During this conversation with Alex Gibbs (b. 1988) we meet his son Ivor, discuss the enduring influence of Frank Zappa, the Englishness in his work and sentimentality as a painterly tool.
Alex Gibbs: Do I think there is an Englishness to my work? As a half Scot, with a half Chinese son, living in Germany, I would say, yes. I think about England, particularly the East of Norfolk where the English side of my family hails from. I often think about the great flatness, with its square topped flint church towers visible far into the distance, and the pubs: isolated but haven like in those dark fields at night. There is a sadness to that landscape. I felt it as a child and I still feel it now, but I love it too. I like music and painting that brings out those feelings in me. That is not all music and painting that I like, of course, but it is a special – and persuasive – force within me. That it then seeps into the paintings I make is only natural.
Freshness is the greatest complement. It is that most sought after of quality in painting. Thank you. Particularly as a number of paintings recently feel like victims to overpainting. With the backwards thinking discussed in the previous question perhaps being related to a kind of atmosphere that I am interested in creating, in terms of subject matter I am always interested in something that I haven’t seen in a painting before. There aren’t many cars in painting for instance. So, Paint cars. People say you shouldn’t paint technology because it ages badly. Pathetic. Paint technology, let it age. Paint a phone. Difficult to pull off but very noble.
People say you shouldn’t paint technology because it ages badly. Pathetic. Paint technology, let it age. Paint a phone. Difficult to pull off but very noble.
Alex: At an informal school reunion some years ago in Edinburgh, we ended up back at our friend Donald’s house drinking whisky on his floor late at night. At some point our yearbook from 2006 was fished out which most of us likely hadn’t set eyes on for a long time. Luigi read out my little bio paragraph and it said something along the lines of “Alex will tell you about why Frank Zappa is better than Captain Beefheart”. As the author of that bio, Luigi had written something both meaningful and true. I only wish I had written something more considered for him than a stupid remark about meatballs and Italianness. It is quite a regret. But all these years later Frank Zappa is still an important figure for me.
As a sixteen-year-old hearing Zappa for the first time, I had the experience of being seduced by intrigue: of how music, and an outlook on life can be. I hadn’t heard music that had the kind of instrumentation and arrangements that Hot Rats had. More simply put, the sounds just made me think “what is this?”, but in such a right way. It felt like it was made for me. It was a very pivotal moment having that doorway opened. Sincerity vs. Humour + Craftsmanship. I think that formula is a very good start in joining the dots.
Sincerity vs. Humour + Craftsmanship. I think that formula is a very good start in joining the dots.
Alex: When I was choosing between specialising in painting or photography as a nineteen-year-old and my mother asked what I really wanted to do, I said “I want to make big black abstract paintings”. And I think that is what I am doing, but in the form of small colourful representational paintings. In terms of actual mark making, a lot of painting that I enjoy looking at is abstract so sometimes I just want to make purely abstract paintings. There’s a lot to be said for the therapeutic act of simply putting paint to canvas with no representational subject in mind. But I haven’t got to a point yet that I am entirely comfortable presenting one of these as an equal to its representational counterpart. But I see a day when that might happen.
Well, it is both related to me and it is an interesting painterly tool. Sentimentality is seen as being quite a negative trait in people, and in painting, so I certainly lean into that with the hope of the paintings existing in a slightly uneasy place. If I try to put my finger on it, I suppose I am always chasing that same feeling I had with Zappa, of being disarmed and left wondering. A tutor once told me: “don’t be afraid to alienate the viewer” and I suppose it is a similar thing to that. Why I would want to alienate the viewer can only be traced to some deep feeling of resentment towards others within me.
In terms of sentimentality itself, I have been pondering over this idea of family houses. It seems that there are different types of families, some who move around a lot, from house to house every few years. Then there are those who stay in one house for a very long time. My family was the latter. We were raised in the same house and we went on holiday to the same place every summer. So there were/are these rituals that get repeated over long periods of time. Say, a photo taken in a particular place on a hillside every summer, or on the same mantlepiece every Christmas. Being reared in such an environment is the only reason I can point at for such a sentimental mentality.
We were raised in the same house and we went on holiday to the same place every summer.
Alex: I have OCD. I do not know when exactly it began, and I do not know why. But the difficulties that have arisen regarding leaving the house or checking the oven before bed have consumed large amounts of my time in the last five years or so. It is terrible and I hope to one day move past it. As mentioned earlier, there is a certain pull in me towards trying to make a painting about something different to the previous painting I made. I do sometimes work in project form but these are usually pursuits that happen outside of the studio. Instead I see the paintings that I make in the studio as one long linear journey: one painting reacting to the previous. So in my general forward momentum, it was quite natural to start making paintings about the compulsive subjects in my life. They were appealing as subjects in the same way that sentimentality is, as an alienating device of sorts.
Alex: Process Is probably the most important part of it. From the beginning of my studies in Edinburgh I took pride in a well stretched canvas, even before I had figured out a way of applying paint on to it in a way that I was happy with. There is a sanctity to the constraints of painting. A rectangle, a surface and paint, and some people are not interested in that at all, but I am quite satisfied with it. When looking at other people’s paintings that is most of what I am looking at, or care about: how it was made, how the paint sits on the surface; Basically, how the painter spent their time with the object that is now sitting in front of me, and that precedes the act of painting itself. Even with this writing, I am interested in the fact that I started writing it by the fire in Norfolk and now I am finessing it on my phone on the train to London as the soft green landscape of England rolls past outside, my paintings from Berlin over there on the luggage rack packed in the cardboard box I salvaged from the recycling bin behind our apartment. The journey! The backstory. The process. The richness.
I am interested in the fact that I started writing it by the fire in Norfolk and now I am finessing it on my phone on the train to London as the soft green landscape of England rolls past outside… The journey! The backstory. The process. The richness.
Alex: Sometimes a painting is done in one sitting. The constraints, or mindset, that I was working with were set out in that way. But if there is a painting that I am building up over a longer time and then a deadline comes up that calls for the painting to be finished (like this show), sometimes I become unhealthily fixated on a specific area. I cannot see the painting as a whole, and have to keep changing that one tiny area, all to complete the mythical and balanced energy within the little rectangle. In reality I am always chasing the freshness of my previous attempt. I hope that conflict produces something of interest to look at, but really it is futile, and I don’t ever want to take a painting to that point. It is likely connected to the compulsive thing and when I get into that state there is a lyric by The Silver Jews that I sometimes think of in an attempt to ground me again: “Grant me one last wish, life should mean a lot less that this.”
Caring less is a very useful worldly attitude to have.
In reality I am always chasing the freshness of my previous attempt.
Alex: Tough one. They aren’t all equal, but again I imagine a point in the future where they might be. There is a crossover of themes and desires throughout, namely an atmosphere of mundane desires/emotions, humour/sincerity and craftsmanship. Moreover there is universally a very simple curiosity to see if something is possible. For instance, I am changing the oven in our kitchen and am greeted with a high voltage plug: the sands of intuition begin to shift: this could be something, but just how exactly could I make a painting of an electrical plug? Can it be elevated to the domestic relic status that painting allows?
The same process can be said for making a video. I am in this other country without a camera: “can I make a music video with just my mobile phone?” Or with a sweater: “I want to wear a really painterly sweater. Can I make myself a sweater?” etc. etc. They are the questions that keep the mind fizzing away, life’s sherbet if you will.
In terms of the reception that these pursuits get, everyone seems to like the embroidery and fashion objects. General reception of the music and videos is somewhat more lacklustre. This is disheartening but not discouraging.