Occasional Beast: Alexandra Wiesenfeld at Gallery KM
An interview with the artist by Emily Waldorf
Munich-born, Los Angeles-based artist Alexandra Wiesenfeld’s inaugural show at Gallery KM includes six large-scale oil on canvas paintings and eight drawings, depicting human and animal figures in surreal dimensions that examine the inner workings of the human psyche. In this body of work, Wiesenfeld gives us a glimpse into her inner world, and her protagonists inhabiting a world of inner isolation.http://www.gallerykmla.com/The artist’s Glassell Park studio, is filled with neatly stacked canvases and brimming over with life and energy, including two dogs and work from other artists hanging on the walls. Wiesenfeld’s energy and original mix of contemporary painterly skill and historical perspective make her an important emerging force in L.A.’s contemporary art scene. Wiesenfeld has a warm and effusive manner that defies the solitary nature of her paintings.
Wiesenfeld earned a BFA from Pomona College and an MFA from Montana State University. She has exhibited her work in a recent solo show at the Happy Lion Gallery, Los Angeles, and group exhibitions at the Nord Art, Germany, the Torrance Art Museum, L.A. Art House, Beverly Hills, and the Dactyl Foundation, New York, Eagle Rock Cultural Center, Los Angeles. Wiesenfeld is an Associate Professor at Los Angeles City College.
Emily Waldorf: Tell me what got you started on this specific body of work? Figures, both human and animal, clearly take center stage in your work. Please tell me about the significance behind the figures. Is there a background story linking the work or is each individual work a story in and of itself?
Alexandra Wiesenfeld: What drives my work first and foremost is psychology. There is a word in German, inne-halten, which translates as pausing, but if you took the words literally would mean “holding inside”. Though I like the idea of the “spectacle” of painting, in a Beckmanesque sense, it’s the quieter states of reflections surrounding action—before it is about to take place or after it has happened– that I try to tackle. In terms of subject matter, I start with a vague idea, which becomes clearer as the painting evolves. Often I need a few paintings to resolve a “problem”–ideally I need a series rather than one painting.
EW: How does the show at Gallery KM relate to your past work? How has your work evolved over time?
AW: I feel that this body of work is coming full circle. I had started out painting raw and gestural images of people and animals, which I sometimes intersected with flat, line-based areas. Later I gravitated towards painting people in arid and forsaken landscapes. I felt that if a person is alone in a landscape, the landscape has the potential to become more than just abackdrop. In the last series of works man and land were still interacting, but not in the same composition. I juxtaposed an illusionistic landscape of a manmade lake in the badlands of Montana with portraits of juvenile death row inmates in Texas. The composition of the lake never changed, though the weather and time of day did. I was looking at how manmade structures and laws changed man and land, and how the changes inside both man and land were constant, like the thoughts in the inmates’ heads or the weather for the lake, while the outside structures were not. I painted the surface of the paintings very smoothly, because I wanted to speak of distance and unavailability, and the fact that the imagery was gained secondhand. I also wanted to evoke the sentimentality inherent to the process of painting. But when I finished the series I realized I was getting closer and closer to my father’s way of painting. I felt I had painted myself into a corner, which made me throw myself into the messier territory of the way I used to paint, which is more process oriented. What I took away from the series and what I am still working with, is how the impenetrability of the painted surface can mirror the sense of distance and longing certain landscapes, snippets of land and sky, evoke at certain times.
EW: What is the process for the paintings and the drawings? How long do they take to create? Do you do preparatory drawings? Tell me about your studio practice, the type of paint, materials, and technique, that you use.
AW: If not taken from me, I will rework paintings for years because that is how long it takes me to decide whether the image sticks. I work best when over-painting old work. Of course I have lost many paintings this way as well. I like the resulting palimpsest, the possibility for accidents and the history that builds up – between the layers of paint and the layers of meaning.
EW: When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist?
AW: I come from an artist family. My father was a Realist painter with quite some acclaim in the 1970’s and 80’s, and my brother was a child prodigy who is now a very talented painter in Berlin. When growing up, I showed little aptitude or interest (unlike my brother did), though my fingers and mind always felt restless. I always knew that I would make art, just not like my father and brother, or so I thought then. As a young girl I had to pose for my father, which entailed standing amongst an array of still life objects for hours every day for years. I used to hate posing and anything resulting from it, but now, with enough distance, I realize how beautiful my father’s paintings really are. I left home (Germany) abruptly after high school, and on my own pursued ‘art’. I found a lovely older lady who let me carve alabaster sculptures with other older ladies in Laurel Canyon. Simultaneously I worked hard on teaching myself to draw and paint. The physical distance to home had the reverse effect. In my mind and in my art, I was seriously grappling with my father’s work and the Old Masters that featured so largely in his canon of the greats. My painting was an extension of the dialogue and battleground with my own past and with art history that took place entirely in my head.
EW: Did you have any influential art teachers at Pomona or Montana State?
AW: At Pomona College, I was lucky to have Karl Benjamin as my teacher with whom I am still very close. He gave me complete freedom, and it was his trust, his intuitive eye and understanding of what I was doing that pushed me (though our painting styles couldn’t have been more different). In Montana I also had wonderful teachers, who had much integrity as artists, probably due to the fact that the isolation and lack of attention brings you right back to yourself.
EW: What about any dead or living artists whose work you particularly admire?
AW: Some of my favorite artists are Manet, Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, Max Beckman, Neo Rauch, Charles Burchfield, Christopher Russell, Richard Misrach, Cecily Brown, Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Louise Bourgeois, and Ori Gerscht, to name a few.
EW: Finally, you have been living and working in Los Angeles for a while, a city bursting with wonderful galleries and museums. Tell me some of your favorite art venues in Los Angeles?
AW: Lexi Brown’s gallery formerly Happy Lion, Roberts and Tilton, Angles, the Hammer Museum, Blum and Poe and Regen Projects.
Glassell Park, Los Angeles, March 2011.
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Tags: Alexandra Wiesenfeld, artist interview, Gallery KM