I am very hesitant about taking on a lot of commercial work. So to challenge myself, I basically gave myself thirteen commercial jobs, all art directed by myself. In the past, I would paint freely—for my other art shows, If I wanted to draw a basketball player driving a truck, I would try, but if it wasn’t going in the direction I wanted, and since no one could tell me that I had to paint that, I could simply start over and draw something I was more comfortable with. Knowing that I didn’t want any of these paintings to be defaults from a bigger idea, I disciplined myself into treating each “nightmare” as a commercial job. If I got stuck drawing a fish, I would force myself to sit there until I got it right! I forced myself to learn a few extra things about anatomy and perspective that I had always been afraid of before this.
Secondly, since I had never really explored acrylic paints before, I basically had to create a brand new body of work with zero learning time to mess up. So that means that I messed up a lot trying to execute these paintings. I explored under-paintings, transparent washes, which colors mix with which, etcetera, all the while hoping that the final piece would turn out okay. Once again, this was simply an act of discipline, because before creating these pieces, I rarely spent longer than two days on a painting, and if I messed up at all I would usually scrap the whole piece. In this case, though, because of time, if I messed up, I had to force myself to problem-solve and figure out what I could do to fix it, or what I had done wrong. Some of the pieces I spent sixty to seventy hours on, which is five times as long as I have spent on a lot of my pieces in the past. But it was an amazing experience. And I now feel a little less doubtful of my ability to go full force and attack a new medium.
Darren: How do you hope the viewer will view this show, and what do you hope the viewer will take away from seeing ‘VERTIGO’?
Alex: I’m a HUGE fan of Disneyland and the Disneyland experience. I think Disneyland is a perfect parallel to how I want people to view ‘VERTIGO.’ Sure, when you go to Disneyland, the rides themselves are the main attraction, and as stand-alone attractions, they are incredible. But while standing in line for each ride, if you look around, there is an opportunity to get fully immersed in each one of the rides. There are props, videos, and little stories about the history of the “world” you are about to enter. Once you are done with the ride, you have a chance to go back and re-experience that ride, each time taking in a few more pieces of the bonus content, hopefully sparking your imagination and allowing you to temporarily live in that world.
I am presenting ‘VERTIGO’ with the same spirit. The main attractions are going to be the paintings, as I am a visual artist before anything else. However, once you experience these paintings, or while you are waiting in line, or if you go back to view them a second time, you will have the opportunity—through the displayed props, stories, and additional artifacts—to immerse yourself in this new world inspired by Verti Parker and his nightmare hunts.
And even before the show opens, I am unveiling a ten-part “origin” story about Verti Parker himself and how he became the nightmare-hunting hero that he is today. The story has begun already and can be viewed at www.vertiparker.com. The final part will be online a few days before the January 8th opening of the show.
Opening January 8, 2011
Corey Helford Gallery
Culver City, California