Alex Gardner: The Meaning of Life
Sometimes you ask all the wrong questions and you get what you deserve. I misunderstood Alex Gardner’s paintings, and in an effort to explain them, he mentioned considering the meaning of life, which is exactly what most painters are striving for. Art is a way to filter the chaos and represent whatever visual story means something to us in an effort to navigate the inevitable and overexposed existentialism of new generations.
What is left to say when we don’t even know why we’re here? As intended, I discovered some meaning in life by getting lost in trying to comprehend the positions, plants and people found in Alex Gardner’s paintings. As he says, his work “exists to stimulate.”
Read this feature and more in the November 2016 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine.
Kristin Farr: Tell me why you paint figures the way you do.
Alex Gardner: A few years back, an old white dude asked me candidly, "Do you draw black figures because you yourself are dark?" And I thought to myself, "Bitch, I'm #lightskin."
Who are these people you’re painting, or who do they represent?
Cue "Everyday People" by Sly & the Family Stone.
Are they the same people every time?
I've never met the same person twice.
What kind of power dynamics are you exploring, or is it really something else you’re getting at?
I'm interested in the entire spectrum of human emotion. I like the romanticization of life.
I'm also an extreme realist and borderline pessimistic.
Do you use models?
Do your own friendships and relationships influence your paintings?
Everyone I encounter ends up in my paintings. No one is safe.
Portrait by David Broach
What kind of technical elements do you wrestle with the most?
It's more MMA than wrestling. I'm in the studio trying to land a clean left jab and finish the painting with a rear naked choke.
Do you focus more on formal aesthetics, a narrative, or a feeling?
I consider all three when making a painting.
What’s the most frequent comment you get about your work?
I don't really pay attention to what people say about it.
What have you been painting this year?
A lot of figures and a couple plants.
Did you go to art school? What kind of work did you make when you were younger?
I went to a state university. Man’s on a budget. I'm out here debt free. Like most kids, I did a lot of stream-of-consciousness drawing growing up. It was always figurative though.
What words do you use to describe your work? I describe it as people and positioning.
I don't like to describe my work. I don't want to sound overly profound but I sure as hell don't want to generalize what I do either.
What do you like about painting murals?
I just painted my first mural in Portland. There are two things I like about painting outdoors: the premature aging caused by prolonged sun exposure and the unsolicited but riveting monologues that passersby recite throughout the day.
Do you go by Alex G or is that just how you sign your work sometimes?
I go by Alex Gardner because it was the name forced upon me at birth. I used to sign work Alex G or AG because I didn't want to take up too much space. Now I just sign the backside of the canvas.
What is the significance of color for you?
Colors create a visceral reaction, don't they?
Usually. Do you feel like the impact or your intention varies with the scale of your paintings?
Does size really matter? The results of our survey will surprise you. Click to find out how women really feel about this age-old question.
You are very mysterious.
What kind of info do people need? Get all my details on my online dating profiles.
Next question... Reggie Watts bought one of your pieces? Did you meet him? Do you have other famous collectors?
Yeah. He is cool as hell. However cool you think he is, he's ten times cooler than that. I think a couple famous people have my work but I'm hoping to sell a painting to Putin before he dies.
Is the use of basic white clothing in your paintings an effort to keep things timeless? Why not paint the figures naked?
Are you suggesting I free the nipple?
Always. I’m wondering about the postures and positions of your figures. Are they supporting or stepping on each other?
It's both, isn’t it? Depends on the work.
I know I’m not the first to bring up Kerry James Marshall in relation to your work, so please forgive me, but he uses a similarly pitch-black skin tone in his figures and says it’s because he wants to emphasize the black figure in art that is still shamefully rare in museums and galleries. Do you have any similar intentions?
Kerry's work is overtly about the Black American experience. Does anyone really think that my work is as well? My thoughts on race, institutionalized racism, my biracial upbringing and how these things have affected the way I choose to depict figures can't be summarized in a couple of sentences.
Portrait by David Broach
We have plenty of room for more sentences.
My figures have no facial features as indicators. Hair texture is suspect, wouldn't you say? What black person do you know who is that black? The white viewer wants to connect but can't get past the skin tone and feels a bit alienated. Am I deliberately trying to estrange? My mom is Japanese, by the way. It's multifaceted.
You’ve said that you want to express the idea that “life’s not that bad.”
The scariest part about life is the idea that it is meaningless. We're all racing the clock trying to implement our own meaning and purpose. This idea of meaninglessness is also extremely liberating, though.
If reincarnation is real, who or what do you think you would’ve been in a past life?
How far can the soul travel during transmigration? You think I could die and wake up as a cephalopod on a distant planet? Top three worst animals to be: 1. Whale Barnacle, 2. Chicken, 3. Human. Top three best animals to be: 1. Dolphin, 2. Dolphin, 3. Dolphin.
Always be a dolphin. What movies and music have shaped you the most?
I think what shaped me as a person the most was the fourteen-year-long raft ride through the whitewater rapids of trauma known as childhood.
What are your thoughts on abstract and conceptual art?
I'm definitely partial to figure painting, but if it's good, it's good. I'll tell you what though, I don't care how deep the concept is—if it looks like shit, I'm not into it. Perhaps I'm superficial.
Do you still live in your studio? What’s that like?
It's definitely suboptimal for hosting dinner parties. Luckily, my live space and easel haven't shared the same room in a while.
What’s something important to you that seems unimportant to other people?
I know a terrifying amount of people who don't floss everyday.
What parts of the paintings do you obsess over most?
The whole process is pretty obsessive. I don't know any artists that aren't obsessive.
What are your most and least favorite places to travel?
Don't go to Berlin.
Who are some artists you like, or whose work motivates you to paint harder?
My favorite painter right now is Jordan Kasey. Hey, Jordan, please notice me. As far as motivation, nothing gets me going more than simply looking at paintings in real life. I love to see how different painters treat the edges of their canvas. I like to look at the different types of strokes, the amount of paint that's being applied, and the order in which colors were laid. I try to reverse-engineer the painting and reenact the process in my head.
Is painting spiritual and/or meditative?
It's definitely meditative.
What shows do you have coming up through the rest of the year?
It's all probably and maybe.
What does paradise look like in your mind?
I don't know, but for sure Rihanna is there.
Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, on newsstands worldwide and in our web store.