“Alex deploys deep philosophical symbolism in dynamic imagery, combining the grotesque and the beautiful.” - excerpt from the artist
The Grotesque and the Beautiful is an in-depth look into symbolism and connection between thought and art; an interview between artist Alexander Unger and Matthew Mautarelli.
Q: Some of these questions about process might be very basic and banal, are these digital at first?
A: I draw here at my desk. The process has evolved in itself. For some of the earlier pieces I transposed my earlier sketches to tracing paper then to ink. Then I started to do it all in one go, by pencil overlaid with ink, then scanning into the computer. Sometimes increase the weight of the line. All the color itself is done on the computer, so there’s that technology piece of it. For some of them, I’ve made my own clip-art. I have some symbols, or I would call them perhaps totems, like flowers, bones, the icosahedron or truncated Dali Tesseract that I use in the geometric pieces. I reproduce those, change or transform them to fit the composition and create kind of an ensemble. So a lot of it is digital, but it all has to come from something organic. Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating, though this is the technology we have today, and I work with what I have. And organic can mean a lot of things, whether that’s concept that isn’t based on technology or computational thinking. Even with the purely geometric pieces, that feel a bit like little ditties, there still is a good deal of decision work to produce something that is composition-ally and visually stimulating, how you use the colors and the axes. Although there is a good proportion of imagery that is not hand done, I do look in the future, given time and funds, to do things in a more painterly way. At the same time, I like to work quickly, to think quickly, and sometimes my patience wanes to a rush to finish. So for the time being, I’m fine being an illustrator for the purpose of printed work, although my ultimate goal, as I develop my skills further is to bring this to paint or paint-markers, and create sometime entirely by hand. To that effect, I always want to start with something organic, whether that’s a larger or smaller hand-illustrated piece of the composition, or an entirely hand-drawn work. I basically do what suits the day and what suits a certain expediency for expression, but as with all artists, I think, trying different mediums is very important and in my process from going back to my cache of illustrations, refining them, bringing color to them, ultimately, I look to continue to develop both the style and the skills by which I can express what I’m trying to say.
Q: With your philosophical influences, there is a dividing line or a tension between rationalistic or formalist and the organic-ist or vital-ist, and that obviously comes across in your visual work through organic multiplicities and the grid stuff, and I was curious because it seems like they are generally confined to one or the other, whether that be graphic design of grid-work…Why and when do you juxtapose the grid stuff and the illustrated stuff, though there are those where you juxtapose the two at once.
A: I do some that are purely computer generated, like the Rhizome Funk Series, and I later augmented that to become Rhizome Ikebana because I wanted to things sprouting out of the geometries, like crab-grass might as Deleuze uses the metaphor, like the root structure and the arboreal growth.
Q: So the grid structure is conceived as rhizomatic itself then?
Yes, Rhizomatic [Deleuze and Guattari] and Evental [Alain Badiou]. Like in “Evental Structures”, the event would be when you have that bifurcation of the inner square, and also reminiscent of the mark of the void, the 0 with a slash through it, where the form then speaks to an idea of multiplicity because those dimensions within the suture [line splitting the inner square] could take on multiple axes. It’s up to the viewer’s creativity to say what that is, how the rest of the work is structured per the axes that the viewer finds. If you look at the original Rhizome piece, it seems like there will always be an Event within that, something that stitches the piece together and effectively vibes with how we see the rest of the dimensions. So it almost seems like whether we see that engendered by the territory, or other parts of the plane, per the use of color or how we see a plane being consistent, or whether that originates within the subject of the Event, almost doesn’t matter, it’s kind of a chicken and egg question. And we could beg the question, where would the crab-grass be, if it wasn’t for a seed, something generic. So the event, whether that happens politically, scientifically, artistically, or psychologically is there, but it has to link up with a wider social phenomena too. I see both Deleuze and Bdiou talking about similar things, they have similar politics, they might just be arguing about how to say it, taking antagonistic views on what’s more essential.
Q: Do you see the divisions here as being negative or positive? Are you building something starting with a whole drawn out and then dividing within it? Or are you procedurally constructing something out of something smaller?
A: I start with something more molecular. When those Rhizomes connect, in whatever form that takes, that’s when we see, perhaps, something more dynamic. Sometimes though, there are Events that stand apart from one another, or belong in different localities, sometimes the Event is produced by an encounter. In “Evental Structures” I mistakenly added a seventh color, but it kind of makes sense. Me formally, we might have to use six colors, but that doesn’t take into account a change of frequency, whether we’re talking about light or music. So there’s an introduction of a sense of time to that piece apart from how our perspective shifts in how we see the axes defining the planes.
Q: You talk about different perspectives and certainly in the geometric work. When it comes to the organic work, perspective is absent, everything is crushed together, there is a surplus of life, more ears and arms and more than anyone would need, but there’s not structure. How do you explain that?
A: Initially, I wanted to think that the cut into the bodies also represented a voided nature of who we are, a source of creativity somewhere within, but the more I thought about it, the more I developed both styles, I began to think that each is an expression of the other. As I was beginning with the last question. So although the bodies have in them that same nature, the void, that connection to being, they are still assemblages, like how the purely rhizomatic pieces work. Kind of inverting the idea of bodies without organs that Badiou talks about mathematically, and gearing the rhizome to speak to Deleuze’s unstructured, anti-math, geometrically.
Q: What about your topical pieces?
A: There are things that are explicitly political or cultural, and there are other things that are more autobiographical that connects to an emotion, but it doesn’t tell a story, but they’re more like fragments or random thoughts. In that sense it’s kind of therapeutic in a way. Some of it is more improvisational, some of it is more an assemblage of figures, some of is for the sake of design too. Sometimes I’m just drawing too.
Q: Let’s talk about a few examples of your work. Are there a couple of pieces that you’d like to exemplify as topical?
A: Sure. There are […] that come to mind. Sisterhood is one of my old/recent favorites. I illustrated it some years ago and put it in color later, then increased the weight of the line to bring it current. I try to address the emotive qualities of what might traditionally be feminine and also a communing aspect of talking or sharing with one another. There are two women bearing their hearts to each other expressing the sisterly relation. A man with a face is at the bottom right hand corner reaching into an ear, representing how we tool with our views of gender traits and values. There is another face in the lower left hand corner devouring an androgynous figure, representing kind of an edifice of cultural norms around gender and sex, how we are subsumed under that rubric of values. Above that there is a man and a woman looking sad, and connected through other facial features, kind of an intimacy. The large face on the top right is more like a deity almost a different expression, breathing a cloud with rain drops, mirroring the sadness that overshadows the piece and the larger eye has two tear-ducts that speaks to the melancholic theme as well. Although the piece’s colors are inspired by Indian schemes that I took from some of my wife’s sarris, I wanted to give it a different feminine vibe in that regard.
Q: You said that improvisation is a part of your process but not the entirety of your process? I was curious to ask because some of the pieces have no titles and it’s difficult to decipher their content.
A: There are themes. Sometimes I have a vision of what I’d like it to be, but your mind’s eye changes, and the piece takes on a life of its own. Not really pre-composed, but I don’t want to call it just improvisation, because I think they have a positive content, whether that’s emotionally, conceptually, or topically driven. But I try to make them cohesive in their content and I think that lends to good compositions. Sometimes I’m thinking of something that happened that day, or a memory of people who have been in my life, or a topic that I overheard being discussed and then my mind might wonder almost free-associating. So it’s kind of like a stream of consciousness sometimes, and sometimes that’s part of the more composed or topical pieces as well.
Q: What about artistic references?
A: I pull from all over. I mentioned street art. But a couple of my favorites are also Yves Tanguy, in how he shapes and composes those stone-like figures, and Joan Miro’s suspension of ethereal objects. In Good Trip, Bad Trip I try to combine them, with the nose touching the ground, looking like a stone, and most of the composition being suspended in air in some gravity defying way. Also Keith Herring in the use of hearts and the emotive offering and connection. Michel Basquiat in a way with the line work, but also R Crumb in the line work too. I had a friend in High School, who also really inspired me, Becky Furey, who is a great artist. She painted a mural at a local café and included resemblances of all her friends, I was up there. Her use of line was similar, though more flat, more American Folk influenced. Tried to differentiate myself form her when I picked up the pen, using thin lines, though over time they thickened, and I gave them a bit of a curve to make the pieces look sculptural. My signature too comes from an older childhood friend who was also very talented at illustration, Kyle Meiers. I augmented it to fit other details. So throughout the work, its autobiographical, by way of relationships, memories, people who’ve inspired me, the music I listen to, the history all of that comes from. In a way it’s about preserving memories, while also trying to talk about things that matter to me in politics and philosophy.
Q: What’s next?
A: Well most recently, I’ve been doing this Rhizome Ikebana, where I have more limited rhizome compositions with flowers growing out of them, and the bones. I’d like to add more symbolic items, fish and birds, for instance, to give a different spiritual meaning to the work, or at least include something else. I’ve also been doing the “Panel” series, where I’m going back to tighter compositions that I’d like to build out for better composition in larger more intricate works.
About Interviewer: Matthew Mautarelli
Matthew Mautarelli holds an M.A from the Columbia University Committee on Global Thought and is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Political Science at the City University of New York.
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