Artist Interviews 2021

Alexandra Carter  
By Laura Siebold

All Images: Courtesy of the Artist.

Alexandra Carter is a painter, based in San Diego, California. She started painting at a very young age and followed her artistic calling throughout her life. Carter’s specialty is using acrylic ink on drafting paper to achieve both color saturation and fluidity. Carter’s use of her own body as a model gives her the freedom to be more flexible in the bodily shapes she is drawing, deepening the performative aspects of her art. Carter tell us about the inspiration she has sourced from traveling and how art making and her daily life are intricately linked. Art making – for Carter – helps her reflect on and understand her own reality. The use of imaginary imagery helps her to “question images, roles, and stories that we tell”. For Carter, dance and performance are two key factors for her work and a gateway for possible future collaborations with film or theatre productions.

You paint large-scale paintings, blending human shapes and characters with the imaginary. When did you first start painting and when did your artistic career begin? Have you always wanted to be an artist?

Yes, I always planned on being an artist. I started painting very young; I don't remember a time when I wasn’t painting in my free time. I never knew how exactly it would work out, but I was willing to do whatever I had to in order to keep making art. Both my parents were encouraging of this pursuit. My mother is a decorative artist, so I always had that model of an artist working in her studio. My father was a cranberry farmer, a business he started himself with his brother, against my grandparents’ wishes. He saw it as the best thing he ever did for himself, following his own path. Both of my parents instilled in me that value, to find whatever made me tick and go for it.

When and how did you discover your unique style as a painter? Do you think that your paintings speak to women in the same way they speak to men?

Nearly 15 years ago, while studying art in undergrad at Rhodes College, I started experimenting with other drawing/painting materials beyond the traditional oils and acrylics I was used to, and started using colored acrylic inks. These gave me the sensual, fluid and bleeding qualities that watercolors impart, but with a more permanent, lightfast material. They accentuated the explosive, fluid qualities of the body that I was going for. I kept struggling with different surfaces, finding canvas too rigid and paper too delicate. Finally in my senior year I discovered drafting film (also called frosted mylar or polyester film), a nonporous, translucent paper-like plastic material which took to the ink beautifully. The puddles of ink dried and sat on the surface of the film, fully saturated while still emphasizing their fluidity. I was hooked by this pairing, and ink on drafting film is still my main mode of image making today. While in graduate school at Goldsmiths I was repeatedly challenged in critiques, “Why are you painting on this odd material?” And that is when I started painting on both sides of the film, and suspending them in space, really making use of their translucency and immersing viewers in them almost as an installation, providing a more dimensional experience of viewing them.

It was around my time at Rhodes that I also started using my own body as my model, rather than sourcing from friends or found images. This allowed me greater flexibility in the narrative structure of my paintings--whenever I had ideas I could act them out myself, for my camera, and use those images as reference material to paint from. As a result, the use of my own form gave the figures more weight and felt more authentic to whatever themes I was exploring. Much of it was centered on the idea of the self always at odds with itself, fighting off inner demons and cherishing others. Often, this could be depicted literally as a group of selves in some violent act, culminating in groups of erupting, leaking bodies.

My paintings certainly can speak to women and men differently, as there is a visceral experience in these figures that women can probably see themselves through more easily than men can. At times, the work can be specific to the female body, but that doesn’t mean men can’t relate to my images. Often what I think of as a female figure (because I painted it referencing photos I took of my own body) can actually be interpreted as more androgynous, or animal-like.

Where do you usually paint? Is there a specific place or music that inspires you in the creative process? Do you start painting with a specific idea in mind or do you simply let yourself be guided intuitively?

I paint in my studio, usually on a large flat surface (table or floor). Since I’m mostly using ink and water-based media that puddles on the surface of the film, I must work flat in order to manipulate these shapes without gravity interfering. Occasionally, I layer in some marks with oil paint, in which case I can tape it to the wall and work on it there. Sometimes I use cranberry juice as a medium, and that too I paint flat, because it is similar to ink and other water-based media that will drip and flow with gravity if painted upright. Everything in my studio is white--my table, the walls and even the floor--since drafting film is translucent, it’s necessary that whatever is behind it to be white.

As for my subject matter, it usually derives from an amalgam of collected imagery. I often have some sort of underlying theme in mind, such as recent themes of fertility in both bodily and agricultural senses, and I’m always thinking about ways the body pervades itself. I collect images related to that via my own sort of research-- sourced from books, the internet, films, travel and museums. Art history, pop culture, and other art movements are always rich with imagery relevant to whatever I’m thinking about. I view and digest my collected images, make a new image out of that inspiration, or reference them directly in collage-like combinations. That is a critical part of my process -- teasing out how disparate things can come together in a painting. I reserve at least one wall of my studio for all my reference images--it basically becomes a wallpaper of inspiration which I’m constantly looking at, rotating new and old images through, and plucking different elements which make sense to me, aesthetically and conceptually.

The other element at the core of my subject matter is the use of my own body. When I have an idea, I will often act it out, doing a kind of private performance for my camera, and use those images as the basis for my paintings. This depiction of the self is of varying importance in the final result, but that important step of using my own body in the image sourcing really drives the performative aspect of the painting for me. Then, when I am finally executing the image and putting down on the drafting film, it is often a performative event as well: it involves my whole body, hovering over the work and puddling, splashing, and blowing on these big pools of ink. This is where intuition and muscle memory of how to paint automatically comes into play.

How much does energy and the right space influence the outcome of your art? Please tell us a little about your artistic process.

I answered to the specifics of my work space more in the last question, but that said, I’ve done a lot of traveling for art making, in residencies and travel grants which require me to be a bit more mobile and not stuck to my home studio. As long as I can find a big piece of white paper and a decent amount of floor or table space, I can make work. Drafting film can be rolled up and toted around everywhere, which has served me well while doing artist residencies in places like India, Italy, and Austria. Travelling to these places allows me a whole new place from which to gather research. Museums, galleries, temples and churches, and the general local knowledge of the people in each place have been rich with visual content for me. Some examples include the figurative fountains all around Rome, Hindu statuary and storytelling in India, and the legacy of the Viennese Actionists in Austria. 

Have you always been a painter? Or have you worked in different industries in your life so far?

I’ve always been a painter.

How much does art influence your daily life and vice versa? How much has the pandemic influenced your ability to work and showcase your work as an artist?

Art influences daily life constantly. It’s in the way that I look at everything. I’m constantly pulling from the ideas and imagery I’m exposed to. During the pandemic, I’ve been stripped of the travel and museum-going that usually enriches the research aspect of my process, but I’m still pulling from all the films I watch and books I read for references and new ideas. It’s a 24/7 state of mind. That is what I really enjoy and how I like to live my life; I don’t leave artmaking to only the hours I spend in the studio. Some might see that as poor work/life balance, but I’m an artist who really sees these two things as one and the same. That is probably why my work is often so personal. My process pervades my whole life and pulls from my experiences. During the pandemic for example, was the tail end of my fertility journey and then my journey in pregnancy, and my work reflects that. 

In your opinion – can art help us to understand reality? Elaborate.

Certainly. As an artist, I use my artmaking as a way to understand--and perhaps question--my own reality. Looking at art usually is a way of processing our own experiences, whether purely visual, or something felt deep down inside. I process my own life in making art, not really in an art-as-therapy way, but more as an investigation, a questioning. I question images, roles, and stories that we tell. I often use imaginary and fantastical imagery to do just that. Using a language that is far from reality can sometimes even better help us extrapolate our own experience, more so than images lifted directly from life.

Can a painting change someone’s life?

Each painting I make changes my life a little. Each painting encompasses a whole new story to me, a whole new set of influences. Through it, I’ve processed something from inside me, I’ve let it out, and both my body and my psyche are slightly different afterwards. 

It’s a process of realization. By the time the painting is finished, I can step back and take a look at it and see what was going on with me in the time I was making it. What images was I using subconsciously alongside the ones I used very consciously? Why was I thinking about that? And when I look at what I was reading/watching/consuming and what was going on in my life at the time, it often makes a lot of sense. It’s an act of crystalizing what’s truly important to me, and making it into some kind of visual artifact.

Take the large painting “Astaxanthin,” for example [See Picture 1]. It started as a big blob of puddled ink, into which I started adding different elements. I added some figurative elements, from my imagination and from images of myself, and then a story began to present itself in the piece. I needed some other creature to interact with the figurative elements, and a crustacean made sense to me at the time. As I added the spiny lobster, I began to realize the piece had a lot to do with the infertility treatments I was going through at the time. I painted a small fried egg into the piece (you can barely pick it out amongst the cornucopia of stuff I layered into the painting, but it’s there), and an image transfer of a cranberry, fishing net, and abstracted breasts. All these things became symbols of the bodily process I was going through at the time: hormone injections, egg retrievals, and lots of splaying my legs open in a doctor’s chair, lots of hands up in my business! At the same time, there was a lot of eroticism in this piece, which made it fit well into my 2020 exhibition “A Sense of Heat in Her Brain” (the title is taken from the first written description of the female orgasm). Once this painting was done, I could reflect and see where the juice of issue lay for me--it teetered a line between fertility and eroticism, to the unexplored relationship between pleasure and procreation. Through this realization, I was changed as much as the painting itself was a documentation of that change.

Is there anything – a specific form, material, topic – you haven’t tried to work with as an artist yet but which you would like to take on in the future?

I think there are performative aspects of my process which I could make a bigger part of my work. I’m not sure how it would take shape. The performance language is not one I am yet skilled in speaking. I’m much better at answering the question “What is worth looking at?” versus “What is worth watching?” They sound like similar questions, but their nuances make them so different. I’m moved by a lot of incredible performance, which is why it's so intrinsically involved in my art.

If you could work with anyone in the world, which artist would you like to collaborate with and why?

I would love to collaborate with some kind of theatrical or filmic production. Dance and performance has been so influential on my imagery that I would love to find a way to involve it more. Even if I was simply brainstorming visual storyboards, doing set and costume design, or anything like that, it would be so interesting to collaborate in the filmmaking world. Filmmaking is such a collaborative way of producing something with a multitude of people, so different from the solitary act of painting in my studio.

I’m often inspired by the films of visionaries like Darren Aronofsky and the great Alejandro Jodorowsky. Horror films especially have a place in my research archive; the historic New England haunts of Robert Eggers’ films strike a personal chord with my place of birth, while the meditations on the figure in landscape in Terrence Malick’s films make me re-envision my own childhood landscape growing up amongst cranberry bogs in a whole new way.

Female filmmakers are also finally getting their due, and to work with any of them would be a dream, especially from the point of view of a woman depicting the female body. I’m especially interested in those who challenge typical representations of the body--not afraid to explore its defilements, its confines and its victories. Filmmakers like Coralie Fargeat (Revenge), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), and Anna Piller (The Love Witch) come to mind. I definitely recommend checking out these women’s work if you haven’t seen them!

I think that living in Southern California (I was in Los Angeles for several years before recently moving to San Diego), which is so inundated with the film industry, has definitely piqued my interest and fascination even more into filmmaking. That is one of the greatest assets of living in this area; it is so steeped in people making things. There’s a constant creative flurry in the air.

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