INTERVIEW Alastair Whitton PHOTOS Courtesy of the Barnard Gallery
Berlin-based South African artist Alexia Vogel‘s latest work might be her most abstract and introspective collection to date. Cape Town-based Art Director and curator Alastair Whitton sat down to talk with Alexia ahead of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair and her new solo exhibition Strange Light.
Since graduating from the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2013 you have presented six solo exhibitions including a solo booth presentation at the FNB Joburg Art Fair in 2015. Perhaps you could share something of your practice and how you go about birthing and developing a new body of work for each solo show?
My practice has always been very process driven, each painting is born out of spontaneity, gestural mark making and the fall of paint on the canvas or paper. The composition slowly gets pulled out of the surface, marks are accentuated by being brought forward or pushed back.
I think each exhibition is developed in a similar way. I often make smaller paper works to start, sometimes they are watercolour monotypes or oil paintings and they act as a starting point for larger works on canvas.
I never start a body of work with a central idea or concept, that comes later once I have had time to think about the works and where they are heading. It is quite an interesting process, often personal, and ends up exposing moments or emotions from my own life.
Although your work has always referenced the natural world, albeit somewhat obliquely, it would appear in this new body of work that paint and process predominate. Arts writer Charis de Kock, in her exhibition text for your upcoming show ‘Strange Light’ at Barnard Gallery in Cape Town, notes that this is your “most abstract collection to date” and interestingly also your “most introspective”. Perhaps you could respond to her insight and articulate your relationship to the notion of abstraction as well as how your recent relocation to Berlin may have informed this new body of work?
As mentioned above, the idea of the body of work comes only once I am really in the thick of things and most of the paintings have been completed. The introspection is an important part of the process and probably the most difficult part because it illuminates a lot about myself to me.
Moving to Berlin has been a big challenge, and I’ve struggled a bit with the change. Moving further into abstraction happened quite naturally, I was painting very jungley paper works when I first arrived in Berlin and it somehow didn’t feel quite right. I had left my home, where I was often immersed in nature and moved to a very energetic, gritty city and my imaginative jungle references suddenly felt quite foreign.
The work moved to a more floaty, abstraction- reflecting an in between state almost like being underwater and a bit out of place. My marks referred less to foliage and I ended up allowing them to just be brush marks or echoes of them.
The natural world hasn’t disappeared completely, I think it will always form part of my subject, but now I work in a way that is a bit more abstracted. We are no longer looking at a landscape or into the distance; now we are smack bang in the middle of something a lot more intangible; a memory of a landscape, a feeling of it or the light that could be passing through it.
I have had the privilege of being privy to your practice for a decade. I recall, on first encounter, being captivated and almost mesmerised by the powerful immersive quality of your paintings. Seemingly a characteristic feature of your work, this attribute has developed over time and continues to permeate your paintings. Do you consider this an innate trait of your work or is it something you have consciously and actively worked at achieving?
I always hope to make works that are immersive, that has been a goal of mine since learning about Claude Monet’s Les Nymphéas, and it was entrenched once I had the opportunity to visit them myself at Musée de l’Orangerie. I have found that achieving an immersive quality happens both intuitively by gestural mark making, and consciously by learning and understanding my medium. The painting process and the way that I allow the paint to flow is a very immersive experience and one I hope gets translated through the works themselves.
You have spoken of your admiration for a number of the modern masters, in particular the French painter Claude Monet, as well as various contemporary painters including British artist Peter Doig. How important is the idea of ‘painterly lineage’ to you as an artist and to what extent do you feel this informs your own work?
Very important! There is nothing better than being ignited and inspired when seeing delicious paintings that make you want to run back to the studio and pick up your brush.
Painting is really tough, sometimes the energy for it is lost and it gets tiresome and frustrating. Like any career, there are burn outs and moments where you feel you don’t want to do it anymore, and I think looking at other artists and what they are making or have made is really helpful in fueling the passion.
In 2018 you were awarded a residency by the Southern African Foundation for Contemporary Art at their European premises in St. Emilion, France and you are about to embark on a journey to Japan where you will be learning the ancient art of Mokuhanga – traditional water-based woodblock printing. How integral are residency programs to an artist’s development and what are you hoping to gain from your upcoming time in Japan?
I think It is important to be taken out of your comfort zone and be given new parameters to work within; new spaces, new techniques and new people are integral in informing shifts and growth for an artists practice and opens it up to so many more possibilities. I think residencies or courses are a fantastic space to allow a shift in perspective.
Moments of uncertainty, newness or change encourage one to play and that is something that I really value and am excited about.
The Mokuhanga workshop will not only be an opportunity to learn a new technique but also a chance to be completely immersed in the Japanese culture and learn about the tradition of wood block printing at its source.
Strange Light will be on display at the Barnard Gallery from 23 February to 04 April 2023, and at the Investec Cape Town Art fair from 17 – 19 February 2023.