Alexis Mackenzie

Collage Artist, San Francisco // August 2012
The process of destroying the original materials to create something new embodies a life cycle of its own.

There aren’t always words in Alexis’s collages, but when they are present they are often difficult to decipher. Sometimes they elude the eyes and it takes time to trace out the letters from the twisting shapes of cutout flowers, bones, and plumage. And sometimes even when the letters and words are visually unmistakable, the significance of the text isn’t as tangible. Sentences like All the Colors of the Dark and This Isn’t What It Looks Like suggest an incomplete thought, a small fragment broken off from a whole. But this unfinished quality keeps her work open and evocative.

Though I’m not exactly sure what All the Colors of the Dark might mean, those words create big, sprawling feelings inside of me— they make memories well up, images flash in my head like old home videos, and for a second I’m taken somewhere else. That particular phrase set within the collaged imagery of a single eyeball amidst a botanical tangle triggered a childhood memory– me on a roof at age eleven, alone, beneath a West Texas sky at dusk, watching the shadows of mulberry branches disappear. And now I can’t stop thinking about just how many shades of darkness I’ve seen in a night sky.

The funny thing is snatches of text embedded in art often bother me— either they seem too leading and heavy-handed or kind of cheap and momentary. I think the fact that the words in Alexis’s pieces aren’t readily visible allows the viewer to have a layered experience with the work. The words and their consequence creep in, they don’t come rushing forward— and I like that.

Alexis’s studio is in her Western Addition apartment, just off the Panhandle Park. It looks how I imagined it, populated with lots of art and plants and stacks of vintage books. The aesthetic sensibility of her art is very much mirrored in her environment. I appreciate when this happens— when a person’s space and work is so steeped in a particular point of view that every detail becomes a clear indication of who they are.

Alexis’s space and work are so personal, and this intimacy is a big part of her process. She spends hours at her desk patiently hand cutting each image with scissors. Her fingers touch every aspect of her work, and while her hands are occupied she says, “I spend hours thinking about my life.” She also listens to some pretty heady music — she played a sampling for us during our visit, and I can see how easy it would be to get swept away in your thoughts while listening to such intense stuff.

Given its prettiness and delicacy, I was surprised by the shades of emotion present in Alexis’s work, much of which I think might come from the intimate physicality of her process and all those private ruminations.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What
themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I work in collage; all hand-cut paper on paper. Most of my source material comes from antique books and found papers, from used bookstores, individual booksellers, estate sales, etc. I rarely shop books online unless it’s a book I’ve already used. The subject matter varies as I’ve developed a few different working styles; in general, however, they are always a meditation on the world, our place within it, and the duality of nature. I would say the unifying theme in my work is the natural life cycle of all things, ranging from plants and animals to objects, emotions, and relationships; all things have a cycle of existence. In many ways I find the medium of collage is perfect for that; the process of destroying the original materials to create something new embodies a life cycle of its own. I see the books as a sort of compost, sometimes. Along these same lines, I try for all my work to address the duality of things: beauty and the grotesque, lightness and darkness, etc. All of these things rely on one another to exist.

You make collages, which means you must constantly be hunting down source
material— what’s your criteria for this process?
I am indeed, although I do have a pretty good library built up at this point. My criteria for whether or not I can use a book depends largely on the quality of the image (color and rendering), whether I have other sources that it could blend with, subject matter, and the texture of the paper it is printed on. This last one is a surprisingly huge variant, especially with older books; paper can be soft, strong, crisp, glossy, powdery, fibrous, fragile… It plays a large factor in how fine a cut I can make into the paper itself, which is crucial to my process, as I like everything to be seamless. So it effects the level of detail I can attain with the material.

Your work often brings in fragments of text that seem to hint at a carefully considered
narrative— do you have a specific “story” in mind before you start a piece?
Not so much a story as a theme ~ I actually have several lists going on my phone, compiling words and phrases into groups for potential bodies of work. For all the texts I use or plan to use, however, I like a certain ambiguity. Ambiguous phrases (oddly enough) hold up best through various states of mind, time, and place, so the work doesn’t feel dated or like it is speaking to a particular person. I like the text to be somewhat provocative, even a little prescriptive at times, yet still remain open-ended. Mostly I am trying to capture feelings and states of mind, which are also ambiguous things. My hope is for the text to act as a meditation point within the piece, a place for focus and rumination for the viewer.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading,
listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Most of the time I am influenced by the books I’m using; right now this means Navajo blankets, classical Greek art, and contemporary ikebana. These are all decorative arts, as it happens; but I’m interested in the idea of personal space and how we define it. People who collect art and objects usually do so as a means of embellishing their personal space, but in a meaningful way ~ the things we surround ourselves with reflect some aspect of our personality that we want to see realized in a visual way, and also to have on display as a point of pride and source of pleasure. Decorative arts are perhaps dismissed as insignificant when compared to fine art, but in some ways they are much more meaningful, because they have this personal dimension to them which can be multi-faceted.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do
you make your space work for you?
My studio is in my apartment; my art is all very personal to me, it comes from a special place, and I think having my studio at home helps facilitate this. It also enables me to work whenever inspiration strikes, and since I prefer to work at night it would maybe be difficult to always be trying to get to a studio somewhere at midnight. The studio itself is a bit like a physical extension of the things I’m interested in; part living space, and filled with all manner of plants, books, sculpture, objects. It’s a very comfortable place for me; basically a quiet, light-filled haven where I can work undisturbed, and nurture my living plants as well as the ones on paper.

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
I like to constantly develop my work in new directions, and not get hung up on a particular style; it is really important to me that the work and process itself be a living, growing thing and not become stagnant. Anyone who has followed my work for more than three to four years knows it has changed quite a bit from what I was doing when I started out. It felt like a great risk to change what I was doing completely, especially more than once, since I didn’t want to lose followers or collectors, or come across as inconsistent to any of the galleries I work with. But I do feel the work itself is actually always consistently recognizable as my own, even across time and different working styles, and I feel that the development of the work itself should always take precedence over trying to please anyone. It’s not a product or a brand I am trying to market.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you
can tell us about?
Well, I have two upcoming two-person shows that I am just getting started with working on concurrently; they will be very different shows, formally, so I am interested to see how they are going to influence one another. One show is in Warsaw at Galeria Starter; the work for it is very much influenced by still life composition, I’m looking at arrangements, spatial organization and the relationships between different elements, as well as incorporating a sense of the unreal by constructing these “bouquets” that couldn’t exist in real life. It stems from realizing that one reason I like working with text so much is I simply enjoy creating the letter-shapes; so I decided to try working just in formations, and not words. And, these works are all monochromatic, which gives them a weird timelessness that I love. The other show is in Portland at Ampersand and I will be creating a new body of abstract lineworks for that show. There will be a book published by Ampersand in conjunction with this exhibition.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I do; I am Assistant Director at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art here in San Francisco. It’s pretty much a dream job and I feel very lucky to work there, since it means I get to work with artists I admire, helping to promote their work, visiting their studios, and being surrounded by their work every day. It’s interesting to move back and forth across the line between gallerist/curator and artists. And I find that working closely with other artists has had an effect on certain aspects of my own work, which is new for me; I’ve always worked in a very solitary way.

Do you have a motto?
Health is wealth, is my favorite toast.

What has been your biggest disappointment and greatest joy thus far in life?
“Other people” would be the answer to both of those things.

To see more of Alexis’s work: (Located in Chicago; she will be having a solo exhibition there next spring.)