Alexandra Carter is a painter who utilizes print media, collage and performance. She describes her work as playing with “the relationship between control and catharsis, visualizing the body coming out of itself, exposing not only one’s guts but one’s internal state–one’s emotions, one’s craziness–in a way that can seem both pleasurable and painful.”
Carter received an MFA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths University of London (2015), a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Fine Art from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD (2012), and a BA in Studio Art from Rhodes College in Memphis, TN (2009). In 2016-17, shewas selected for residency projects at KulturKontakt Austria (Vienna, Austria), Qwatz (Rome, Italy), Graniti Murales (Graniti, Sicily), Vice~Versa Foundation (Goa, India), and RECSIM (Jashipur, India). Other residencies have included Projecto’ace Foundation in Buenos Aires, Galerija-Muzej Lendava in Slovenia and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Solo exhibitions include “All gods are hot” at Radiant Space in Los Angeles (2018), “Pickling Fat Souls in Sugar” at Southfork Gallery in Memphis (2015), “Drift” at Projecto’ace Foundation in Buenos Aires (2011) and “Brooks Introduces” at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (2009). Group shows include On the Ground Floor (Los Angeles), Red Gallery (London), Hyperlink Gallery (Chicago), 808 Gallery (Boston), Coos Art Museum (Oregon), and Athens Institute of Contemporary Art (Georgia). Carter currently lives in works in Los Angeles, California.
An Interview with Alexandra Carter:
Your work grows out of extensive research and exploration—what is this process like and how has it evolved through your progression as an artist?
There is a wall in my studio reserved for my image collection–clippings and printouts from a vast archive that I’ve been compiling over many years. Here, I tape up images that are resonating with me at the moment. I move them around and discover links between them all, similarities and differences that start to converse with one another. Eventually these images become the basis of new paintings, or are sometimes printed directly into the paintings. This is where I work out the visual part of my research.
I think the work first comes from an emotional, bodily, sensory place–something I feel wanting to come out of own skin and my own head. Then it’s about finding images that speak to that feeling in a way that has the potential to tell some kind of story. The imagery around me and the research I conduct comes into direct play when it’s time to execute my ideas, when it’s time to make them visible. For instance, my interest in costume, mask, and human-animal hybrids originates in my endeavor to show the feeling of a pervasive, overloaded body. Those elements are a way to exaggerate, elongate, or even disguise certain parts of ourselves.
Other areas of research, especially that of performance art and literature, guide me in being able to ground my ideas conceptually. My work is not performance art but it is heavily influenced by it, whether that be Vienna Actionism, or the bodily/object-based performances of major feminist artists of the 70s like Carolee Schneeman or Hannah Wilke, or more stage-based performance like theater and dance. My painting directly references these elements as a way to place my work in an art historical background of performance as well as the more obvious painting. Literature is also an important part of my research practice. I find affirmation and elucidation in the work of British author Angela Carter, who riffs on the format of the fairy tale, rewriting commonly known narratives like Bluebeard or Little Red Riding Hood. Her fantastical edits of these stories play around with characters and their transformations, taking unexpected turns especially in regard to gender and sexuality. I find similar resonance in the writing of surrealist artist Unica Zürn. The content of her words is often about her fraught relationship with her own body and mental space (she was in and out of mental institutions throughout the 40s-60s). I’m interested in her writing form, especially anagram poetry, as a kind of creative limit she set on herself that would reveal latent meanings within texts.
The above aspects have been quite consistent in my research, but other focuses are continually evolving as my interests–and my imagery–shifts. For instance, right now I am more drawn to performance and dance, especially expressionist movements like German Neuer Tanz and Japanese Butoh. Subjects of recent research–who are also currently prevalent of my image wall–include Lavinia Schulz & Walter Holdt, a choreographer/costume-maker duo from 1920s Germany (whose images I appropriated repeatedly in the cranberry linen works on display, as well as the large piece “Tänzschrift Toboggan”), and Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata.
The collage elements and paintings you apply to mylar create a unique effect in your large suspended pieces. What are the benefits and challenges of working with these mediums?
I began working on drafting film because of the way that the acrylic ink, my primary medium, pools and sits on its surface, emphasizing its fluidity and wetness, which ties into my ideas of the explosive body spilling out of itself. Eventually, the fact that this surface is translucent also became a vehicle in ways to make and display the paintings, and also tying into the physical and conceptual buildup of layers: a layered body that can reveal things on one side of the painting and obscure them on another, with the use of different transparent and opaque mediums. The collage elements came into the work as a way to more directly incorporate the contents of my image wall: sometimes, there is nothing be
tter than the original image itself, rather than a painted version, to emphasize the fact that its contents are real and came from a specific place. By using photographs of cranberries, for example, I like to reference the fact that these subjects really exist somewhere, on my family farm, and is not some translation through my hand and the paintbrush.
By bringing the paintings off the wall and suspending them in space, I find it important to make these works large-scale, so that the bodies in the paintings are relative to the bodies that are viewing it, to further immerse and engage the audience in the dialogue between works. This size can be challenging in a practical sense, as most of the work has to be done flat: the act of pooling and spilling these puddles of ink that make the majority of my marks is only something that can occur on a flat surface. It can be hard on my body, painting this way on large works, constantly moving from the floor, to my big table, and back to the wall. But that demand and involvement of the body I think adds to the work, and makes the process of painting more performative, likening it in more obvious ways to Acition Painting of Jackson Pollock, etc.
The huge advantages of this medium lie in its translucency, portability, and durability. This stuff is STRONG. It’s plastic, so it doesn’t rip, pucker, wrinkle, or have any of the fragility that paper does. It can be rolled right up and stuck into a tube for transport and storage. The translucency lends itself to my process: I often make drawings and photoshop collages that I can then lay under the film, and follow in my markmaking, reducing the need to work out the drawing on the surface itself. No more pencil marks or remnants of an underdrawing will be visible, leading to a nice clean surface.
Your current exhibition includes drawings using cranberry juice, in reference to your upbringing on a Massachusetts cranberry farm. How did this beginning influence your early development as an artist?
I grew up on a small cranberry farm that consisted of my father, my uncle, their land and machines. Cranberry farming is a small, cash-crop industry in which the machinery is paramount, not human labor. So small, in fact, that farmers had to make a lot of the machinery themselves from scratch. That’s most of what my father did. He would design, build, and maintain machines and tend to the crop throughout the year, with harvest being the wonderful but relatively brief moment once a year when the crops are harvested.
Cranberry farming is a creative endeavor in some ways, about particular design and innovation that leads to production and cultivation. So my father’s profession, paired with my mother, who is a decorative painter, was a huge support in my path as an artist. They both understood that drive, and never steered me away from following it.
Growing up like this made our family very close and very involved in one another, which for the most part was wonderful. I’ve had a lot of really badass female role models in my family, but that always felt overshadowed by a very masculine, patriarchal culture that seemed to be the essence of our family gatherings, and of Carter Cranberry. I have the deepest love for these people, but they are also the source of a lot of my observation of human nature, both good and bad. Sexual double standards ran rampant in this culture and it infuriated me as a teenager, and I think a lot of my exploration, and exposure of, sexuality and female agency in my work stems from that fury.
So in a way I’m driven by these aspects of my upbringing in the sense of family: the love, the tension, and at times, the clashing of beliefs. Utilizing the image of the cranberry itself then becomes an icon. It represents a source of these issues, while also bringing along all of its own connotations that harbor more feminine allusions than masculine: ideas of fertility, fecundity, Mother Earth and nature; the berry’s redness and allusions to blood make us think of menstruation; its shape can connote the female body, like the breasts in my recent painting “Vaccinium Macrocarpon (Cranberry Bosom Room)”.
So, while the struggle that derives from that macho family culture lie under the surface, it works its way in to how I’m using this symbol to serve multiple meanings. It’s rich territory for me, and always has been. When I started depicting cranberry farm imagery it focused more on the landscape, the machines, and farmers but it still tapped into these aspects of tension and the bodily. Once I started using cranberry AS a medium, as with the stained linen works, my process and the act of making them became much more sensual, about taste and smell and how those conjure such specific memories.
What are your thoughts on identifying as a female artist?
The fact that I’m female is an important part of my work. My work involves my identity directly, especially since I often use my own body as a model. A lot of artists don’t call themselves feminist or don’t want to be classified as “women artists” and I get that; we should be considered across the whole broad sphere of art discourse, not just as a representation of our gender. Men don’t face that same prescription. However, because we ARE less represented in the art world (in terms of who is being shown at galleries and museums, who is selling, etc), I think shouting out that identity, as a female artist, serves the call for more female representation in the art world.
How did you come upon the mythological and folklore elements that persevere through your work?
Narrative and narrative imagery has always appealed to me. Abstract and minimal work never seemed to be an option for me, I needed more to hold onto, I needed to feel engaged. I think it’s necessary to investigate the stories we grew up with, and other stories that have been told throughout history, and how those have shaped us–not just how they morally shaped us, but how they conjure certain images in our brain. Most of these stories I’ve come upon through narrative resources of literature and film, but also very clearly from the research and image-mining that I conduct while traveling.
Studying abroad in London, you had many international artist residencies. What did these experiences contribute to your craft?
Traveling and spending a good chunk of time in another culture can really rub off on the way I work things out aesthetically. My recent residencies in Italy, India, and Austria provided consistent exposure to different ways of depicting the figure. There is the Catholic iconography, the Classical and Neo-Classical representations of the body so prevalent in Italy. These also provided an influx of mythological and spiritual imagery associated with the figure, which were in constant rotation on my image wall.
In India, I was very affected by the traditions of ritual and performance involving the body, as well as the mythological imagery that can be seen everywhere. Whether Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Sikh or local tribal religions, the aesthetic of each is infused on every surface.
Both regions contributed largely to a specific aspect to my image archive: that of human-animal hybrids and monsters. Both Classical (Roman/Greek) Mythology and Indian Mythology are chock-full of these characters: sphinxes, sirens, monkeys, mermaids, and other fantastical beasts. The idea of the monstrous figure can be subversive, but it is also laden with all these historic uses and connotations. In Classical Mythology, monstrous beings are more often linked to female characters (Medusa comes to mind immediately, being the most common, and most demonized, of these creatures). But I see this way of depiction as more transformative than demonizing. I’ve recently been reading about the concept of the Monstrous Feminine and its connection to abjection. I love this quote from author Jane Ussher, where she connects the abject female body to animal: “The apparently uncontained fecund body… Signifies association with the animal world, which reminds us of our immortality and fragility, and stands as the antithesis of the clean, contained proper body” (Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body, 2006.) This idea of bodily overflow, impurity and hybridization is prevalent in “All gods are hot”. The title of my show itself implies the role of mythology, the divine, and the monstrous.
Going back to the idea of the abject body, my most recent residency in Austria was a chance for me to thoroughly research the bodily performance art movement known as Vienna Actionism, images of which had always spurred my interest. This gave me a chance to research the makers of these images, mostly male artists, starting around the 60s, right at the source. Processing that information, navigating my instinctual intrigue in the documentation of their problematic, often gory performances, has given me further fodder for new work, and for more questions regarding the explosive, leaky body. I reference this movement directly in the recent painting “The Passion of New Eve (for Günter 1964),” which includes a portrait of Vienna Actionist Günter Brus.
Many of these residencies also gave me a chance for human connection, both with the local community as well as with fellow artists in the program. The Austria residency in particular was especially supportive of building relationships with the fellow artists, and it spurred a collaborative project between myself and Montenegrin artist Dante Buu. Our collaboration, titled “For a lover far away,” is still ongoing, and consists of video works made by Buu, overlaid with translucent paintings I make that speak directly to relationships between displaced bodies. These kinds of connections with artists that residencies foster is invaluable.