Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Alex Paik: Painter of (Post)-Ironic Sincerity

Two words for you: Alex Paik. Two more: video games. Another pair, for good measure: abstract art. What am I throwing your way? Well, a curve ball from Philadelphia. Alex Paik is an artist whose work I found while looking

Mike Tyson's Punchout (TKO)

acrylic on canvas
66 x 60 inches

closely at the recent New American Paintings (Issue Number 69). I was standing in the Harvard Coop, looking semi-serious and inquisitive (I suppose that's the look suggested for that place), when the issue caught my eye.
I opened it up to find some fascinating work being done in the Mid-Atlantic states, per the regional focus the magazine gives for each issue. Then I saw the work of one Alex Paik.

The paintings were quite striking: their colors suggested humbleness, their subject matter offered up humor and something beyond irony or nostalgia, and their stand-out quality as a series made me feel like he was on to something. He was, and is. In his artsist statement, I heard a voice with refreshing doses of intelligence, irony, sincerity, reverence, and humor. Often times, artists, or the critics and theorists who place them on/bring them down from pedestals, have one or a couple of these qualities, but it's rare-- heck, it's really something else-- when they're combined. In simple terms, Alex Paik provides us with abstract paintings whose literal source material comes from video games. However, there's more going on in his work than the obvious. To find out more about how those six words from the beginning of this introduction work together, or to hear more from the artist himself, read on. You could also visit his website at www.alexpaik.com. It will make you smile. Smiling is good; as Alex would say: "Besides, happy is the new sad".

* The interview is from emails back and forth between Alex and myself over the last week. All images are made by Alex Paik, and have been used by permission from the artist. They can be found at www.alexpaik.com. *

CE: How did you wind up doing what you are known for, painting? How many years have you been doing it? Does it satisfy any childhood or adult passions, desires, or interests?

AP: I actually thought I was going to be a computer programmer for a while. I took a bunch of computer programming classes during high school, but decided during my senior year that I wanted to do hand drawn animation. (I had even declared my major as Computer Science on all of my college applications) Once I got to Penn State, I had to take beginning drawing and painting classess in order to build up a portfolio so that I could transfer to animation school. Then a couple things happened: I got rejected from CalArts (which was where I wanted to go for animation), I realized more and more that if I continued down the animation course I would be a cog in a large machine spending days animating like 2 seconds of a leaf blowing in the background or something, and I also began to really love the fine arts and the ways that it made me think. So I finished college with a Fine Arts degree, went to grad school, and have been doing it since.

Art is really satisfying to me because it is a game of incomplete knowledge, a game of questions. When I was in college, I had all of these heavy handed agendas with my work, but I’ve been realizing more and more that there are never really any answers and I really like that. Even in specific paintings I can decide that a color “works” next to another color or I can like the relationships between different shapes and lines, but in the end there’s no way to say authoritatively what is good or bad. Even a painting made up of all the “wrong” moves can end up being really rich and interesting. It’s all about the relationships between things (the various relationships within the painting, the size of the painting, the materials, the historical context, the physical context) coming together in an interesting way. And those relationships in turn make you feel/think about different things that are specific to your context, and I love feeling my brain jump around from idea to idea while looking at art, listening to music, and even thinking about my own work.

CE: Your artist statement discusses pop art and Abstract Expressionism. These seem to be obvious influences on your work, or at least schools of art with whom your pieces speak. Which artists of either period do you most connect with?

AP: I’ve been really into Lichtenstein recently. He has a great deadpan humor in his work but he manages to still come across as respecting those he is making fun of. His paintings are also really beautiful I think.

CE: Tell me about a few pieces of his you enjoy. Which pieces floor you? Maybe one that is more deadpan, one that is more melodramatic (thinking of the "I'm drowning, Brad/I love you" ones), one that is more beautiful (thinking of the nude women playing volleyball or the abstract expressionistic strokes over his dots). I find your reading of Lichtenstein to echo or mirror the way someone may read you. That's a compliment. A teacher-mentor once told me, so-and-so does not copy x, y,z. if they're good, they're a "student of" x,y,z. They make their own thing, all the while being "in conversation" with their mentor.

AP: “Still Life with Gold Fish” is a favorite of mine that is at the Philadelphia Museum. I love how overt and dumb the reference is to Matisse’s “Interior with Bowl and Red Fish” (http://www.abcgallery.com/M/matisse/ smatisse49.jpg). And if you don’t get the reference, he hammers you over the head by putting not one, but two Matisse drawings in the background! It’s hilarious! But I also think it is a really elegant painting. I really like how the way he alternated the diagonal lines in and around the fish bowl makes the bowl flatten out and become a pattern.

“Little Big Painting” is at the Whitney. Again, he takes a really stupid reference and turns it into a great painting. He takes the really masculine gesture of the brushstroke from the AbEx painters and completely drains it of its authority. But also by flattening the brushstrokes out and stylizing it the way he does, you find all of these beautiful linear passages within each brushstroke.

“Drowning Girl” is at the MoMA. What the girl is saying (“I don’t care! I’d rather sink than call Brad for help”) becomes for me a critique of the idea of artist as authoritative author that was so important to Modernists. The idea that artists are some sort of cowboys that go out on their own to forge their own paths independent of what came before them is ludicrous. He understood that art, even though it is often made in private, is still an active dialogue with both your contemporaries and predecessors. In an ironic way, though, Lichtenstein simultaneously used an aesthetic that removed the idea of the author to create paintings that are instantly recognizable as Lichtensteins.

CE: You seamlessly weave a humor, appreciation, critique, and passion for contemporary art and pop culture in your artist statement. How have you come to these ways of relating to the field?

AP: I think that’s just naturally the way I am. One second I will be snidely making fun of something, and the next second I’ll be passionately defending it. I’m always trying to see both sides of things. It’s a blessing and a curse, I guess.

CE: Do you find it the mixture of sentiments helpful or problematic?

AP: I think my work might come across as on the fence sometimes, like I can’t decide where to be. Either people like that or they don’t. On my good days, I don’t care if people think that. On my bad days, I get really despondent about that and start doubting myself.

CE: Your work is informed by a unique color palette. Overall, the colors appear soothing. Yet, perhaps there is a tension in certain paintings, when color is introduced. For example, the red in "Super Mario World (Untitled)", or the yellow in " Question Mark Block". They seem to pop and call attention to the "objects" they represent. What are key elements in choosing colors for each canvas? Do you have certain notions of color by which you prefer to work?

Super Mario Bros. 2 Title Screen (Arabesques)
acrylic on canvas
54 x 54 inches

I used to joke and say that “It’s Easter every day in my studio.” I think the color choices come across as childlike and even na├»ve, but I really get off on cutesy things like that and hopefully the work is good enough that people don’t roll their eyes TOO much at the colors. Just a little bit.

Question Mark Block
acrylic on canvas
30 x 30 inches

I also like muted or pastel colors because I like how they relate to each other, the space in the paintings ends up being a bit murkier, less defined. A couple months ago I put a couple black shapes in one of my paintings and was really taken aback - I realized that I hadn’t used black for almost a year! The black never actually made it into the final painting, but it was funny nonetheless. More recently I’ve been trying to bring in some more keyed up colors to liven things up a bit.

A gallerist told me that she didn’t have the normal gag reflex that she usually has when she sees pastel pinks and purples like in my paintings. I was really happy about that.

CE: You approach some of the most classic video games of our generation. Mike Tyson TKO, Super Mario, even Ms. Pac Man. How did you choose these games? Have you explored other video games? Does the canonical disposition of these games, or the fact that they are well-loved, make the painting process stressful? Do you ever doubt your choices in representation? Conversely, what excited you about the games to explore them over and over, bringing out different elements in each painting?

AP: I, like a lot of our generation, grew up playing the NES and it was a really important part of my childhood. I chose those games mostly because those were the canonical games and I was trying to go through all of the most popular ones as I started this series (which was about a year ago). I’ve also used Powerpuff Girls, Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and other cartoons (like Voltron and Transformers) as sources but definitely not as much as the Nintendo ones. I am trying more consciously to bring a wider range of subject matter into the paintings. By wider range, I mean SNES and other cartoons -- maybe even Sega [gasp]-- but when I first started the series I was just going with my first instinct and those were the ones that came up.

In the beginning, I think I leaned a little more toward “representation” in that it was easy to recognize what game I was using as a source if you had played the games as much or more than I had, but as I keep working I’ve been trying to abstract the source material more and more so that in paintings like "Blades of Steel (Untitled)" and "Super Mario World (Untitled)", it’s a lot harder to tell where it came from. In retrospect, I think I was using the iconic status of the images more as a crutch, but I needed it to generate the work at the time.

I also like the source material because it kind of gives people that don’t know much about art a way to relate to the work. They can be like, “Oh! I see it!” and be happy and I can just affirm that and be done with it. That way they don’t leave thinking that the work is too obtuse. In a similar fashion, it sort of deflates itself to elitists because the source material is kind of dumb.

Blades of Steel (Untitled)

acrylic on canvas
66 x 60 inches

In the end, though, my sources are the generators of interesting shapes for me to play with, and I think the way that I reduce them and place them in the paintings and the way the colors interact with each other are as important, if not more, than the sources themselves. I definitely don’t want people to say “Oh, he paints video games” or whatever. I’d rather them say, “Oh, he paints video games, but turns them into these beautiful abstract paintings.”

CE: Have you ever had an unfortunate or unsettling reading of your work? Are there any criticisms which you are annoyed by?

AP: In my last show, someone wrote at the end of their review something like: “Ultimately, a pixel is just a pixel. It’s not substantial.” I guess they thought my subject matter wasn’t important enough. Maybe I should start a series of paintings about life. Or death. Or the living dead.

CE: If you could curate a group show (including your own work), which other artists would you choose to have in the show? Which pieces?

AP: If I was given the opportunity, I would put all of my underrepresented friends into the show.

Regarding Books, Music and Some Things Philly (with returns to "art")

CE: Are you familiar with the band that only plays songs from Super NES games? I saw them in September (my friend's band Family Junction opened up for them) and they were great, albeit a little over the top.

AP: I think you are talking about The Advantage. I think they are fun (I’ve never seen them live, but I imagine that would be a high energy show), but I don’t think they ever get beyond being a gimmick.

CE: Have you collaborated with writers or musicians? Are you interested in the possibility of collaborating?

AP: I was actually in a band for about a year right after grad school called “Nouveau Riche.” My best memories of being in the band was when the three guys who played instruments would get together and jam (I played guitar). The bassist and I also recorded a fake EP that never got finished. But I really liked that collaborative atmosphere of making music together. The grind of playing show after show definitely was not for me, though, and I eventually had to leave because of that and also because I wasn’t painting enough.

I think collaborating would be fun, but I need to be able to do my thing as well.

CE: Would you ever put your work on a t-shirt? In an ad?

AP: Sure.

CE: Do you listen to music when you paint? Which kinds, or which albums?

AP: I listen to anything. I really like Marissa Nadler’s new album and also The Besnard Lakes’s new album. Every year or so I’ll go on a huge classical kick and listen to all the classical music I have. I think I have about 200 cds worth.

CE: What is the last song that grabbed you?

AP: I didn’t think this was their best album, but I love “Phantom Limb” by the Shins. For the record, I hate Zach Barf (sic). I’ve also been into that ELO song, “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” since they just came out with that Out of the Blue reissue.

Oh, and I just heard that new M.I.A. song, “Bird Flu” which is pretty cool.

CE: Would you want a band to play at an opening of yours? Would you do an album cover, or let them use one of your paintings for a cover/artwork?

AP: Sure, that would be fun to have a band that I really like to play at an opening. Maybe Spoon or Camera Obscura or the Apples in Stereo. I think it’d be cool to do album covers, but I’m not much of a designer (I did the album cover for a band I was in and I really struggled with it and was not really happy with the end result). I would not want one of my paintings as a cover because I think the size of the paintings is really important.

CE: Do certain songs or albums inspire you to visualize certain spaces, landscapes, characters, worlds?

AP: I don’t think they describe specific spaces for me, but definitely moods. I think I’m trying to make paintings somewhere between The Pipettes, Camera Obscura, the Shins, and Spoon.

CE: For those playing at home, who are The Pipettes, and what is so wonderful about them?

I think somehow the Pipettes go beyond their gimmickiness. Maybe it’s that slight hint of riot girrrl in their voices, maybe it’s the strong harmonies and melodies, I’m not exactly sure. But for me they somehow add something else to the table. And their songs are just too damn catchy to ignore. They also have a great consistent image - they all wear polka dot dresses and have choreographed dances for all of their songs live (See: “Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me” video on YouTube).

CE: Are you reading any good books these days? What is so gripping about the book(s)?

AP: I just finished American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, by Chris Hedges. It was pretty interesting to read especially in the recent political climate. It was also refreshing to read something by a professed Christian that didn’t fall into the American Christian stereotype. I also read Hilary Spurling’s Matisse biography which was fun to read but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they were super into Matisse.

CE: What makes you super into Matisse?

AP: I think Matisse had a fantastic sense of color and there is also a great playfulness in his work, especially in the cutouts. His paintings have an effortless grace to them and still seem fresh to me (my favorite room at the MoMA is the Matisse room). Nothing in his best work seems forced or overworked, qualities that I avoid like the plague in my own work. There is kind of a Neverlandish quality to him - his work seems eternally youthful.

CE: Are you a fan of his cut-outs?

AP: I love his cutouts. As he got older, I think he really let himself go and used the cutouts as playgrounds for his imagination. (I think the biography even mentions him covering his walls with his cutouts to look like he was in an abstract ocean). The boyishness that I love about his earlier work is taken so much further in the cutouts.

CE: Speaking of boyishness and youth, I was in Philadelphia in 2004, and they had the Yoshitomo Nara exhibit at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art ? Did you see it? Does Nara's mixture of sentiments and aesthetics interest you?

AP: Yeah, I saw that show. I really like a lot of his work, I think it is really beautifully made. Sometimes he gets a little too into the teenage “fuck you” sort of thing for my tastes, but in general I really respect him.

CE: I'm in Philadelphia for 3 days. I know about the Philly Art Museum, the Medical Science Museum, and a few good places to eat Philly Cheese Steak. Tell me five more places to go, things to do, secret spots to explore.

1) Sabrina’s: best brunch in town.

2) The Dolphin: A dive bar that features topless dancing to 80s power ballads.

3) The Kimmel Center: The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the best in the world. More people should know about classical music, in my opinion.

4) The Barnes Foundation: OK, actually that’s outside of Philly, but it’ll be coming to Philly soon. Great collection of Post-Impressionist work. They have a lot of great Matisses. And a lot of shitty Soutines.

5) Vintage: this wine bar that has a happy hour with inexpensive but really tasty wines.

CE: What is the last thing you laughed or smiled about?

AP: We’ve just discovered that our cat, Wasabi, will stand up on his hind legs and give you a weird head-butt kiss when you greet him. It’s pretty great.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (Mountain of Sound)
acrylic on canvas
60 x 60 inches

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