"By not making a portrait of anyone, I would instead be making a portrait of everyone." Artist Alex Gardner seeks to paint portraits which are universal representations of the human experience, using faceless silhouettes to encourage viewers to identify with the paintings. His new exhibition Blues, in The Hole in New York City, presents a twist on his usual blank bodies, using cool blue tones to evoke a despondent yet meditative mood which encapsulates the melancholy experience of 2020.
How did you become interested in art, and what prompted you to focus on figures and silhouettes in your work?
Probably, my parents, they had somewhat unconventional lives and I guess that made me think I should too. Although, now it seems my decision of living as an unemployable narcissist isn’t so unconventional. I use figures, and representation in general, because it is the easiest way for me to visually communicate ideas of the human experience. But as the aspects of humanity I focus on and the opinions I have on them, those things change, I think it is natural to allow what and how I paint to also change.
You created the paintings for your new exhibition Blues in The Hole in New York City, in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, whilst in the confinement of your studio. How did the feelings bring about by the pandemic affect the look and style of these paintings?
Hopefully, the difference can be seen in the work. I was able to really begin to make the shifts in the technique that I have been wanting to make for a while. Painting is a long-term pursuit and I look forward to years from now when I can zoom out and see all the stages of change and improvements that are hard to notice day-to-day.
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Everyone coped with Covid-19 differently: for some, productivity flourished, whereas others experienced a decrease in motivation. How did you react to the unprecedented circumstances, and what advice would you give to readers regarding productivity during the pandemic?
It’s been rough for many people well before 2020 and I would imagine these are the people feeling the most helpless now. It seems like none of the people we thought were working in our best interests have been doing anything but working to benefit themselves. But I think just as it was before this year, no one is going to come and give me anything for free that’s going to magically change my life overnight.
The only thing I can do is continue to work toward whatever goals I have and try my best not to go full apathy. You have to surround yourself with people who help you believe you can do what you’re trying to do. I never used to exercise. I would see runners and be so baffled as to why anyone would ever do that. During this year I have been able to make exercise a regular part of my life and I have to be cliché and say it really helps with the mind. Anxiety alleviation, confidence-boosting, all that shit. Or just do drugs. But seriously please be nice to each other. We need each other.
People have often commented that your use of dark-skinned figures in your paintings is a reference to racial identity, but you have specified it is more of an attempt to evade identity altogether. Can you expand on this idea of evading identity? Why is this a core aspect of your work?
This is a problem anyone making figurative work has to reconcile and a question only non-white artists seem to have to answer. Apart from skin color, everything from clothing to the environment comes loaded with cultural and socioeconomic identifiers that can be alienating or exploitative.
What I want to talk about are the things we all share. I’ve met some dark mother fuckers in my life but no one is literally Black. Admittedly it has probably become too loaded of a color to use nowadays and adhering to it for so long has been contradictory to my claims of its irrelevance. But alas, they’re mostly blue in this show, hopefully better reiterating the intended universality of the figures.
Does racial identity play any role in the inspiration for your paintings and why or why not?
I don’t know what role racial identity has beyond upholding tribalism. I understand the importance of groups and this concept of strength in numbers but I don’t think humanity’s biggest threats care what language you speak, who you pray to or what shade your skin is. As far as I can tell, all of these things are just assigned to you based on the lottery of where, when and who you were born to. There are problems with short-sightedness, greed and general sociopathy that have no racial boundaries. That being said, ideas about identity are currently flooding our system creating a lot of division while my dumbass is thinking about the military doing what it does and whether Food and Drugs commissioners being on the boards of pharmaceutical companies is a conflict of interest.
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Though the name of your new exhibition Blues can be said to connote despondency, what other emotions did you hope to evoke in the viewer, and how can this be seen in the paintings?
I want people, myself included, to develop a greater sense of accountability. I think there isa real agency in believing you are part of the problem because you can change yourself far easier than a stranger. As your behavior changes the world around will as well. For better or for worse.
Your paintings normally use acrylic paints, as opposed to conventional oil paints. What are the advantages of using acrylics, and do you prefer using them rather than other materials?
The reality is I started painting in my bedroom at my mom’s house and I just couldn’t swing all the shenanigans of oil paint in there. The only advantage I can see is that it doesn’t stink and that it being water-soluble makes it easier to clean my brushes. I’ve made oil paintings in the past and I’ll make more in the future.
Your new exhibition showcases a slight departure from your usual style, being looser and more over-worked than your previous paintings. How has your painting style and technique developed in recent years, and how is this presenting in these new paintings?
I have a better understanding of the medium than I did 5 years ago, and 5 years from now I will have a better understanding than today. I think the new paintings show more confidence, warranted or not. I used to obsess over hiding my hand even though in other people’s work I love seeing the marks as a historical record of every decision the painter made. I felt it just highlighted my insecurities and I am now trying to let people see more of my decision-making process because I think it is more interesting.
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Your paintings tend to use faceless figures, with identifying facial details removed. Why do you choose to omit these details?
This also goes back to the idea of universality. I thought maybe by not making a portrait of anyone I would instead be making a portrait of everyone.
Since you omit the facial expressions of figures in your paintings, do you strive to portray emotion and feeling through other elements such as the body language, or colours and textures?
Yes, no doubt. The game is definitely about how much I can convey with the least amount of information.
Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions that you’re working on?
I have a museum show next year. And I'm looking to utilize some different type of media.
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