May 2017 Cover Artist: Alexander Stewart
Poetry magazine's May cover is by Alexander Stewart, whom I first knew as founder and co-director (with Lilli Carré) of the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation. He currently teaches in the experimental animation program at CalArts and, among other things, creates line drawings that have captivated us for some time. I asked Stewart to tell us more about the work and he wrote back with this wonderful runthrough of his process and thinking behind these mesmerizing bands of ink:
This piece is part of an ongoing series of drawings. I’ve spent about 3 years experimenting with this particular technique, where I work with accumulations of lines drawn with stencils and rulers. Since I first started getting interested in art in college, I’ve been really inspired by drawing that is about engaging and recording process, by artists like Sol LeWitt. There’s a very linear process to these pieces for me, with a slow and steady forward movement. I start with a mark, and add more marks until the drawing is done. It’s pretty simple, but I’ve found a lot of tension and challenge in this idea. They are ink lines on paper, so there’s no covering up and no erasing. I’m always moving forward, responding to what’s been done thus far, and searching for a conclusion. I’ve made several dozen, maybe a hundred, drawings this way, mostly medium-sized pieces, and one very large 8 x 4 feet piece.
There’s a kind of self-generating compositional aspect to these for me. I use a set of French curve stencils to make these that are able to produce a finite range of curves and arcs. The curves and arcs bunch up into units, and the compositions develop out of various possible combinations of these units as I work intuitively. I might have a general plan for what I want to do with a drawing, but the overall composition is the result of a give-and-take between me and the process. A lot of the ways I’ve worked since I started making art in college have been using a similar method, where I work with simple or minimal tools until I find a technique that generates a unit, and then I play with repeating these units to form structures. I’ve done this in sculpture, film, and now drawing.
A few years ago, I finished a film project and was feeling that when I was making films, there was too much of a delay between the instinct and the end result. It took me weeks to set up an idea, test it out, shoot it, and get the film back. I wanted to work in a way that was more immediate and present, and drawing really felt right. I could start and finish a drawing in a day. I think I’m working to figure out some larger ideas with these works on paper, but I like the directions they have been taking me. I feel very present when I’m in the studio working with ink on paper. There’s a sense of immediate commitment to ideas and forward movement that I find very satisfying. Each drawing is really about the process of drawing and finding my way through the accumulation of marks. There’s a Richard Serra quote that goes, “There is no way to make a drawing, there is only drawing,” and I like thinking about that.
This piece “Silver Lake Ribbon #3” is from a series I drew in the first few weeks after I moved from Chicago to LA in the summer of 2016. It felt grounding to sit down and make some drawings at that time, when I was spending most days driving around LA trying to find an apartment and figure the city out. I was experimenting with creating a line of separation between the front sections and the back sections, thinking about strengthening the effect of depth. I wanted to try emphasizing that this is a depiction of a discrete object and not a literal collection of marks. I wanted the marks to participate in an illusion or illustration, rather than be concrete in the way I had used them in the past.
For me, these images look like ribbons or scarves, thrown into the air, and floating weightless for a moment. There’s no sense of place or time in the images. They also feel slippery and slick, like combed gelled hair. There’s a sense of decadence to them for me, an abundance of material that has no economy or justification. They are indulgent and sensuous, and also dark and ominous. Or maybe they are some kind of taffy.
I’m currently working on drawings and some paintings with similar forms. I’ve also gotten excited about some ideas for short films again and am thinking I might start working on an animation this summer.