The topic of iCulture is something almost overwhelming if you are to log onto any social media site, if you are the owner of any form of generic electro-product, or read a novel by Douglas Coupland. While branding, product placement, and consumption are rife, seeing them displayed in such a truthful and harmonious way relates to our imagination more than any picture we may have come across before. Alex Gross is the California-based artist that has been a valid commentator on 21st century lifestyles since the dawn of the 2000’s, mentally collaging and applying this analytical mindset to painting.
The average life is the culmination of screen-based produce, brightened Japanese advertising and decoy horsemeat beef packets. Relentlessly hash-tagging our way into a wash-out variation of fame, people became guinea pigs for a social test, that was seemingly impossible to come out of without several chunks of personality missing. After the corn-feed of 21st Century media, Alex Gross arose as an inspired witness to the habits of Earth post-internet. A truth of what everyone in the world was dining on was being reflected through oil painting. Images of a monstrous Lara Stone cradling a baby, while posing with a shimmering hotdog (in real-life would no doubt be a frozen photo-shopped prop) are a commentary on mans existence and his willingness to chew on everything handed to him. Seemingly warped, his images convey realism that dishes back to the media what they put out, hence “Pop-Surrealism”.
A nuclear light encompasses each work, and I was able to ask Alex about his introduction to the art movement, how he perceives his environment to this day, and figure out if he admires or detests our advert-junkyism.
AH+: A lot of creative people revert back to their childhood influences in their work, intentionally or subconsciously. Your works with super heroes and villains reflects a very poignant part of western culture for a lot of comic book and cartoon fans. What was it that kicked off your experimenting with these figures, and what do these characters mean to you now?
AG: My ‘Heroes, Villains and Monsters’ series started around five years ago. I have been collecting vintage cabinet card photographs for many years, and I had the idea to paint directly on some of these antique pictures. I had no particular theme, I was just playing around with fun and interesting things that I could do to each picture to bring it to life. After doing a couple dozen of them in this way, I felt that I needed a theme to help make the process a little faster, and to tie them together. As a kid, comic books and science fiction movies and TV shows were a huge part of my life, and my greatest inspiration. All I used to draw as a kid were comic book characters. It seemed natural to start turning these photos into characters. I started first with superheroes, and then expanded the series to include all sorts of characters from pop culture.
This series continues even now, despite having done more than a hundred different characters. As I have done so many of them, I have delved more deeply into some of the lesser-known and more obscure characters that I enjoyed as a kid. It’s really a thrill to work on these pieces, and definitely takes me back to when I was a boy, and reminds me of just how excited I would get when I bought some action figure, or when I saw some movie like 'The Empire Strikes Back.' superheroes and other great characters from movies and TV will always hold a special place in my heart, and keep me connected to that young boy, no matter how old I get, or how complex the world becomes.
AH+: Consumption is a huge part of artwork being made in present day. Your characters are often seen eating ice creams and fast food. Is this part of your work about self-destruction, having fun, or another meaning for you?
AG: Both the idea and the image of consumption are very indicative of the world in which we all are living today, not only consumption, but also distraction as well. We are constantly under a barrage of advertising that tells us to consume more and more, and that tries to make us feel incomplete as people unless we consume. It is a seemingly endless cycle. I like to address this broad concept of how advertising fits into our lives, and how it affects us as a species. Ice cream is also symbolic to me. After all, it is a great pleasure for most of us, as long as we are not lactose intolerant, but it is also fleeting, like life. Ice cream just doesn't last very long, and it can also get very messy.
AH+: Your relationship with Asia is very significant, thinking of China’s ever-growing superpower status, and your love of Japan and it’s advertising culture. Also, a lot of Asian women are known to want to evoke the West in their appearance. Do you think there will be a drastic role reversal in the way that the West could start seeing the Eastern way of being as preferable?
AG: Sure, that'scertainly possible. Already the west has become much more open to the east in many ways. I don't think we have seen supermodels from China like Wen Liu all over the western media like we areseeing now, which is wonderful. Asian music and pop culture is now considered cool with a large segment of Western youth. Everyone in the west also seems to accept the fact that China seems to own most of the world at this point. There is definitely a changing dynamic happening on this planet. On the other hand, it's still pretty hard to imagine Western ladies having eye surgery so they can look more Asian, as so many millions of women in Asia have been doing for the last twenty years or so. As long as Hollywood continues to be the dominant provider of entertainment around the world, and as long as New York, London, Milan and Paris continue to be the dominant forces in high fashion and glamour press, then I think the western biased view of beauty and 'whiteness' will probably continue to prevail. But at least we do seem to be seeing more diversity and a more global approach to things than we have ever seen before. Ideally, no one would see another way as being preferable. But again the advertising business is built firmly upon the idea of making people dissatisfied with who they are and what they have.
AH+: Your talent for juxtaposition is one of the reasons your fans admire your work so much. My personal favourite image of yours is ‘Dior’, as it highlights a lot of truth in our Age. Do you have an agenda with each piece you create in the sense that you want to feature certain elements in one work, or does it form as you start painting?
AG: I rarely have an agenda when I make artwork. I do not plan my concepts in any literal manner before I start a piece. On the other hand, there are always issues and themes that interest me, and which I want to incorporate into my work. The 'Dior' painting obviously deals with the Middle East and its relationship to Western consumer culture and glamour, as well as the juxtaposition of this with the backdrop of militarism and war. These themes just evolved as i began working on my comp for this piece. The original inspiration was simply a Dior ad that had nothing but a woman throwing her head back. The idea of juxtaposing such a ridiculous pose with something more thought provoking just seemed natural to me. There is a massive gap between the reality of life for so many people in devastatingly poor countries and war-torn countries, and the glossy images and products from the West that are ubiquitous here, there, and everywhere. Seeing some poor Afghani kids wearing coca cola shirts, things like that really happen all the time. So i feel like my work simply presents the truth, at least from my point of view.
AH+: Wasthere a moment in your practice that acted as a realization in the direction you wanted to go into with your pieces? I suppose I'm asking was there a point where you realized what potential your work could have with expressing your views/interests?
AG: I don't think there was one moment, or one specific painting, that acted as a catalyst or as a breakthrough piece for me. It’s more of an ongoing process, an evolution. Perhaps the very first gallery piece I did was a sort of a breakthrough for me, as I was mainly doing commercial work before that. In 1998, I did my first personal piece with fine art in mind. It was called "Will Make Good Friend With You" and it was quite different from anything I had done prior.
Now, when I look at that piece, I see how far I have come since 1998. So it was significant for me, but it was also just the beginning of a road that continues to turn in unexpected ways. Every time I work on a new sketch or comp for a piece, I am trying to push something, rather than just repeat myself over and over. I still don't know what the ultimate potential is for my work. I am just working hard on each painting and hopefully when it's all over, i will have pushed it as far as one could reasonably expect.
Alex Gross’ last work, Obedience is premiered exclusively for www.thehommeplus.com
WORDS ETHAN O'CONNOR
SPECIAL THANKS TO ALEX GROSS
For more of Alex's work, visit www.alexgross.com.