Alexander James Pollard

Alexander James Pollard in dialogue with Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Let’s begin our dialogue by highlighting two concepts that are both connected and explored in your newest works: Contemporary Neo-Medievalism and Post-Globalization. What intrigued you to initially explore these concepts and what does painting offer you to help elucidate your thoughts connected to these specific concepts?

Alexander James Pollard: Neo-Medievalism is fascinating. I suppose I started to become interested in this through my friendship with Dr. Neil Mulholland who has written a great book on the subject with Norman James Hogg called thN Lng Folk 2go: Investigating Future Premoderns. I’m also a fan of Techgnosis by Erik Davis, which refers to this subject a little bit. It’s interesting that as we get more advanced technologically we become more and more obsessed with our medieval past. It’s a very odd thing but it feels like there is a strong link between the medieval and the digital. ‘Post-Globalisation’ as you put it is linked to this in some ways in terms of how digitalization has to some extent eroded conventional state borders, which echo the medieval era. Contemporary art has become a global phenomena but this is a complex issue to discuss in full. I’m not making the case for a renewed international style but I think the digital channels into which art is now disseminated has had a massive effect on the form and themes of contemporary art itself. I would say that I am interested in how painting responds to this. The painted image is still very relevant and for that matter very visible, which is interesting. Good painting always seems to find a way to discuss it’s own condition and I see this as quite a fruitful area to explore.

SC: There is an interesting process behind the making of your paintings for they begin by being part produced in workshops in Xiamen China and are completed in your London studio. By outsourcing labor, you are highlighting that the medieval practice of workshop labor is still prevalent in modern society. Though, are you wishing to re-interpret this practice/service as contemporary cross-continental collaboration?

AJP: I suppose it is an example of work-shopping yes, and therefore it is a form of collaboration. Sometimes the artists who work for me make suggestions for colours to use for the backgrounds etcetera, with this body of work I took up some of their suggestions. In the game World of Warcraft (WoW), which is where the objects/weapons come from, the games participants collaborate with people who they've never met in person, forming guilds. So in some senses the process in which I make these paintings echoes the subject matter. Embracing outsourcing within my practice alters the attitude of the paintings. Rather than opting to use disruption or critique I’ve chosen to accelerate aspects of capitalism. This I feel relates to some of the issues of the global versus the local that often comes up in discussions around post-capitalism. I’m into the idea of creating an attitude around the work, and working with complicity or over-identification as a strategy helps me to do this.

SC: Can you tell me about your process of sourcing a workshop/company in Xiamen? What were some of the initial hurdles you went through when wishing to make these works?

AJP: Basically I just Google searched ‘oil paintings made in China’ or ‘oil painting service China’ and the factory in Xiamen popped up. I also did my research and read a book called ‘Van Gogh on Demand – China and the Readymade’ by Winnie Won Yin Wong, which gave me a really good insight into how the cities of Xiamen and Dafen have become ‘oil painting cities’ within China. I have a good relationship with the factory in Xiamen who I work with and I do get on well with Mr Fan. At first I just ordered two paintings to see what they would be like and when these came back I thought that this might work well. I had no idea at that point that I would be turning them into modification paintings.

SC: In relation to the imagery painted by the Xiamen based workshop, neo-medieval weapons are present in each of your works. These take the form of weapons such as axes, kusarigamas, sickles, spears and swords. Can you discuss the choice of imagery used with your works? Why specifically weapons? Furthermore, did the workshop question your choice of imagery?

AJP: This is a very interesting question. The workshop didn’t really say anything about the images. In terms of why I chose the WoW weapons: I just go on gut instinct really. The images I found of the weapons from WoW seemed really intriguing and they opened up many different readings and pathways within the work. I guess the work is unapologetically male in some respects – I’m into it being geeky in an autistic way. Weapons are basic tools that perhaps suggest aggression or brutality, but the weapons in WoW are all enchanted with what is called Mana in the game – objects feel alive to some extent. I think I like this link between technology and magic because it’s fantastical and very relevant to our digital age as it is so much in the public’s imagination. I also liked the idea of using repeated stock imagery. I felt I wanted to work with this as a show idea because it had a strong relationship to the way that memes work with repetition and how meaning is formed visually in a culture that bombards you with a lot of information.

SC: Going back to the idea of collaboration and guilds, I am interested to know if the process of your works making could be reversed? Have you considered allowing the workshop to respond to your paintings or do you think this would nullify the process?

AJP: I have considered this. However I think that this becomes too convoluted in many ways. This may well be too much about carrying out an idea, drawing attention away from my engagement with painting and how an interesting image can be made in this way.

SC: Detournement, as explored by Situationist International seems to be inspirational in regards to your approach to making these works. Abstract and representational languages converge signifying the clashing of contemporary cultures and politics today. By integrating disparate modes of painting language, are you aiming to construct a conflicting space that symbolizes the somewhat contemporary nature of the modern nomadic painter? By this I mean, do you feel that painting today is bound by less localized languages because of the post-globalized world we live in today?  

AJP: This is a tricky question. If you take the example of Post-Internet art many people say that this is a global art movement but it really is just artists from New York, LA, Berlin and London which is obviously only four cities in the entire world – so it actually ends up being quite local in some ways. I suppose global painting languages do exist – one could cite Zombie Formalism perhaps? I think contemporary painters have to acknowledge the influence that digitalization has had on how we form art languages. Hyper-connectivity means that aesthetics do not stay exclusive for very long and this changes artist’s behavior. Contemporary Art Daily has also altered this massively. I suppose I’m interested in stock imagery and memes so therefore I am attracted to some aspects of homogeneity but I am also aware that there are subtle nuanced things happening within my work that suggest a difference from a bland form of internationalism. Detournement: yes I do like this way of working, the modification paintings of Asger Jorn are some of my favorite ever paintings and I also love Julian Schnabel’s Kubuki Theatre paintings. I like the simple gesture of altering what has previously existed and changing the originals meaning. I feel that there is still mileage in this strategy and it’s a strategy that is almost timeless. Very different artists from all sorts of varying time periods have worked in this way and their work still looks fresh.

SC: Within your paintings there are multiple painting languages that take the form of cartoon like illustrations that hover above abstract colour fields, expressionistic marks and geometric shapes. Can you discuss your improvisational process of painting and discuss the reasoning behind some of these representational motifs?

AJP: The improvisational part of the work is perhaps the most difficult aspect to talk about. I genuinely engage with each canvas in a painterly way drawing out unexpected things from each one. Sometimes I may start to paint something I have found – this could be from a kid’s book on the medieval era or something like this but very often I don’t have a plan as such or refer to any source. I just squeeze out some colour and just start applying it. After I have made some marks I then look at the relationship between my marks and the original image painted in China and try and respond. The marks and colours I apply may start to suggest something such as an animal or a figure or even an object – I may paint over part of a weapon so then the part that is left becomes an elephant’s tusk or a jester’s hat etc.

I like the way that the motifs often feel like cave painting or children’s drawings of animals, crude in some ways but also strangely elegant in others. I suppose this is the tightrope one walks with ‘bad’ painting, which is something that deeply interests me. I like the fact that with painting when you paint a triangle it refers to Kandinsky but it also refers to an Aztec temple design or even Egyptian hieroglyphics. It joins a long line of associations and memes from the history of pictorial representation. I like to engage with the fundamental nuts and bolts of painting and drawing using my imagination to find forms out of the ether – some days things can just literally fall out of my brush and other times nothing will happen. I utilize this direct form of painting as an antidote to the more cerebral parts of my work, such as the outsourcing and the contextual framing. I suppose most artists would come up with the idea of working with Chinese painters and just soberly display it as a conceptual project, like an assisted readymade in the Duchampian sense, but I think it’s more interesting to make the works into modification paintings allowing me to play and improvise with them to the point where I could literally paint anything.

The motifs I use suggest that I am doodling playfully, which I like. I think I’m interested in this because it seems dumb or non-intellectual - but it isn’t dumb - if that makes sense? There is something very direct and no nonsense about painting an elephant with a few strokes from a brush. There is no theory to hide behind, it just works or it doesn’t. I often paint Iphones or other examples of technology, as this is now such a huge part of our lives. Painting will always refer to what’s happening right now, as much as it reflects on it’s own long history. I am conscious of how my paintings will end up being disseminated or dispersed as Instagram images or on Facebook posts so this is a self-reflexive gesture of sorts. I am interested in paintings relationship to technology but I don’t think it’s worthwhile trying to be as ‘good’ as a machine – to paint just like a photo etc. The Iphones I paint are wonky or too puffy and messy, existing in an imaginative space outside of the realism or the ‘truth’ of photography. I also get fed up with the conservative British obsession with labour being valued in painting – “it must have taken ages to do that” etc. I want the works to seem effortless to some degree. Those who have painted for a while know that they are not.

SC: In regards to your titles, they are very literal and are surprisingly disconnected from the WoW world that very much inspired your working process. I am curious to understand your process of titling your works? How significant do you consider each paintings title? Do you consider titles necessary or even essential?

AJP: I’m very conscious not to try to be too clever with titles. I think you can kill a work if you try too hard. I basically end up calling them what their nick name is and it’s basically what you see first in the image ‘Speared Elephant’, ‘Parrot’, ‘Knight and Jester’ etc. I think it helps the mood I am trying to achieve if I am not over-intellectualizing the work.

SC: Your solo exhibition WoW PAINTINGS :P at Young Team HQ, London opens on the 25th March 2016, can you tell me about the planning that has gone into preparing for this significant exhibition? Do you find the exhibiting of new work daunting in any way?

AJP: I am very much looking forward to the opening. I have, in the lead up to the show, been working very hard and I have definitely got some good paintings in amongst the new works. I have made some larger paintings too, which I am excited about showing. The show planning has actually been very smooth. Young Team is run by Linsey Young - She is a really interesting curator who works for the Tate now. Linsey asked me to do the show a while back – so I’ve been working on this for a while. In terms of worrying about the works reception: life’s too short and I’m too busy.

SC: Can you tell me about your day-to-day studio routine?

AJP: Sure! It’s quite straightforward really. I go to my studio in Bromley-by-Bow in the morning. Tack up a canvas to the wall and start painting. If the painting works I then stretch it afterwards. I borrowed this method from Steven Campbell the Scottish painter who I admire greatly! I tend to work on about 5 at the same time – I rotate them and change them quite often. I tend to leave the studio when I hit a natural breaking off point, if something has to dry or if I have just run out of steam or space. There’s not much around my studio in terms of distractions so once you are there you are really just locked into painting until you leave in the evening. I try and take risks with the work and sometimes this means I lose works that I have invested a lot of time in. This is also doubly frustrating as the work takes ages to come back from China but this is an unavoidable part of being a painter.

SC: I am aware that you have teaching positions that also occupy your time, do you find it difficult in any way dividing your time between teaching and your own studio practice?

AJP: Basically I work two days a week teaching painting to undergrad students. It doesn’t get in the way too much and I really enjoy talking about painting. I also work with a great team down at Brighton University who I really enjoy working with.

SC: In regards to networks, online or not, are there any specific artists that you particularly like or dislike? Where do you pull inspiration? And more so, to what extent do you engage with art related social media outlets such as Instagram?

AJP: With regards to networks I like Jutta Koether and the associations she makes between painting and other disciplines such as performance. I’m also very interested in Lee Lozano – her work is very critical and blunt. She made a really interesting piece called ‘Dialogue Piece’ where she presented notes she had made on meetings with leading male artists of her day like Dan Graham. I think this work was way ahead of its time as it now seems to reflect the blurring of private and public space as well as the blurring of labour and leisure time that we see happening all around us today. I also really like her paintings of tools – they are Guston-like, chunky and awkward.

I pull inspiration from many different sources really – I look at other art a lot but I also read a lot of new material that is coming out. I would say that the themes of this work have been influenced by new material that's been published on post capitalism by Srnicek and Williams as well as Paul Mason. The work doesn’t illustrate any of these texts but it helps me form a context and an understanding of some of the themes that lie under the surface of a subject like WoW and why it might be interesting to use it in this way.

Instagram: Yes I’m on it for sure. I think that expressive painting has an interesting relationship to social media platforms like Instagram. Basically expressive painting looks great on it! – so it memes a lot, which has helped re-define the painterly gesture’s parameters.

SC: Can you tell me of any other future projects that are in the pipeline?

AJP: I’m actually working on a new publication at present with A Visual Agency from Glasgow. I am a close friend of Emlyn Firth who is the director there and we are working together to produce something that I hope will be quite special.

Alexander James Pollard

Images courtesy of Alexander James Pollard and Young Team HQ London