Interview with Alexandra Ross, recipient of the 2007 Brait - Everard Read Art Award
by Michael Smith
Everard Read Johannesburg has, over the last three years, joined with Wits University School of Arts (WSOA) to make an award to an artist who is either currently engaged in or who has completed the WSOA Master's programme in the last ten years. The award gives the artist R30 000 with which to mount a show at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg, as well as the production of a catalogue. This year's recipient is Alexandra Ross, who has departed from her usual practice of painting to produce a subtle yet complex series of large-format photographic works for a show entitled 'Viewpoint'.
The works take the gallery interior as their subject, and Ross has constructed something of a self-referential maze of spatial illusions. The works are sized and framed to mimic the gallery's aluminium-framed doors, and Ross's selected views are either deliberately so incidental as to be anonymous, or tantilisingly clipped. The results are nonetheless extraordinarily beautiful, or in her words, 'reminiscent of the intense quietude of Vermeer's interiors but taking their subjects from peripheral vision'.
I interviewed Ross in June, two weeks before her show was due to open. Amongst other things, she spoke about her shift into photographic work, insisting that her formal and conceptual concerns were the same as with her paintings, speculating that she was possibly still 'painting', only now with photography.
Michael Smith: So Alexandra, congratulations on your win. Tell me briefly about your body of work for this show.
Alexandra Ross: The show comprises six, large-scale colour photographs each 2.4 metres high x 74 cm wide, mounted in one of the Everard Read's four gallery rooms. It may at first seem a radical departure from my oil paintings, but in conception it's not. It is an attempt to perceive beauty in the banal, to find mystery in the mundane and shift awareness.
MS: Tell me about the prize and the process.
AR: Well, the competition is a collaboration between Brait, the Everard Read and the WSOA. The concept was developed by Mark Read and Mary-Jane Darroll of the gallery together with Professor Alan Crump of Wits. Entrants submit a proposal which is judged by about 7 - 8 judges.
MS: The works are shown in the gallery interior, and are actually also of the same gallery interior. Is this accurate?
AR: Yes, this site-specific work is also very much about exploring the intersection between artist, art and the gallery space.
MS: How did your working process unfold? Did you go to the space first?
AR: Yes, this body of work is very much a response to the space. I was interested in how to use the gallery space to explore and propagate some of my ideas. My work is often about the environment I'm in at the time of making, so it made sense for me to view and respond to the space first. This installation does shift from my previous work. I usually work quite impulsively, within a fairly established framework of course, but with these images I needed to be quite calculated and systematic. Because the images were going to be so enlarged, I couldn't work with my usual 'point-and-shoot' camera: I had to hire a Hasselblad and enlist the help of a professional photographer. I worked with my brother David so in that sense it was a collaboration, and the production of the works also involved a degree of collaboration with printers and framers, which is all quite foreign to my usual way of working.
MS: One of the perennial debates in contemporary art over the last 40 or so years, pretty much since Gerhard Richter came into public view, is the connection and overlap between painting and photography. I've always known of you as a painter, but when we had adjoining studios at Wits a while back, I sneaked into yours and found some very beautiful, very complex source photographs.
AR: Well, I've always painted from photographs. That's very much what my work has been about for a long time: scenes, objects and transient moments usually on the edges of one's vision, outside conventional focus. Photography allows me to capture those things spontaneously but also accurately. There are also certain photographic effects - blur, bounce, refraction, reflection - that are not visible to the naked eye or difficult to recreate that interest me. And I'm particularly interested in the mediated view, looking at things through 'screens' like glass or smoke, mist or reflected in water. If I want to capture an image while moving, driving for example, photography gives me the freedom to do so very easily.
MS: So formally speaking, how are these works different from your paintings?
AR: They're different in that they're sharper and more static and this show is conceptually more considered, but at the same time they continue my practice of looking at things on the margins of my vision and consciousness: things that are not the obvious choice to photograph. And there's a kind of quietness, something pared down that's common to both.
MS: Do you think viewers are going to find the sections of the gallery interior you've photographed?
AR: They'll have to be fairly observant. These are very niched views, and some are quite abstract because of this, but I don't think impossibly so.
MS: Is there something particular about the Everard Read Gallery that you wanted to engage with?
AR: Well, yes, in the sense that I'm playing with some of the ideas that the Everard Read stands for. It's very much about investment art, and I'm quite non-materialistic, I believe in foregrounding the ephemeral, the imaginative, even the magical.
MS: So are the works for sale, then?
AR: Yes, they are, but I understand what you're saying. I suppose the irony is that the art that is bought in this case is really a window, a view, not a 'saleable' product. And there will be no name tags next to the works. More than financially, I want people to buy into the illusion, the fact that where they expect to find 'art' will be these fake windows - photographic works carefully constructed to mimic the doors and windows of the space. Also, although the works are photographic, I won't make editions: they'll be one-offs. This relates them more closely to painting, and that also establishes a continuity with my previous practice.
MS: Do you think this body of work will signal a future path for you? Will you continue to work in photography?
AR: Yes, I think I will. What's interesting for me is that I'm interpreting a very old painting technique - trompe l'oeil painting which has its origins as far back as Roman times - in a very contemporary way, using photography and installation. In order for the illusion to work, they needed to be hyperreal but I'm not interested in painting in that way. So it made sense to work photographically. But I still regard myself as a painter. Maybe I'm just painting with photography. This whole process has put me into another realm as an artist: I don't feel I have to restrict myself to either painting or photography.
Opens: July 5
Closes: July 31
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