Make Art, Not War - Alex Gross

Published: 19 September, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 203, September, 2011

Alex Gross is one of those painters who creates other worlds within his paintings. Strange worlds in which you are likely to find a modern day Jesus, preaching before a Prada billboard, with subtle digs at our obsession with technology… could you handle a tattoo of a piece of art from this man?

On another day, you may find a four-legged woman playing tennis with an ice-cream cone. They are all technically brilliant, have a deeper message (if you care to dig) and best of all, they all come shrouded in surrealism.

Since graduating with honours from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Alex has hosted six solo shows, a retrospective and published two art books, but his love of painting started a long time before this, with an art form it is hard not to love – comics.

“I was super-interested in comic books as a kid and X-Men was by far my favourite. But I loved all the Marvel comics; Spiderman, Hulk, whatever. My parents were very supportive although they were not artists themselves. They valued the arts and creativity and encouraged me. I loved to draw characters from the comics and that’s how I learned to draw people. I also made up a lot of my own stories and characters.

“At this time and age, my influences were all the comic book gods; Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Byrne, Walt Simonson, Frank Miller, etc. I used to want to do comics when I was at art school. That was my dream, but I quickly lost interest in the medium as I discovered all the other possible things I could do with my artwork. Since I have never liked working on a deadline, and I don’t like being told what to draw or paint, I don’t think that comics or graphic novels are for me, but you never know.

“Later I got into illustration and painting and discovered painters like George Tooker and Max Beckmann. I also learned about propaganda art from Russia and from the American 1930s WPA stuff, which I also loved. All propaganda art appeals to me; Russian, Chinese, 1930s American, Japanese war propaganda… you name it. I have always liked heroic imagery probably because of the early influence of comic books. One thing about it is the combination of figure and type, which again is reminiscent of comics and very exciting. I was also very interested in gothic painting, mostly from the Netherlands in the 1400s. Artists like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. These days, I am not so much influenced by artists anymore, I am more influenced by advertising and popular culture… or the lack of it.

“For the last few years, my work has been more focused on modern life and consumption, commercialism. My work prior to that was more Victorian. I like to combine both things at the same time. I love the Victorian era and the visuals that go along with it, but I also feel the need to comment on the world as I see it now in my work, rather than just doing art that looks really old fashioned. The need to express myself is really paramount. I have opinions and ideas and I want those to be a part of my work. I don’t want to get stuck in a style that prohibits me from discussing themes that I find important or interesting.”

With so much going into one painting, I ask Alex to explain how he goes about producing a piece.

“I always prepare tight comps before I do a painting, I don’t just start painting and hope something interesting emerges. I do all my sketching and comp work in Photoshop, combining photos and drawing there. Photoshop is a critically important tool for me given how I like to work. I often start with a found image, which may be an ad for something or a photo of someone. I’ll take it into Photoshop and start chopping it up and combining it with other things and build from there.

“The whole process varies drastically depending on size, but my larger work usually takes around three-four weeks to complete. And that doesn’t really count the conception and sketch phases because this is harder to measure. Sometimes I start a comp and then leave it alone for months, then I come back to it later and finish it off. It’s hard to say how long the idea and comp really took. But once I start painting I keep track of my hours and I usually try to finish each piece once I’ve started painting it, instead of putting it down for a while.

“Photoshop has changed my entire way of working and not only made my life easier, but I dare say, it’s made my paintings better. It’s made it much easier for me to explore ideas and try things that would have involved lots more drawing, Xeroxing, cutting and pasting 12 years ago. I really could not do the work I do now without it. Some artists do not take advantage of tools like Photoshop and that’s their call. I suppose for more traditional painters it probably does not change their life too much, however everyone documents their work through photography and the computer has also become a critical tool for that as well. Ten years ago it was still film and scanning but now digital photography is much better than film ever was for capturing colours correctly. It still requires some colour adjustment work in Photoshop. Some artists cannot do that themselves and I consider that a handicap, especially when you are making a book of your artwork.”
Alex has had a few of his paintings turned into tattoos by fans and I ask him how he feels knowing that people love his work so much that they want it on their bodies forever.

“Over the years, a few people have emailed me photos of their tattoos that were based on my paintings. It always makes a great impression on me and I hope that they won't grow tired of them years later! Sometimes, I get tired of my own work if I have it on the wall for too long and I hope that doesn't happen to them with their own bodies. Personally, I really love Japanese tattoos. I have a few books with amazing photos of Japanese full sleeve tattoos and whole body stuff. They are incredible and some of the artists who make them are real masters of their craft. That would probably be the type of thing I would want if I were to get tattoos; full sleeves in the Japanese style, probably based on some of my favourite Japanese print artists, like Yoshitoshi. However, my wife is Japanese, and she would never allow me to do such a thing. Tattoos in Japan have a ‘history’ and there is still a lot of prejudice there against tattooed people. My wifes family still lives in Japan and we visit them regularly – I think I would not be welcome if I got the full sleeve treatment... so it probably won’t happen.”

And how about learning the craft himself?

“I would be so afraid to fuck up somebody’s tattoo that I don’t think I could do it! Unfortunately, Photoshop has eroded my drawing ability because it is so forgiving. The best tattoo artists must be excellent draftsmen and I am no longer a very good draftsman. It would be an awesome thing to do, but I probably will stick with what I do best, at least for now.”

At least Alex hasn’t shut that door completely. Talking about the future, with so much accomplished so far, what are Alex’s plans?

“The way I paint – with oil paint on canvas and panel – will probably continue to be my preferred medium, but the imagery I paint will hopefully evolve. It has evolved quite a bit in the last few shows, my earlier work was much more Victorian compared to what I am doing now. I hope that will continue and I will try to push myself to keep changing. I really don’t want to do the same painting over and over!

“I have my next solo exhibition at the Jonathan LeVine gallery in New York on February 25th, 2012. I’m working on the new paintings for that show as we speak. After that, I don’t know where I will show next. So far, I’ve mainly been showing in New York and I want to find a gallery to work with in my hometown of Los Angeles and also in London.”

Finally, I ask Alex about the art scene in general and more specifically, the ‘modern art’ that has seemed to dominate the media in the last few years.

“As far as artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, I think some of their work is very interesting. Certainly Emin’s piece about all the men she ever slept with which was a uniquely bold and daring venture for any artists, particularly a female one. However, as you mentioned, most of these very upper echelon artists have become brands themselves and people fawn over anything that they have ever touched. It becomes a silly game really. I am no expert on what is art, so I cannot tell you what is and what isn’t; I simply know what I am interested in and, mostly, I am interested in representational art rather than conceptual or installation art. But that does not mean there is not some very interesting and sophisticated stuff going on in that world but often to find it, you have to sift through tons of bullshit first!”

Keep Calm & Carry On

As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience. Propaganda is often biased, with facts selectively presented (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political, or other type of agenda. While the term propaganda has acquired a strongly negative connotation by association with its most manipulative and jingoistic examples, propaganda in its original sense was neutral, and could refer to uses that were generally benign or innocuous, such as public health recommendations, signs encouraging citizens to participate in a census or election, or messages encouraging persons to report crimes to the police, among others.

Keep Calm & Carry On Reading

Communication theory points out that people can be persuaded by the communicator’s credibility, expertise, trustworthiness, and attractiveness. The elaboration likelihood model as well as heuristic models of persuasion, suggest that a number of factors (e.g. the degree of interest of the recipient of the communication), influence the degree to which people allow superficial factors to persuade them. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, Herbert Simon, won the Nobel prize for his theory that people are cognitive misers. That is, in a society of mass information people are forced to make decisions quickly and often superficially, as opposed to logically. Did you actually read all of that or just look at the picture?

Now Panic & Freak Out

Of all the potential targets for propaganda, children are the most vulnerable because they are the most unprepared for the critical reasoning and contextual comprehension required to determine whether a message is propaganda or not. The attention children give their environment during development, due to the process of developing their understanding of the world, will cause them to absorb propaganda indiscriminately. Thus, television is of particular interest in regard to children’s vulnerability to propaganda.

According to Judith Rich Harris’ group-socialization theory, children learn the majority of what they do not receive paternally, through genes, from their peer groups. The implication is that if peer-groups can be indoctrinated through propaganda at a young age to hold certain beliefs, the group will self-regulate the indoctrination, since new members to the group will adapt their beliefs to fit the group’s.

Alex Gross

8744 Skyline Drive
Los Angeles


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Alex Gross