Interview with Alex Young on A.K.A, portraits of alter egosJuxtapoz // Saturday, 01 May 2010
Speaking to him in-depth about his experiences and inspirations, it’s clear that Young is an artist continually co-opting the multitude of influences that play upon his mind. In conjunction with his second solo exhibition, he talks with great enthusiasm for everything from Close and Kandinksy to calligraphy and comics, giving an up close and personal insight into the foundation for his new show, and his wider artistic endeavors to date.
London Miles: Can you tell us a bit about your background and first interest in art?
Alex Young: I was born into soaking up a lot of artwork, a lot of different stuff. Neither of my parents are artists but their knowledge of Art History is incredible. Growing up my sister and I got dragged around loads of exhibitions. My old man used to work for British Airways so we traveled a lot and every port of call we’d hit the art museums. Then in the mid-80's, when the big explosion of hip hop culture hit England, I lent more towards the graffiti side of things. That was the most exciting stuff for me: growing up in west London and seeing tags get put up, but not really understanding what they were and that it was a sub-cultural thing. Some of the first stuff I saw was skateboard graffiti and I became a skateboarder as well, so I got into these two subcultures and found a lot of comfort in them.
Skateboarding was one of those freedom activities. It was as much about hanging out and being part of something as it was being rad at it. The same with graffiti; you might not be the best stylistically but you might have done more than anyone else, you might just be out there every day. Same with skateboarding; you might not be the best but you're out there everyday; you're the dude, you're ‘that’ guy. It's all on your own terms; it's within your group, it's not societies terms. It was this kind of fraternity of weirdo's where it's like “Fuck that way of life, you're all right. Come in here, and do this, and get respect from your peers, and how good does that feel?”
Another appeal about skateboarding was all the graphics on the boards. I came into skateboarding in the late 80's when it was the era of skulls and snakes and dragons - Powell Peralta style - and then it went into World Industries which was much more radical and really offensive - just real shock stuff and constant parodies of other things in popular culture. The appeal of all those graphics was the fact that they were just rad for rad's sake; whereas the art education system was asking: “Why have you handed in this project of this monster fighting a robot with lasers coming out of their eyes?”
What are your thoughts about skateboard graphics conceptually though – if you were pushed?
Have you read the book Disposable? If you ever read any book about skateboarding read that. It just talks about how disposable the artwork is: you buy it cause it's rad but within weeks it's not there anymore...but in people's mind's it lasts forever. I've got a tattoo of a skateboard from that era, from 1989 - Santa Cruz Skateboard Company. It's a real boys tattoo; it's disgusting! Any girl I show it to is just like, “Oh my God, what's your problem?!” That sort of stuff blew my mind so much and got me into painting those kind of aggro characters in graffiti.
So you share many of the classic interests of other Outsider artists growing up in that era?
(Laughs) Yeah, let me chuck another cliché in there: I was a massive comic book fan from an early age. Most influential probably was 2000AD - brilliant British made comic that started in the 70's. It'd have five or six stories in it every fortnight, all serialised, it was a bit like sitting down and watching TV for a few hours. It was just so much different from your Batman and other stuff like that. The writing on the American comics has got much better over the years, but 2000AD was just something else.
Tell us about your hiatus between college and your Access course at London College of Printing.
It was just four years of pretty much doing graffiti and working bum jobs. Throughout that time I was still drawing in my sketchbooks everyday and painting, and then finally decided to go back to school because that’s all I ever wanted to do. I went and studied at London College of Printing, which is now London College of Communication, and then got into the Kent Institute of Art & Design and did four years of an Illustration Degree.
For a long time in my life the graffiti artist within me was running things - but the artist was a big part of me as well. I'd go to University and a lot of my projects would be about graffiti and they might involve illegal elements that the teachers couldn’t encourage openly, but with a little wink they would. They thought it was interesting stuff that I'd actually be going out and painting my projects on the street and taking photo's during the day and handing them in as an illustration project. My sketchbooks from back then are just absolutely ram-jammed full of graffiti outlines.
Since exhibiting your artwork in galleries though, you’ve kept your fine artist persona totally separate from your graffiti persona?
or my last show, the idea came from my experiences as a graffiti artist, and an artist...and the fact that I was operating under two names, and how I kept the two very separate. My graffiti persona is this other guy, more like the Wolf Man or Mr. Hyde rampaging through the streets. It was a character that I'd built up, or tried to build up, in other people's minds as quite an aggressive person who you wouldn't want to meet. I then found that in different social situations people would expect a certain thing from me as this one guy, and then in a different social situation people would expect something else.
When you meet graff writers or other people meet you, it's like “Oh, your him! But, I thought you were black, or I heard you were in prison, etc.” Or people say “We met so-and-so the other day, he's just this little dude, got these mad, thick glasses on!” You build up these impressions of people and it's all just folklore, city folklore and hype. I started thinking about how I had this 'Superman syndrome'. I read books about it - Nancy McDonald wrote this book called The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Identity, and Spray Paint I think it was. She was talking about this 'Superman syndrome' where by day you were mild-mannered Clark Kent, then you got to go out in the evening and have your superhero name almost, your one-word name, and you go out there and you're a completely different person, and this other group of people think something completely different of you. It's this escape, a playground where you can act out different parts of your personality that wouldn't be acceptable in your everyday life.
But it's not just graffiti artists; there are all sorts of people, especially these days with the internet. Under a different name, behind a computer screen where no one can see you, you can act out a different persona. You might be a librarian by day and the most timid woman around, and then you go on a sex forum at night as SlutKitten and you’re the most overly sexed being imaginable. It's an outlet, just by switching the name; it's an outlet for you to play with your personality.
For my first show, I got in touch with all different types of strippers and met up with them for cups of tea in the afternoon and had conversations about their experiences. They all operate under a different name too. Graffiti's kind of trendy now, but say back in the day if I was to mention I was a graffiti artist I'd come up against quite a lot of negative preconceptions, the same ways as if these girls went to a dinner party and said they were a stripper - instant preconceptions. One of the women, she's a pharmacist, she's also an extra-curricular physics teacher for GCSE's and A-Levels and she's got two kids...and then she's a burlesque trapeze artist too - she strips on a trapeze. I'm going to be doing paintings of her for this exhibition.
You employ and experiment with a wide range of styles and media, how do you feel about developing a certain recognizable style? Do you often find yourself struggling with identity?
When I was younger I really struggled with the concept of having a style. It must be from being influenced by so much different stuff from a young age, from being exposed to so many different types of artwork and learning from them all. When I went to the Guggenheim Museum in New York and I discovered Kandinsky, when I was about eleven, I fell in love with Kandinsky - an abstract artist. My parents wanted to support me so they bought me a book on the guy and I opened the book and it was all traditional portraits and landscapes, and then later it goes into the abstract stuff and his theories on colour and it just blew my mind. Same when I went to a Chuck Close exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. He's doing these photorealistic airbrush pieces and then if you’re stood right up close to one of his paintings it's an abstract painting. The way they were so monolithic: there's just nothing going on. They're so huge and every detail's there, but nothing's going on in the picture at all, nothing, it's just not saying anything.
All of this started to eat away at my mind, so I'd come back from a Chuck Close exhibition and I'd start drawing stuff like that, then maybe chuck a bit of Kandinsky in after I'd seen that, and maybe even Where's Wally...I'd think “That would blow my mind,” so I'd try to draw the most detailed stuff I'd ever seen. Then I’d go to China and watch some calligraphers out there and come back and try and get emotion across in the least amount of brush strokes possible. I was trying out everything, thinking, “Why would I spend the rest of my life just settling on one expression?” The creative world is so big. To be allowed to experience it all, and soak it all up, and just behold it is a real pleasure.
So you have now taken your creativity off the canvas and on to 3 dimensional pieces and installations. What are you getting your hands dirty with at the moment and what new artworks can we look forward to in the coming future?
Yeah, I'm working with animal skulls. I can put the skull in front of me and draw it, but that didn't make any sense. It made much more sense having it in front of me and to paint on it. The location of the artwork changes everything. If there's the actual dead animal's bones there with painting all over them there's a whole different feeling that the viewers going to get from it.
That's what I think about graffiti: the whole thing with putting graffiti in art galleries; that stinks to me cause graffiti is location specific. In the early days no one ever broke into galleries and started doing graff, they broke into train yards. I just feel that to take graffiti off a train or a wall and put it in a gallery sucks, it loses its whole meaning, the same way as me doing a drawing ‘of’ a skull or ‘on’ a skull.
What attracted you to using dead animal skulls? They must be quite difficult to source?
Powell Peralta skateboards back in the day got me mad into skulls. I got a lot of them off Ebay, and some of them I've got the animals and boiled their heads up myself - it's horrible, I don't really like doing it! What you're paying for on Ebay is that they've bleached the skull, so they're nice and white. A pig's skull on the internet will go for twenty-five, thirty quid, or it's a fiver from the butchers and you do it yourself. It just stinks, and you have to cut its eyeballs out and poke its brain out – it is disgusting, but it’s character building! I wanted to have more of a connection to what I'm doing.
They'll be presented in glass domes - there'll be a painted animal skull with flowers around it and live butterflies and real animal furs. I wanted to make them functional objects as well, so I wanted them to be lights like table lights, and create a wooden base at the bottom that has a cavity in it with the lights in, and then all the fancy display is on top, but is really essentially just bare bones. It’s based a lot on tattoo imagery and Mexican sugar skulls I’m interested in - Day of the Dead skulls.
So you have your first solo show since your last show with Grenade Gallery back in 2008- How have you developed the concept for the new show with London Miles Gallery?
I've gathered together a motley crew of strays and weirdos - I've got the trapeze artist, a latex clothing designer and model, a heavy metal guitarist, a female dubstep DJ, an internet stripper, a graffiti artist: there's all some sort of performance element there, there's an audience for all of it, and all of them use different names.
Because I don't want people to judge a book by its cover so to speak, I want to present it as if it's a puzzle: ‘Within these portraits there is a trapeze artist, a latex model etc...’ but not telling you who's who. There will be symbolism in there; for this show I wanted to bring more illustrative qualities into these paintings and more of that Visual Communication education that I had. I'm still going to use spray paint, but I'm going to put illustrations within the paint, the relative symbolism - from the conversations that I have with these people. How the paint churns up and drips, there'll be stuff in there so it's quite subtle from a distance but up close their whole face is made out of illustrative figures or symbolism. In the past, up close these paintings were abstract and from far away they were portrait, but that didn't still make sense with regards this dichotomy I wanted to highlight.
Alex Young’s latest exhibition A.K.A, portraits of alter egos will be on view through May 10th, 2010.