Alexander Ross’s paintings exist in the hazy space between photorealism and abstraction. Recent Terrestrials at David Nolan Gallery (October 30 – December 6, 2014) pushed Ross’s practice even further, exploring landscape and portraiture without leaving the alternate dimension his earlier work inhabited. Will Corwin has been interested in Ross’s painting and drawing since summer 2013 when he first came into contact with the work at Cheymore Gallery in the group exhibition Imprinted Pictures.
Will Corwin (Rail): With your exhibition Recent Terrestrials, the thing that really struck me was the specificity and the simultaneous ambiguity of your subject matter. I was walking through the subway this morning and I saw an advertisement that had an image of Cappadocia—the peaks that you have in Cappadocia—and it immediately reminded me of several of the images I had just seen in your show, particularly “Untitled” (2014), a face with a tongue sticking out. How do you characterize your paintings? They’ve been characterized as abstraction, but do you consider them to be landscapes, portraits as well?
Alexander Ross: That’s a good question. For many years I was thinking abstractly, even from a design perspective—spaces and shapes and colors and all kinds of experimentation and play. Something is rendered, something is highly illustrated, yet there are elements that are flat, or relationships of colors and shapes within the thing. Then with the mountain range, there’s a deliberate stab at playing with dangerous territory, like children’s book illustrations or fairytale imagery or sci-fi ideas that are somewhat taboo in fine art, or have been traditionally.
Rail: How do you mean taboo?
Ross: Taboo meaning that it’s not always easy to directly touch on these things: there’s a certain kind of irony or borrowing on a meta-level incorporating this imagery, which is all around us and increasingly infiltrating everyone’s lives and minds. It has been for a while, but I think you need to go somewhere new. What have I never seen before, or seen less of in painting?
Rail: When you say something new and meta that’s all around us, looking at children’s books, do you mean the sense of playfulness? Not overtly joyful, but playful? Do you think that’s kind of taboo in contemporary painting and contemporary art?
Ross: It goes in trends. There certainly are artists who are still playful and who are viable, but there are megatrends, there’s a sort of cool abstraction right now and who knows how long that’ll last. If everyone’s being ironic, then being earnest can be interesting. I’m sort of following my own whims and a lot of times it’s not deeply thought about until later. I’ve recently been looking at lots of illustration and album covers, sneaker tread patterns, anything that’s out there, and it’s all filtering through. The next thing I know, I’m messing around with the clay and exploring possibilities, and all of sudden things start suggesting themselves and I just go with it. And maybe even have a chuckle; fantasy mountaintops, that’s really absurd, but they’re fun at the same time.
Rail: You’ve spoken previously about the idea of the grotesque, the medieval grotesque, the renaissance grotesque, and the thing about grotesques is that they’re like a horror film, they’re supposed to scare you but they don’t really and there is that kind of self-conscious jokiness, even in medieval grotesques, that those demons aren’t really scary. Is that something you’re considering?
Ross: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s wonderful. They’re mysterious and everyone kind of likes them. And why exactly are they there? I don’t think there’s a whole lot of information about that, there’s conjecture.
Rail: What I like about the paintings is that they’re trying really hard to scare you, at least the new series.
Ross: But they’re also absurd, they’re kind of outrageously absurd and silly and at the same time there’s a sort of wickedness or freakiness. Like the large canvas has all these pointy little moments everywhere.
Rail: That’s a new thing in your work: what brought about the pointiness? Usually your forms have been quite bulbous or striated or they’ve been kind of field-like.
Ross: There actually has been some pointiness in my drawings where I get into thorns and prickers and serrated edges, but it’s not been a big thing in the paintings. Really, the biggest change is moving into more specific, literal fictions. For many years, I’ve been keeping them very abstract, intentionally not titling them and giving no indication of scale, so whether they’re microscopic or planetary in size it’s hard to know, and a lot of it is left ambiguous—if not completely abstract—as to what they are. With my last show in New York a few years back they started to become more specifically landscapes with land and shadows. That was the first break from thinking of them just abstractly. And really, it’s just where the exploration is leading them and it finally felt like time for me to get more playful, get more characters and be figurative. There was a lot to explore just keeping it abstract; now there’s all this new room to play with in introducing that space.
Rail: Did you feel a calling to the figure? It seems that at some point artists need to address the human form, how did it come about that you moved towards this?
Ross: I’ve always drawn faces and figures, but I haven’t shown them. It was a self-imposed restraint for many years where I was purposely denying explicit reference to anything in particular. Every time I saw faces accidentally appear, I would tweak them a little bit to keep them in check, because I had enough on my plate to work with as it was. That’s where it started. I limited my palette to mostly greens and blues, and I limited my imagery to things that were suggestive but essentially abstract, and toyed around with what they could signify, such as rocks, architecture, or plants. After that, I’ve slowly been unwinding and loosening up my self-imposed restraints. Introducing more colors, more ways of making them, and letting the imagery be literal landscapes instead of implying that they might be.
Rail: What did you find so attractive about the vagueness? The vagueness of scale? The impossibility of knowing?
Ross: With ambiguity, the viewer participates more, projecting their own meanings. Early on, my project felt a little risky, because it’s a world unto itself; green, monstrous, the oddness of the whole program—I would describe it as a little bit hermetic. So I wanted to allow breathing room for the ideas to be understood in many different ways.
Anytime you get literal you shut down avenues of interpretation, especially if you give titles and things like that, then suddenly it’s not open-ended, it’s now a cucumber. It becomes more illustrative. I was employing a highly illustrative or photorealistic style, which traditionally showed you a world that you understood. Applying that to something abstract was really interesting, and still is, and then having it be hyper-depictive—as depictive as you can make it with all the shining bits and dark points and at the same time having it be unknowable. It seemed poignant and definitely worth exploring.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about Ernst because you’ve talked about Ernst in the past. For me, you share a lot of thought processes with him. I was thinking about the piece in the Venice Guggenheim, the “Anti-Pope.” It presents a group of objects and figures in a landscape, but within those figures there are also these abstract processes forming the figures. Within your practice, what has been your relationship with Ernst? What are some other painters that have influenced you?
Ross: Ernst is one of, if not my all-time favorite painter. I’ve been looking at him since I was a teenager. What I love about him is his unrelenting exploration and inventiveness over many different types of work: the collages, the drawings, different kinds of painting and techniques: an outrageously great discoverer, craftsman, and visual thinker. I really like his quiet, steady, creative pace. It’s solid, you can’t argue with it. There’s certainly a lot of thinking going on, but I would say he’s a poetic, visual thinker over a hardcore conceptual thinker. Another artist I was influenced by early on was Giorgio Morandi, where there’s this straightforward still life with dead space, highly focused-upon in a kind of dead background. That really appealed to me, as well as the handling of paint; a willingness to squidge it there in front of you and make an object. So there’s definitely a still life approach with my work. And John Currin’s early paintings were an influence on me in that he showed how a story or theme could drive a whole body of work.
Rail: I think there is this tremendous connection between surrealism and still life. Maybe it’s just the overwhelming sense when you’re looking at a surrealist painting that it’s frozen. Do you see a connection?
Ross: There’s something, it’s a silent space, like Tanguy or Dalí, where there are sharp shadows and it’s frozen in time. I’ve always found something about that appealing.
Rail: I’ve noticed you use shadows to great effect as well. Do you sit and meditate about the shadows? Are they just automatically generated from the photographs?
Ross: My early thinking was to make it a kind of “hyper” thing. It’s extreme in all its aspects, so if the thing has light shining on it, it has a shadow. I would maximize the highlights by brushing oil on the clay sometimes to make it super shiny, and then light it so that it was extremely vivid, giving you the full range of light falling on an object, and then isolation, just a couple of simple shapes or forms. In a relatively empty background, you kind of underscore this oddness of reality, the oddness of the plastic form in space. It calls a strong degree of attention to it by not seeing exactly what it is, and it raises the fascination level, giving the viewer something to grapple with, myself included.
Rail: Some painters I’ve talked to use photorealistic processes but say they are not photorealists. Do you consider yourself a photorealist?
Ross: I see myself as a post-modernist. I take lots of different styles and revisit them. I’m purposely using photorealism.
Rail: And parts of your paintings are not photorealist either—the backgrounds are clearly hand drawn.
Ross: I enjoy mixing. There’s something about surrealism that I’m borrowing, I’m mixing that with photorealism. For a while I was borrowing the shaped canvases of the early ’60s and purposely taking that and shuffling it into the mix: what if you did photorealism and surrealism and shaped canvases? What could you do with that? Maybe there’s something new I can find. So, it just continues, I feel like I’m borrowing now from films, fairytales, or illustrations. What if I merged fairytales, or gargoyle and grotesque sculptures into my work? It’s a lot of borrowing and shuffling and reconstituting of past approaches.
I feel like we reached a certain point where everyone was assuming that there was this kind of linear unfolding of avant-garde art, in the way that each generation challenges the previous and gets its new thing and it goes in a straight line. Suddenly everyone’s scratching their head in the 1980s with multiple “isms” happening all at the same time in the art world, and it never settles. Increasingly there are artists who just go back to a previous style. Painting in an old style and just doing new subject matter. It’s all over the place; a big messy tree with millions of branches and nothing is taking the lead or setting any kind of standard. I think of what I’m doing as contemporary, just borrowing all of these styles. Everything’s mixed up and cut up. Each artist picks and chooses from a huge bouquet of possibilities and finds what’s interesting and employs them.
Rail: But you clearly are seduced by the propensities of the paint. Talk a bit about your relationship with oil paint, I’m very curious.
Ross: I have always found painting to be much harder than drawing. This brings me back to Morandi, there’s something of the love of paint itself and letting it be itself. I made a decision early on to isolate the different components of painting: like the design and the subject matter, which I do all ahead of time, making the clay, I make a mock-up and finalize the image I want to paint. Then—I know Lichtenstein worked this way—once you have the final design and the mock-up, the next stage is execution. For me, breaking it down like that, having an execution stage as a separate component totally freed me up to enjoy painting itself and how to apply it, because I already had a map of where I was going. That’s how the color bandings came about. I wasn’t thinking about the compositions anymore, I had already finished that. I was just executing the image. I still like paint and I’m not trying to erase my hand. I love the hand of a painter, I love when it’s visible. Just putting the brush down and letting the shaky stroke be kind of wobbly at the edge. I think I still come across as being pretty tight, especially from a distance, but if you get up close to my paintings, I’m definitely having fun moving the paint around. I’m always thinking about that feeling I get when I look up close at a Morandi, or I remember looking at messy painters like Frank Auerbach. I love the look of squishy paint.
Rail: It was very refreshing to look at the surface of your paintings because I used to work for a photorealist painter and there is an obsession with flatness, the idea that there is no hand. There is this obsession with not seeing any kind of detail at all. And then to look at yours, there is this variety of surface, there’s the drawing in the background. You can see where you’ve kind of gone in with a tool. Even though you do paint in those striations, you don’t seem to care about them that much. There’s the expressiveness of the hand even within the striations.
Ross: Yeah, exactly. Thanks for noticing. It’s a give and take. Part of me wants to have that kind of old-fashioned, heavy, oil painting feel to it. I love that about painting. Maybe it’s a romantic nostalgia but it’s disappointing when the surfaces of paintings are so slick. But I understand that desire, some artists wanting to get rid of the hand. I’m into celebrating it or keeping it alive, especially if my imagery is going to be sort of clean from a distance. It seems the more of these things that I can get into the painting the more interesting they become to me. They’re satisfying on a different level.
Rail: You say you started with a fascination with biology. I’m also very interested in the process you work with by generating maquettes. You create a maquette, you photograph it and then you paint it. But how did that originate? How did that connect to the story you told in the last essay that you wrote for your previous catalogue, where you talk about looking at these expensive biology textbooks that you couldn’t buy and falling in love with the images there? What dawned on you to start making sculptures, were you making sculpture at that point too?
Ross: Here’s what happened. It really started with Morandi. When I looked at his bottles I would think to myself, because of the way he painted them, that they sometimes look like they’re made of clay because they’re a little bendy and droopy. I always liked that about them. The paintings I was making at that time looked cartoonish because they were inventions. I would come back to a painting I had just made and think it looked like a painting of clay. So I thought to myself, why don’t I actually just make a clay model and work from that, because I’ll get much more variety with the shadows and the highlights and unexpected surface things that can happen with an actual clay model than I could ever hope to invent from my head. It was a kind of a leap because it was not something I’d ever done. I was hesitant, but as soon as I started doing it, there was an overwhelming sense of freedom. Now I had a map to go by and could focus on laying down the paint. So it was a big point to switch over for me, working from the models. And I didn’t even know if I could do it, if I had the skill level. But I really liked the results, so instantly, everything changed. It became much more dynamic—the whole thing just opened up to me. It was the end of a long search; I had been playing around with so many different ideas and styles, and had a really long gestation period all through my 20s and into my 30s—not knowing exactly what to paint or how to paint. And when I finally switched to working from the models, it was suddenly working for me, more than anything I’d ever tried. So I just decided, this is it, this is what I want to do. Sure enough, Hudson from Feature, who had been coming to my studio all along, agreed. He was like, “Yeah, I want to show this. This is good.” It all just came together.
At the same time, my colors got brighter. It was the ’90s, and techno music was becoming more of a thing. So there was something about the synthetic nature of electronic music—celebrating fake and plastic things. For me, it seemed culturally relevant. Everything was cool, bright plastic. It just all came together. Once I found that, I stayed on that track. I had been looking for a viable track to get on and I finally found it, and just stayed on it. Which is something I read about Tanguy, that he tried all kinds of different things and then suddenly he painted something that looked like what we think of as an Yves Tanguy painting. And it struck him like, “that’s it,” and for the rest of his life he painted only those.
Rail: Are you actively interested in contemporary advancements in science? There’s a photograph of your studio in the back of this catalogue from 2011 and there is actually a microscope.
Ross: Yes, there is a microscope. It’s called an inspection scope. You don’t use it for slides. You put objects under it—it’s big enough you can put your hand under it. It’s an absolutely fascinating thing to play with. You can take it outside and sit in the grass and start putting insects and things under it. Because it’s in stereo, it really gives you the volumetric feel of what you’re looking at. Science is amazing on so many levels, and because it’s verifiable and, in theory, real—as close to reality as we can get anyway. The strangest world is the real world.
Rail: Do you feel that your paintings get a certain conceptual mileage from hitching their wagon to the fact that science is real. Because people then look at yours and say, “These must reference something.” There’s something in the human mind that then latches on to the recognizability of what you’re doing.
Ross: Yeah, I’m thinking that way anyway. For example, I was reading about, and it still hasn’t really happened, but there’s supposedly a coming biological revolution and people who talk about it say it’s going to make this current computer revolution look like nothing because we’re about to be able to manipulate organisms profoundly to our advantage. We now can grow human body parts and bone and have them implanted. But this indicates that the future, if we survive long enough, will have all kinds of organisms that we grow and create ourselves. So part of my thing is, what would those organisms look like if we lived in a world, say 200 years from now, where you have pets that were grown in a laboratory? Maybe they would be green and have chlorophyll in them. So what kind of paintings would you want on your wall in that kind of home? In the future, you probably would want something graphic from the past, like one of my paintings. [Laughter.] I’m projecting—this stuff will make sense in 200 years from now. I’m being tongue-and-cheek a little bit, but it’s a fun fantasy. It helps me generate ideas and think about why I am making this work and why it looks this way. I’m attempting to jumpstart the future in some way, at least that has been one of my operating motivators.
Rail: Tell me about the exhibition Remote Viewing at the Whitney in 2005, curated by Elisabeth Sussman. I’m interested in how you contextualize yourself. Do you feel that you’re within a certain movement of abstract painting? You self-described as post-modern, but is there a movement that you fit into?
Ross: I don’t really see it as a movement but I loved being included in that show. Matthew Ritchie was largely responsible for putting it together at the Whitney. What he said, which I agree with, is a lot of the other artists are scoping out locations and aerial views, map-like territories and things, but my work has landed in the place and is showing the view from an actual position—like the Mars rover. That made a lot of sense to me because there is still something abstract, like looking at another space or another realm in my work, which is “remote viewing.” Finding something in a different place and channeling it back. I don’t really see myself so much as a part of a movement—I do see myself as a part of the contemporary attempt to find out what art can be at this point. I mean we don’t really talk about style anymore because it seems trite, but it’s there nevertheless. Even irony can be a long-term stylistic trend.
Rail: Have you started working on the next body of paintings? Is there a big sea change after Recent Terrestrials?
Ross: I was working very hard for a long time making that body of work. I got tired, burnt out. When a show is finally up is when I relax and explore. I’ve been experimenting with things that I haven’t tried before as a way of generating more possibilities. But I am planning on more grotesques, and I already have a small canvas of a head just started.
Rail: Do you think you will ever name the paintings?
Ross: I don’t know. Probably not the paintings, but lately I have been giving titles to the smaller drawings. I don’t know why that’s changing either. I am caring less—I don’t know if it is wise to say that. When you care less, you take more chances and you just do things more on whim, and maybe you can fail more often but you also find things that are more interesting.
There is this sense that things are out of control politically, global warming as well, you read so much bad news and so many warnings about what’s going to happen, the economy, class issues. I can’t help but take a little of that to heart and say “fuck it, whatever. I’m just going to make stuff and not even question it anymore.”
Who knows? How long is art going to last anyway? It is sort of like the last blowout before you go or something.
Rail: Geez, okay.
Ross: I am not trying to be dire, I am just saying there is something in our collective atmosphere of craziness to respond to.
Rail: Are the nasty heads kind of the artist chiding the viewer?
Ross: Not chiding the viewer but in solidarity with the viewer. It is more like sneering in the face of impending doom, or sneering in the face of all the craziness. Sneering back at everything that is sneering at us? N.S.A. spying and all this other stuff; I think anyone who is paying attention is quite overwhelmed. So part of it was like, “fuck this!”