mixed media on paper, 30 x 22"
Exploring the figure as landscape, Cynthia Alexander's paintings evoke an essential simplicity and stillness.
Where did you grow up? Did that environment contribute to your art making?
I grew up in Connecticut about an hour outside of New York City. My grandparents lived in Manhattan, and visits to them often included visits to theatres and museums. In particular, I have vivid early memories of going to the Egyptian Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, which still strikes me today as a marvelous, mysterious place, full of extraordinarily ancient and finely crafted things. I especially loved the long wall panels, with their elegant hieroglyphics and silhouetted figures of gods and kings. When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist? I have wanted to be an artist pretty much as far back as I can remember, but for a long time I didn’t know what sort of an artist I wanted to be. For many years I thought I wanted to be a writer, and I was an English major in college. Then, in my 20’s, I began to take photographs, and I realized that I was naturally more of a visual artist than a verbal one. Doing photography taught me a lot about light and how to see. About ten years ago, I began to draw and paint again for the first time since high school, continuing an ongoing exploration of the human figure that I began as a photographer.
After the Bath
mixed media on paper, 30 x 22"
What is your thought process while making a painting? Can you share about your technique? Or is it a secret?
In making a painting, I see myself less as a creator and more as an observer of what is. I almost always start with a session with a model, usually female. I may have an idea of a pose or a part of the body that I’m interested in exploring, but I rarely have more than a general sense of what the finished product might be. Perhaps because I began as a photographer, I often use the edges of the blank paper to impose compositional boundaries to challenge me and focus my observation. Then I start to draw, and see where the interplay between the model’s body, my seeing and my drawing takes me. Sometimes I am so captivated by the lines of the body that I go no further than that, and the finished piece is a drawing. Sometimes I become more interested in the expressive interplay of light, color and texture, and the piece becomes a painting. Sometimes I become so absorbed in playing with the surface of a piece – drawing, smudging, erasing, sanding, layering translucent washes, perhaps, or painting in opaque blocks of color - that the original figurative image fades into the background as I work. At these times, I wonder if someday the human figure might disappear altogether, leaving just line, color, texture and light behind.
Can you name any artists (historical or contemporaries) whose influence is important to you?
I’ve already mentioned the ancient Egyptians. I also never tire of looking at classical Persian and Indian paintings and medieval European illuminated manuscripts; I am in awe of the delicacy of line, the bold use of color, and the abstract sophistication in these artistic traditions. In my exploration of the human figure, I’d say that early and lasting influences have been the great photographers Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz and especially Irving Penn, whose monumental nude studies introduced me to a new way of seeing the female body. Similarly, Japanese paintings and prints of women have showed me how often less is more. More currently, as I explore paint, color, and composition, I find the work of Richard Diebenkorn a constant source of information and inspiration.
What is the purpose of art? A very big question to which there are many, many answers. Mine is that the purpose of art is to give people the opportunity to experience something new: to see something they haven’t seen before, think about something they haven’t considered before, feel something they’ve never felt before. It may be something as big as a new way of thinking about what it means to be a human being, or as small as noticing the way a patch of light falls on a woman’s skin.
Cynthia Alexander's exhibition starts March 29, 2011.