We all know that art can be a valuable historical document. By admiring paintings from past times, we can see how people felt, dressed and lived. Have you ever wondered what other generations will think about ours through the work of nowadays artists? Well, if they see Alex Gross’ works, they will perceive both the beauty and the dark side of the globally-connected, technological and pop culture era we live in.
“I could easily paint about the destruction that smartphone culture is bringing to our world, but very few people want to see that”, he tells us in the interview. He thinks that we prefer to ignore our reality, and because of that, he presumes that if things don’t change, “we will get hit by that truck and made into a pancake”. However, he thinks “in a visual form of art like painting, no explanation should be necessary”. He understands art as something that needs to make you think. And isn’t he right? Meet Alex, with whom we about Netflix shows, comic books and selfie culture.
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When you were just 10 years old, you were picked as one of the fifteen winners of a kids day newspaper’s ‘invent a robot’ contest. Did you already know back then that you wanted to be an artist?
When I was that age, I wanted to be a comic book artist. That was a consistent dream of mine all the way through high school until I got to art school. Then, I suddenly changed gears. I think because by then, I had stopped reading comics, and also, I was exposed to instructors who were freelance illustrators and painters. I realized that there were many other avenues for me to pursue.
New technologies, globalization, beauty standards or consumerism culture; these are some of the themes that your work tackles. Is art a powerful weapon to change the world?
It would be nice if art could change the world. For the most part, I am skeptical that that is true. There are a few artists whose work has made a strong impact, such as the way Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster for Obama twelve years ago really galvanized Americans into getting behind this guy we didn’t know very well. But for the most part, I think that only the most famous global celebrities – and uber-wealthy people – have the ability to significantly change people’s ideas and views about the world. In the big picture, even the most famous artists only have a tiny fraction of renown compared to actors and athletes.
Your paintings have a sort of Renaissance aura. What do you love about this era? What are your main referents?
It depends on the painting in question. But my favorite art historical period is the Gothic period, and I specifically love Flemish art from that period. It’s an interesting time when artists had developed great technical skill but not a full grasp on perspective or anatomy yet, so there are some very peculiar stylistic choices that we don’t see so much once the renaissance really entered its heyday. Rogier Van Der Weyden and Hans Memling really stand out to me in particular.
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But your paintings are also very contemporary: from Star Wars to Game of Thrones, to Marvel characters, fast food companies and luxury brands, your works include endless pop culture elements and references. How do you keep up to date? Do you feel the need to reflect on the present as an artist?
I made a conscious effort a few years ago to focus more on pop culture in my work. I’d always been interested in it, but I think that more and more, people are interested in having their favorite pop culture stuff all around them, including on their walls. I own an incredible giant art print by the Brooklyn/ Taiwanese artist Mu Pan. It contains just about every pop culture superhero, TV character, film character, and more, from my childhood to present. The amount of detail in it is insane. It is one of my favorite pieces of art to look at.
So, I try to incorporate the pop culture stuff that I am interested in, like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, superheroes, etc. I only want to paint things that I like. People often suggest other pop culture things that I am not a fan of, and I don’t ever do those. And yes, I do like to paint about the world as it is currently, as I think art can be a valuable historical document.
Since you make so many references, I’d like you to recommend us a bit of culture – from TV series to films, music, etc. Anything obsessing you at the moment? Or some all-time favourites we shouldn’t miss?
I loved the new Netflix movie titled The King. It was one of my favorite things in the last year and did not get a lot of press. But I think that just about all of my references are very popular properties. If you still haven’t seen Game of Thrones, obviously it’s a must-watch show, even though the ending was disappointing. Both the original Planet of the Apes movies (the first four) and the recent three remakes are great watching.
In addition to being a visual artist, you are also a comic collector. How have comic books influenced your work, both on aesthetic and narrative levels?
In my earlier work, comics were clearly an influence. Some paintings, like one titled The Dream (Gdansk), even included appropriated comics imagery a la Roy Lichtenstein. Nowadays, I don’t think there’s a very direct line of influence, but comics have always been my first love in the art world and great classic comic covers still inspire me when I see them.
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Also, you say that Japan is a special place for you. You first went there twenty-one years ago for the first time. How did this experience influence and shape your art onwards?
Japan has a very liberating aesthetic of fusing Eastern and Western imagery and ideas. There are unique hybrid cuisine ideas like Omuraisu, which is an omelette filled with white rice and covered in ketchup. And visually also, they mix East and West. So, I found that very exciting when I first visited, and one of the common characteristics of my earlier work is this jumble or collage of different imagery and ideas, as if all thrown into a blender.
You always paint the environments first and then work from the bottom up, and from left to right. Why is that so? Could you guide us through your creative and working process more?
I tend to paint left to right because I am right-handed and I use a moll stick. If the right side of the canvas was wet, I could not rest the moll stick on top of that area. As far as painting environment first, that’s how I was taught, and it just works better. Environment affects local color dramatically. If you are wearing a blue hat in front of a burning orange sunset, it will not look very bright blue because the orange is overpowering it. The same hat on a snowy grey day will look quite blue. So, it makes more sense to work this way.
Sometimes, I paint imagery without environments, like when I do those multi-portrait pop culture pieces. In that case, I just start with the more important characters and work my way back. But those are different than a normal representative environmental image.
I’ve seen you take 1870s portrait photos and work on them, transforming the people in them into superheroes or pop culture celebrities. How did you come up with such idea? Do you remember the first photo you intervened? What do you want to achieve with it?
I don’t remember the first piece I made that way, but I do recall seeing something similar in a gallery years ago – someone had done something on top of a vintage photo. I had been collecting vintage photos for some time by then, and the idea of manipulating some of them appealed to me. I was also interested in doing something small and fast because my oil paintings are large and time-consuming.
For you, the most important thing is making art that makes you proud because your paintings will have to talk for you in the future, when you won’t be able to. What elements does a painting need to make you feel proud?
My personal favorite pieces of mine are those which are both visually interesting and also thought-provoking. There’s a piece called Premonition which has never been a fan favorite, but I quite like it. It deals with mortality and the blitheness of youth, which is very universal, I think. It also has a limited color palette, which I rarely do. Life is complicated and hard, and I like art that deals with real issues like love, fear of death, and the cruelty of time.
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This makes me think about the durability of art. Paintings immortalize the landscapes and people that they lock up. If you could paint a moment of your life and make it immortal, which would it be and why?
Well, this would depend on who the painting was for. As a parent, I am always trying to capture moments of my time with my son. He’s 5, and we see him growing and changing so quickly. Every few months, it’s like having a completely different person. I’ve painted him once, but the idea of painting him seems strange because, by the time I finished, he would already be older.
Georges Braque once said, “There is only one valuable thing in art: the things you cannot explain”. You said that your art doesn’t need an explanation. Could you tell us a little bit more about this subject?
Some artists do explain things in their work. And art critics make a living doing this. But I think in a visual form of art like painting, no explanation should be necessary. If the image is not compelling to begin with, then no explanation is going to make it better. Of course, most modern art contradicts this statement, being often dull to look at but conceptually deep (allegedly). But for me, I have to be drawn in. And then the piece has to make me think. If the artist explains some of his/her ideas about the work, it might add interest to me. But I like to bring my own imagination and interpretation.
I had one painting of a couple sitting at the dining table. The young man is transparent as if he is not really there. It’s called The Meal. When it was here in my home, several people asked me about it. I asked them for their interpretation and got different replies from each person. This is a perfect example to me of why it’s important not to tell people what I was thinking, because then they would be robbed of their own interpretation. And in all cases, their versions were exciting, and also related very much to what I was thinking. Ultimately, with visual art, there should not be any right interpretation or answer for what the painting means. It means whatever you want it to mean to you.
Future Sense (2017) is a portrait of modern-day life and what the future holds for us.  A girl taking a selfie with a skull or a happy family with a polluting factory behind them. But it’s 2020 now. If you had to paint a Future sense II, how would your vision be? What would that painting portray?
There is no painting called Future Sense; it sounds like you are describing a painting of mine called Dual Selfie. I don’t see much difference from 2017 to now, in fact, more and more people are just doing things to get a selfie out of it. The number of people dying from falling off cliffs trying to get a great selfie keeps increasing. The smartphone has changed the world far more dramatically than I think anyone could possibly have conceived twelve years ago – or whenever the first iPhone came out. It has brought great convenience to our lives, and also caused tremendous havoc socially and politically around the world.
On balance, I believe it’s very much a negative, in spite of the positives. No one interacts with strangers anymore. Social media addict and divide us, sowing fear and outrage. I could easily paint about the destruction that smartphone culture is bringing to our world but very few people want to see that. We prefer to look at pretty and funny things and ignore reality as we cross a busy intersection, scrolling our Twitter pages until we get hit by that truck and made into a pancake.
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