Q+Art: Artist Alexandra Carter Explores Female Identity with Explosive Ink Paintings
Alexandra Carter grew up on one of the many cranberry bogs scattered across southeast Massachusetts. For Carter, the tart superfruit became a personal symbol, capable of illustrating her complex relationship with gendered expectations, both ancient and modern. Now based in San Diego, the mixed-media artist explores the many facets of female identity with explosive ink paintings that run the gamut from delectable to disgusting.
Peer closely into Carter’s work, and you’ll see her favorite fruit pop up in unexpected places. “The berry is a repeated icon in my visual lexicon,” she writes in her artist statement. “The fruit is like a garnet ambrosia, an exalted potion that seeps through my paintings and intoxifies its subjects.” Botanical illustrations and ripe berries double as globular body parts that seem to burst from their human containers. Though her use of flowers and fruit symbolizes women as vessels of beauty and abundance, Carter isn’t afraid to paint her subjects in a less than flattering light. Her work tackles the “angst, passion, and pain of womanhood and motherhood” with a wanton disregard for our visual or emotional comfort.
In Carter’s work, breasts lactate and menstrual blood flows (or enigmatically doesn’t). The artist fully embraces her “ugly” side as she metaphorically snarls at the outside world through a puddle of oozing body parts. Flirtation, though, is not outside the realm of possibility. Like a light switch, Carter’s women flip from Medusa to Aphrodite in an instant, seducing the viewer with their fleshy breasts and swaying hips. “Women embody the celebratory nature of the harvest alongside a certain burlesque attitude, performing a sumptuous dance between maiden, mother, and crone,” she notes.
Being a woman, Carter suggests, is a bloody business. But women are also in the business of lust, light, laughter, filth, and jealousy. By letting her subjects “splash out of their skin,” Carter imagines a complete identity for women, unbound by cultural assumptions and bolstered by the radical notion that women’s bodies are their own.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Alexandra Carter discusses the explosiveness of the female body, her favorite spooky fiction, and making your own path through the changing art world.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Alexandra Carter: I’m a bit biased towards books that deal with my particular subject matter, but these can still speak to artists in general:
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
Unica Zürn, The Man of Jasmine
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves
Georges Bataille, The Story of the Eye
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”
What are you trying to express with your art?
AC: I’m always trying to express some kind of explosive body. We are not the buttoned up, contained beings we try to be. We are a mess—oozing, leaking, and falling out of ourselves all the time (emotionally, physically, sexually). Lately, I’m trying to navigate the difficult relationship between motherhood and eroticism, procreation and consumption. I want to speak to an erupting female body that is both angry and dilapidated yet seductive—bursting at the seams but always thirsting for more.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
AC: Often I would, yes, but it depends on the exposure and what type of “work” we are talking about of course! Exposure is important to me; I make work both because I need to, but also so other people can actually see it. It should be seen, not just sit rolled up in storage somewhere. The conversations to be had around it are so important.
What person has most influenced your work?
AC: It’s tough to name just one! Between my mentors, my family, and the artists who have greatly impacted me, there are so many. But to highlight one from my past, I could say Cindy Sherman. I learned a lot about her work in undergrad during a particularly formative moment in my art-making. The way she uses herself, always enacting, disguising, and dressing up, was influential to me as I was beginning to use my own body in my work. That’s when I started to do small performances of sorts for my own camera, acting out some idea and making a reference image from which to paint. The resulting paintings became infused with some kind of immediacy and authenticity, even if it wasn’t obvious the figure was based on my own body.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
AC: Wine. Lots of wine. Especially old-world styles from Piedmont, Etna, or other Italian wine regions. With food.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
AC: I would have to say All gods are hot, my solo show at Radiant Space in 2018, was particularly monumental for me. I had recently moved from Europe to Los Angeles, and that body of work was a culmination of work I’d done in Vienna, Rome, and then Los Angeles. It was my first big solo show since I’d finished my MFA degree at Goldsmiths, and having that big show far away from my academic network felt like a feat for me. My degree show was the first time I had installed my paintings on drafting film by suspending them, and I think I really figured something out by doing that.
By the time I installed All gods are hot, it really brought the suspensions and scale to a whole new level. While I had been painting on this translucent medium for quite a while, it was really questioned and challenged in grad school. “Why are you painting on this material? Why not paint on a more traditional painting surface?” By suspending the paintings in space, I was really making use of their translucency, turning them into double-sided viewing experiences. They were no longer the shy, smaller paintings of previous years, either. They were big, in-your-face figurative paintings that really tried to engage with the viewer through their life-size scale.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
AC: “There are as many ways to be an artist as there are artists.” Honestly, you’ve just got to find your own way to make it work—both in life (financially, logistically, and education-wise) and within the work itself (subject matter, materials, etc.). In the art world, things are always changing and there are no absolutes. So you can’t rely on traditions, institutions, or some other kind of stable structure or hierarchy. Make it work however you can, and connect with other artists.
The other one I have to mention is “find a supportive partner.” This can’t be undervalued. In undergrad at Rhodes College we often had visiting artists and critics visit our small but mighty art department, doing crits and giving lots of talks. One of my professors, great artist Hamlett Dobbins, was always good about asking those with families, “How do you make it work, maintaining an art practice alongside having a family?” and Hamlett was often very open about that himself as well. He wanted us young art majors to understand that making art work as a lifestyle AND having a family is hard but totally doable, and we don’t have to be so hush-hush about it.
Anyway, many of the artists would answer, “I have a supportive partner, and that is a lifeline for what I do.” And thank goodness, that’s what I’ve got as well. My husband is a scientist, working in a lab most of the time, but he has the same curious, problem-solving, voracious learning drive that is common among artists, so the pairing has turned out quite complementary! He supports me in what I do, gives me feedback, and understands my need to do it.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
AC: For me it was. But that’s me—I thrive in academic settings and love devouring, making, and critiquing art alongside peers. I miss it so much! Both my undergrad and graduate degree really energized my work, and also made me figure out what truly makes me tick, conceptually. You get thrown so many theories and concepts in the academic setting that it helps you to really identify which ones make the most sense to you, and which ones you’re more curious about. For some people, a more solitary path of exploration in their work can be more appropriate, or if they already have a great following and community then academia might not add much.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
AC: I think there should be much more funding for the arts. One of the things that impressed me while living in Europe for grad school was that there is a greater prevalence of funding for the arts, both public and private. Many of my peers who came from all over Europe had some kind of funding. I did several residencies while I was there that were funded. It gives artists such great validation and, yes, brings a whole lot more art into our world!
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
AC: When I’m doing tedious, labor-type painting or tidying the studio, my brain is free to take in new material, so I listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts. I recently listened to the book Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women by Sharon Blackie, which certainly has some great correlations with my work. Another was Wake, Siren by Nina MacLaughlin, a kind of feminist retelling of Greek myths, read in the author’s own powerful voice, which is great. Also Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power by Pam Grossman was a book about witches which includes a particularly fabulous chapter on witchy artists. Next on my queue is Funny Weather: Art in Emergency by Olivia Laing.
My favorite podcasts are The Conversation Art Podcast with Michael Shaw, and Artist/Mother Podcast with Kaylan Buteyn (even before I was a mother I listened to this … just a great place to find solid, honest interviews with women artists). I’ve also picked up some good research from podcasts like Deviant Women, and The Great Women Artists.
When I’m more in the mood for music, my constant standbys are Young Fathers, TV on the Radio’s older albums, LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective, Febueder, plus whatever Spotify tells me I’ll like.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
AC: It certainly further isolated me, and kept me from seeing more art and artists in person, which has made my studio activity much more insular and less a product of conversation with peers. I miss art openings! I miss having more consistent studio visits! They are picking back up though. That conversational part of my practice will hopefully return to normal eventually.
Despite the pandemic, I still had a few exhibitions and artist talks, which were a godsend in terms of making that connection with viewers about the work. I think the pandemic made artist talks more prevalent in a way, since they could be held virtually. It was really nice that friends and family from across the globe were able to tune into my artist talks and not just a local audience.
One thing that has always punctuated my studio practice has been artist residencies, and that was put on hold. So it was a break from traveling and getting my research that way, which was of course a bummer.
On the upside, it seemed like a lot more people were buying art from me, so that’s good I surmise the pandemic has made people realize they want to have more meaningful, original objects on the walls they have to stare at while staying home all the time.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
AC: I just had a baby, and have been processing the experience of pregnancy and birth within my work. Talk about an explosive body! That was as literal as the “explosive body” could get—and really taps into concepts of the monstrous feminine and the maternal grotesque, concepts I’ve been grappling with visualizing in my paintings for a while. I’m really excited for that experience to make its way into the work, and see how motherhood infuses my ideas with a new understanding of the body.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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