Alexandra Grant

Artist/Painter, Los Angeles // February 2012
Storytelling and art-making enable us to re-organize our lived experiences and allow us to make everything we know to be true, actually true.

Alexandra’s studio is in the historic West Adams district of Los Angeles, just a short distance from Koreatown and Downtown. From the outside her building looks like a non-descript, kind of funky commercial space that in no way expresses how big her studio actually is. The place is huge with a cavernous feel to it— cold, shadowy, and resounding with echoes, it heightened every one of my senses. Everything I took in seemed exaggerated: the damp air, the bright fluorescent lights, the vibrant colors of Alexandra’s paintings, and the steady rhythm of her voice. Long after our visit those impressions continued to linger, as did much of my conversation with Alexandra. She is a force to be reckoned with— her brain is agog with ideas that she expresses in a continuous flow of conversation, often jumping from one thought to the next as they wildly run through her mind. Her energy is infectious and inspiring, and makes you feel like the world is in fact full of promise, insight and adventure. Many of Alexandra’s paintings are collaborations with writers and their ideas, which makes sense because she appreciates the complex nature of dialogue: the exchange of both concepts and language, the act of deciphering and interpreting, the twists of subtext, and the inevitable losses in translation and how we make up for them. By borrowing writers’ poetic language she utilizes the format of dialogue to create “conversation” between image and text. In engaging text and image this way, the work then becomes a liminal space that challenges the viewer’s ability to perceive and hold both elements at once. Both the Rorschach inkblot inspired and text-based paintings I saw in Alexandra’s studio had an undeniable potency— they almost seemed to fill my sight by force, demanding that I confront what Roland Barthes called, “the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little.” Alexandra’s work acknowledges the “muck of language” visually and linguistically, and recognizes that both image and text can only imperfectly communicate our lived experiences, but in bringing them together she attempts to hit upon a few home truths.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I’m an artist.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
When I was starting out my career I used to work at other jobs that weren’t my ‘work’ and that’s, in part, where I learned how to work. People often have misguided, glamorous ideas about artists and how they go about making work. But the truth is that many of the skills and responsibilities that are part of more conventional jobs are also very relevant to making art— time management, meeting deadlines, accountability, humility, and finding value in the nitty-gritty details as well as larger goals. I think it’s important to experience what it’s like to work a fulltime job; it brings a humbleness to art work that I find beneficial.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I elaborate my ideas mostly in painting and drawing, but am open to any material that would best express the subject matter at hand. In all my projects I am always working with, or after, a seed text— usually this text is not my own because I like to collaborate with writers. So the results can be in painting, drawing, a giant web of crochet, or recently a film and a road-trip.

My subject matter has always been the relationship between word and image. The themes in my work have been about the nature of language and how it works to communicate, to signify, and the importance of non-linear forms of expression. Because language, and the way that we think, is really not linear; it’s rhizomatic, interwoven, elliptical. I think that’s why poetic and literary texts are so important in a world that’s increasingly visual. Because poetry and a well-turned sentence stop us and make us look again (even at a sentence). The Internet is visual in a way that keeps us — and our eyes — moving faster and faster. It is writing and art, really, that stop us, ask us to take a moment and listen closely, look again and slow down.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I try to take in as many ideas through as many senses as my creativity allows, so I’d like to include some other sensory activities in your list of ‘fuels.’ I like to experience things that I’ve never encountered before, which can sometimes be uncomfortable or funny. So, in the last week I’ve watched movies (from Dario Argento’s Deep Red to Wilson Yip’s Ip Man), I’ve been to a secret dinner at Public Fiction in Los Angeles cooked by Peter Harkawik, I’ve listened to the radio, and looked at and read a book on Franz West. I like to see as much art as I can, and recently enjoyed shows by Daniel Richter at Regen Projects and “Now Dig This” at the Hammer Museum. As I get older I’m less motivated by a need to educate myself according to some external set of parameters and more from the joys of encountering ideas, so I would say that I look, listen, read, taste now for pleasure more than anything else.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
The biggest challenge to creating art is having to make it. This requires time, know-how and a budget, like any project. And often an art project is lacking one or more of those. On top of that you have to have a certain self-discipline and confidence which some find a challenge. I’ve always made projects that are slightly beyond my abilities and give myself permission to fail at it. I love taking risks but at the same time set up strategies to ensure that the pressures of having to succeed are minimized or made less important.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I’ve worked in my kitchen, on the floor of a hotel room, in my last studio (snug) and my current studio (spacious). What they have in common was a project that I could make there and lose myself in the rooms of my imagination. I think I could work anywhere on something. This summer I travelled by train and crocheted to make panels for the “Womb-womb Room,” a recent collaboration with Channing Hansen at the Night Gallery in Los Angeles.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
Somewhere along the line I was given, or have given myself, permission to keep experimenting and evolving. I give that permission to the work, too.

An ongoing conversation with my mother revolves around favorite authors and how many great writers either grew up abroad as ex-patriots or moved from a different country to one (and to the language) in which they now write. I relate to this personally because I have an American mother and a British father, and I grew up in Mexico City. So, I’m interested in the impulse these writers have to complete things in their writing from a lived experience but that perhaps is no longer present in their current lives. Writing is a way of healing that disconnect, of bridging the gap between seemingly disparate past and current experiences. I think that art can play that role, too. Storytelling and art-making enable us to re-organize our lived experiences and allow us to make everything we know to be true, actually true. So in that sense, of trying to complete oneself through storytelling, yes, my work is autobiographical.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m working on a new series about psychology and the sense of self and the relationship to consumer culture. I’m questioning whether our voices inside our heads about our “selves” come from the outside world or from the inside. In the case of this work, I did not collaborate with a writer. The text I’m using I’ve written, but I was looking for language that felt fairly anonymous and all-encompassing. The texts in these works are voices, filled with self-doubt and self-reflection written down. They’re quite banal. Everyone — both men and women — has these thoughts of not feeling worthy, of coveting other people’s things and identities, of wanting more stuff to feel complete. “I’ve lost myself”— what does that mean? The work plays on the concurrent rise of psychology and consumerism in American culture. When did we shift from a nation of self-determination to one obsessed with self-loathing, self-image, self-hatred, self-indulgence, self-etc.? The perfect form for pop psychology and projection is of course, the Rorschach. In every work I make there is some sort of form as well as the language that creates the composition.

I’m working on a film project about returning a stolen tombstone to rural Nebraska. It’s a long story, but essentially years ago I bought a tombstone in Wyoming on a road trip and I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so for 11 years it just sat in my studio. Then one day I decided to put it on eBay, and I was quickly contacted by the Sheriff’s Office in Polk, Nebraska and told that my tombstone had been stolen out of a cemetery there in 1945. I decided I needed to return the tombstone to this town, the community, and any remaining relatives, and to make a documentary film about that journey and experience.

I’m working on some ideas with the philosopher Hélène Cixous. I’ve been working with her for about two years now, trying to fully understand the ideas in her book, Philippines. It’s about telepathy, binaries that become whole, and memory. I really want to fully comprehend Hélène’s notions and honor her work through my art, so it’s been a slow process that has involved a great deal of conversation and discourse between us in preparation for the work that I will do. When finished the work will be at a space in Paris, called Mains d’Oeuvres.

I’m working on a book with Michael Joyce about our many years of collaborating together. The idea is to contrast his texts with the images that were inspired by them, something we’ve never done before. A book, like a slide projector, equalizes works in size, making small and large works appear the same size. Perhaps a pattern will emerge that neither of us have seen.

And I can’t help it, but I have some other secret projects too.

What are you most proud of?
Moments of lucid happiness with family and friends. Having the stars align for a project. Someone expressing that they were moved in some way by something I made.

What do you want your work to do?
I want it to start conversations about the subject matter each body of work addresses. Even if just one person has been provoked into discussion, I feel like that’s enough. I’m interested in making art that is about ideas, and less about whether someone wants to hang it in their living room.

What advice has influenced you?
I once heard a Sufi myth about a king that asked a seer what he should do in times of great chagrin, when everything was falling apart, how to keep from losing hope. And then what should he do in times of great success and prosperity. The seer responded to the king that he should do the same thing in both situations. Of course I can’t remember what the seer said exactly, but over the years I’ve interpreted it for my work and life: that my work as a human and an artist should be the same thing when no one knows about it or cares, as when everyone cares. That sense of consistency and integrity has kept me grounded.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I derive great satisfaction from a hard day’s work, and seeing how things can be built up over a series of those days. Every time I finish a work, I feel I have arrived somewhere. And then the next day I begin something new. The feeling of having arrived is a private one, more than likely taking place in the studio when I am alone there.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I have an upcoming exhibition in September 2012 at Honor Fraser Gallery in Los Angeles.

To see more of Alexandra’s work: