Alexi Worth on painting and ambiguity

A video of last Tuesday’s artist’s talk by Alexi Worth has been posted to SVA’s iTunes U page. You can find it at this link. It’s free to download, and can be played from iTunes.

The talk provided a glimpse into the way that deeply held ideas and interests can shape the evolution of an artist’s work over time. For Worth, painting seems to hinge on a few basic but not easily answered questions about the nature of representation. A lot of his work investigates the discomfort that can arise when one notices the gap between the way things appear to the eye and the way they look when transformed by the artist’s hand.

During the post-lecture question-and-answer session, Worth responds to an audience member's comment.

Worth began his talk by considering two moments in art history when debate over the need for artists to stay true to a more “real” (i.e., photographic) view of the world began to shift the way people look at art. His first example was strictly art-historical, recounting an 1853 incident in which painter Eugene Delacroix showed a group of friends several images of nude models made using the still-novel technique of photography. The images looked strange and off-putting to his guests, because they were not yet accustomed to the stark way those early photographs presented light and volume; their expectations were formed by the softer portrayals of the figure they had seen in paintings and prints. However, when Delacroix went on to show them a set of prints by the 14th-century Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi (such as this one, which Worth projected for the audience), those suddenly looked alien as well. It was as if exposure to photography had made the artifice of painting and drawing too evident, transforming artistic conventions of figure portrayal into instant clichés.

Worth then turned his focus to the world of comic books, discussing a major debate among artists and readers that arose in the early 1970s. At that time, a new type of realistic, photo-reference-dependent comic art began to challenge an older style that often sacrificed veracity in the interest of visual imagination and dynamism. (Worth cited Neal Adams as an example of the former, and Jack Kirby as an example of the latter.) Worth’s point in presenting this history was not to reopen the old argument about whether popular art belongs in the same bin as fine art; rather, he wanted to point out another situation in which the question of whether art should become more “realistic” challenged an audience’s previously unquestioned preconceptions about what constitutes a good or bad portrayal of reality.

During his lecture, Worth projected these panels from a 1971 Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic by Neal Adams to illustrate his thoughts on realism and representation.

An interest in historical moments like this would strongly influence Worth’s development as an artist. Much of his lecture was built around a chronological presentation of his paintings, with a running commentary on his own struggle with the tension between realism and the urge to bend it in the direction of allegory. His earliest paintings owed a lot to artists like Rackstraw Downes, but a growing dissatisfaction with straightforward photorealism eventually led him to inject small moments of mystery into them. At first, this took the form of compositional and visual effects, such as the overlap of figures and faces in a painting of a crowded subway scene. Soon, however, distortions of realism began to creep in, as in a series of canvases showing Worth’s friends and associates with large heads and disproportionately small bodies (something like the older style of cartoonist Chester Brown). The title for each of these works was quoted from comments made while their subjects sat to be painted; the quotes serve as much to imply a hidden narrative as to enrich the sense of portraiture. Many of them also have a sly sense of humor (for example, there’s this painting of Village Voice art critic Christian Viveros-Fauné, titled Somebody I’m Going to Take a Class and Learn to Paint, I’m Serious).

As Worth’s concerns and style developed in tandem, his use of slightly distorted portrayals, overlapping imagery, and visual effects derived from comics also evolved. Many of his paintings try to make the viewer conscious of his or her combined roles of voyeur, storyteller, and participant. In some cases, Worth depictions are strictly first-person; in others, his own cast shadow looms over the image, implying that he and the viewer occupy the same spot. Worth stated that he is interested in creating scenes in which the hidden is arguably as important as what can be seen, thereby opening up a space for the viewer to enter. In a series featuring a somewhat pathetic, balding middle-aged character named Gerberman, Worth used sensory imagery to make the viewer contemplate the immediacy of our physical surroundings, but he also presented a sequential narrative of Gerberman’s gradual flight to fantasy in the face of mildly disappointing reality; the play between reality and artificiality here is a cardinal element of many of Worth’s recent paintings. In many of his images, he quietly underscores the apparent clash between realism and artistry by combining elements suited to each within a single canvas. In this image, the realistic textures in the central figure’s suit and hair are offset by the thick outlines and cartoony renderings of light and space found in the rest of the image.

In talking about his work, Worth described several other strategies he’s used to try and bring viewers into his internal dialogue about the uneasy relationship between reality and representation. Throughout, there is the sense that for him, visually ambivalent imagery makes for more honest representation than pure photorealism does, perhaps because the former keeps the slippery, illusory nature of imagemaking in the foreground. I’ve only been able to touch the surface of his ideas here, and talk about a small fraction of the paintings he showed. I encourage everyone to check out the lecture at the link above, so that you can see more of his work and delve into his ideas more deeply.

Visual & Critical Studies