Giving Form to the Human Condition: Alex Anderson Interviewed

A disembodied hand grips the gold handle of a colorful chef's knife, which is painted numerous shades of blue and oozes globs of gold.
Alex Anderson, A Violent Reflection, 2020. Earthenware, glaze, and gold luster. 16 x 5.5 x 2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and GAVLAK Los Angeles | Palm Beach.

Alex Anderson, an LA-based artist working in ceramics and painting, tackles fabricated absurdities and contradictions of everyday life. By combining cheerfully twee aesthetics with macabre symbolism—like a pink body dripping gold, leaning over its severed head—Anderson commits himself to revealing dichotomies of the human experience. He explores themes such as racism, narcissism, and our desperation for perfection by updating classical mythology through a contemporary, social media-saturated lens.

This year, Alex let me pick his brain about his process, his inspirations, and his Ghibli preferences. We discussed moving the world with marginalized identities, the magic of Los Angeles, and the general ridiculousness of life. —Kennedy Horton

Kennedy Horton: Let’s start by talking about your wall piece Walking Away (2020). What do you think the protagonist is walking toward and why? 

Alex Anderson: He’s walking away from the realization of the pathological nature of narcissism and being too focused on one’s self and not looking beyond oneself. He’s walking toward a more open self, a more open approach to life and seeing what’s beyond that. You can fixate on yourself forever and never go and find anything new. It’s about the realization or recognition of our human flaws. It’s natural to be kind of narcissistic or self-focused for biological, self-preservation reasons. But at the same time—we can do better. 

An all-black figure with red lips saunters behind a tree, leaving thick gold footprints behind. With hair-thin leaves and globby white pedals, two purpleish trees struggle to establish foreground. The frame of the painting hugs the canvas like a branch.
Alex Anderson, Walking Away, 2020. Earthenware, glaze, and gold luster. 17 x 21 x 2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and GAVLAK Los Angeles | Palm Beach.

KH: Always! Do you think your work can act as life advice for viewers?

AA: I wouldn’t say my work is instructional. It’s not so much like, “now you should go do this.” It’s more like, “this is how it is.” This is the circumstance that I’m in, as Lauryn Hill said: “When this rain falls, it don’t fall on one man house.” So, if I’m feeling something and this is how it is for me, I’m one piece of a broader landscape that everybody’s a part of. 

KH: Yeah, your work can resonate with somebody else and they’ll take from it what they get.

AA: Right, exactly. 

KH: In Walking Away, and with a lot of your pieces, you combine very opposing elements, like Achilles (2020) and Stains on a Pretty Landscape (2020). How do those juxtapositions function in your work? 

AA: Well, life is full of dualities and things that contradict themselves. Morality contradicts itself, a lot of the structures that we have in society contradict themselves, or are inherently in opposition with something. 

I believe that things are defined by both—they can be what they are, but also be considered the things that they’re not. Like, what’s Blackness? It’s not whiteness! What’s the opposite of beauty? People say it’s ugliness, I say it’s darkness. I think life is characterized by these kinds of dualities and beyond that absurdity, life is absolutely ridiculous. I often think of myself and refer to myself as being kind of like a cartoon—it’s all a sick game that we’re in.

My work tends toward absurdity because of that, but it’s also a manifestation of my sense of humor. If you take a little step back at the social structures we participate in and the things we do or ask of other people, it’s ridiculous. Race and identity politics even being a necessary field of study is ridiculous. 

It’s absurd that a person can make declarations about another’s personhood, simply because their identity positions them to do so. To say something like, “You Black people are all this caricature, you Asian people are all this caricature”—that’s absurd. When I think about those kinds of things, some of those images will make their way into the work. The absurdity of the work is about the absurdity of human life. 

KH: I would agree, I think life is so bizarre. 

AA: Oh my god, right?

An armless, headless figure kneels at the bank of a small pink pond, out of which sprouts a golden blossom, splashes a golden-scaled fish, and rests the figure's severed head—the base of the neck also shimmering gold.
Alex Anderson, Narcissus, 2020. Earthenware, glaze, and gold luster. 20 x 38 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist and GAVLAK Los Angeles | Palm Beach.

KH: I want to hear about your process. How do you know what you want to make, and how do you stay motivated throughout?

AA: Some kind of input will enter my consciousness and that will make me think of something that is metaphorical to my own experience of human life. That will usually produce an image that comes to mind in my brain and then I … make it. I try to make it as soon as possible; sometimes I’ll lose interest in the idea if I don’t just go ahead and make it. After it’s done I’m like, “oh great!” But if it doesn’t get out fast enough in the process, it’s like “oh well, it’s just not gonna happen.”

KH: That reminds me of your story you told me about trying to save a fly from a spider web.

AA: Yes! That’s an example of one of those inputs. I see something or something happens and it makes me think of a larger metaphor. When I was little, I saw a fly in a spider web and the spider was approaching it. The fly was freaking out, so I grabbed the fly out of the web but in the process, the fly lost a leg. 

From my perspective, that turns into a metaphorical experience that asks the question, “Have you ever tried to make something better but then in getting involved you just made it worse?” So then, that would be a piece. Maybe it should be…

KH: Yeah that’d be a great larger metaphor for you know people staying in their lanes, minding their own business.

AA: Exactly. Stay in your lane so no one loses a leg.

KH: Exactly, yes. Beautiful. 

There are studies that show how a person’s environment dictates their behavior. How has being on the West Coast influenced you? 

AA: It’s not the West Coast, it’s LA. Seattle—where I grew up—did give me an appreciation for beautiful landscapes and natural beauty, so you see that a lot in my work. But with relation to art, LA is the most “American” city. It’s far from Europe, it’s very far from New York in a lot of ways, it’s very removed from those traditional European structures that were the basis of our culture. LA also has all the archetypes of what people associate with the imaginary and with the US: Hollywood, cars, perfect surface, leisure, luxury. From the perspective of culture, it also has an openness that allows you to actively witness and participate in the US contemporary art avant-garde.

KH: Whenever I visit, I have a good time. 

AA: It’s the best place to be. 

A head, a hand, gold chains and a number of leaves slowly sink into a bubbling pink mush, held in a heart-shaped container.
Alex Anderson, Escape from the Gazing Pool II, 2020. Earthenware, glaze, and gold luster. 21 x 21 x 6 inches. Courtesy of the artist and GAVLAK Los Angeles | Palm Beach.

KH: How has your work impacted how you feel about your intersecting identities? 

AA: It’s helped me just give form to it. As a visual person you can do all the reading in the world, but having a way to say “it’s like this,” without having to say all that it’s like, is much more helpful for me. You don’t have to say anything, it’s right there. For example, in Disposable Light (2020), there’s a matchstick in Blackface. That’s something anyone can understand. If you have a little bit of background or if you’ve been alive at all— 

KH: You get it. 

AA: You get it. 

It makes me feel like I’m not crazy for feeling what I do. It’s affirming. When I think about what it means to be me, to be someone who looks like me or shares my identity markers—I don’t know that it’s had a real direct impact on the way I see myself, but it does verify certain characteristics for me as I’m always thinking about these elements of identity. 

I would say that really making art is a way of giving form to my experience, and that helps me understand my experience. I think these understandings have to already be there in order to make this work, so it doesn’t necessarily change the extent to which I understand anything, but it does allow me to give clear form to what it’s like on a daily basis as a person of my background.

KH: That seems very helpful, so many people are visual learners and it’s a lot of work to tell your whole story. Instead, you can just show this small piece. 

AA: Yeah, absolutely 

KH: Who are the artists you’re feeling most aligned with right now? 

AA: Kara Walker and Barbara Kruger. It’s not that I would compare myself to them in the slightest, they are queen and queen of it all. But the way that they’re thinking about their work, their themes, society, life, identity politics, gender, race, class—it’s similar to the way that I’m thinking about it. So, those two for sure. But I don’t wanna say that I am them you know, Barbara Kruger—she’s everything.

KH: What’s the best advice that you’ve gotten?

AA: The best advice I’ve gotten was from my graduate professor Adrian Saxe who said “All you have to do is follow your inclinations and make something we’ve never seen before.” That paired with his question “How do you navigate the art world? You show up and you hang out.” 

Another thing I liked was from Jamian-Juliano Villani. She’s one of my favorites, another contemporary surrealist. I was reading an interview and she said, “It’s not that hard. All we have to do is express ourselves.”

KH: Those are good. I think people always kind of want a step-by-step thing but it’s really just something you just … do and figure out. 

AA: There’s no one way to do it. I mean there is a skeleton to the whole system in a way that’s institutions and certain collectors, but there is no one way or one answer to get at that. That’s the market versus art making.

KH: Right, which is a whole other beast of having to commodify everything. 

AA: Another one of those absurdities. 

A round, black face creeps into frame, its eyes sharpened and wide against a blood-orange sky. A golden fly buzzes in 3D.
Alex Anderson, You Shouldn’t Have Done That, 2020. Earthenware, glaze, and gold luster. 13 x 13 x 2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and GAVLAK Los Angeles | Palm Beach.

KH: How does the Black body exist in a perfect world to you?

AA: It wouldn’t just be a thing. It wouldn’t be something that was commodified, objectified, denied humanity or personhood. We would just get to live and be flawed, because we’re not really allowed to be flawed; you make a mistake and you die. Everything is wrong place, wrong time. I would love to be in a world where that’s not a consideration of mine.  In my ideal world, the Black body would actually be a human body. 

In the art world, there’s the idea of making perfect, beautiful things so that they can then be accepted as art. The simple experience of being a person of color could then be looked at as something that’s similar, and for me it’s like, you wouldn’t think about Black people at all if I didn’t dress it up for you and make it cute. 

We would be entitled to the same humanity that everybody else who lives with agency, by default, is entitled to. We would be allowed to be upset, because life is upsetting. Humans respond to negative stimuli and negative circumstances with those emotions, and we would be allowed to do that and not worry that it’ll in some way damage our standing, our future, or our actual existence. 

KH: And being defined in our own right instead of just “not white.”

AA: Wouldn’t that be nice?

KH: Do you have a favorite piece or collection of yours?

AA: Right now, I’m really excited about the Narcissus piece that was at the center of The Gazing Pool at GAVLAK Gallery in LA. That one really hit for me, because what the figure is experiencing is mind-body separation. It’s the idea of the body as an instrument of the mind because the two are not unified. It’s about the idea of narcissism being a reflection of our product of death. Your true self dies and hides behind the image that narcissism creates and then you live that. That’s my favorite piece right this second. 

KH: I read you’re a Miyazaki fan. Who’s your favorite Studio Ghibli character?

AA: The Witch of the Waste from Howl’s Moving Castle, which is my favorite Ghibli film. First of all, like every villain, she’s a narcissist, she gets mad at this young girl and turns her into a 90-year-old woman. I don’t identify with her, but watching her move in and out of antagonist and ally is interesting.

KH: Is there a character from the movie you most identify with?

AA: I identify most with Howl as a character. He’s moving through those spaces, he’s transforming all the time, he’s kind of whimsical but he will fight you. 

KH: Do you have a main message you’re trying to send through your work? 

AA: I think all art is about giving form to the human condition. For my work, if I had to say one thing, it’s about giving form to the human condition as a millennial with my identity politics. It’s saying, “this is what it’s like for me to be alive right now.”

It’s about what you were feeling in this moment and then when we look at the collection of those moments, we get a picture of what life looks like from this perspective. I believe that about all art. I think of the art world as being a mosaic image of contemporary life where each tile is an artist’s work. It’s their position, it’s their perspective and we look at all those perspectives together, then we can get to understand what’s going on right now.

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