Alex Carroll is an American artist based in Shanghai. In the build-up to his final exhibition in China, I went to meet Alex during his residency at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel to get the lowdown on his solo show, Transience, and reflect on his time in Shanghai.
Having obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts, he followed up with a Masters of Fine Arts at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. In 2006 he relocated to China with his wife and began what became a 10-year process of exploring the theme of movement through art.
“I’ve been working with the idea of movement for a while,” Alex tells me as we sit in his impressive studio at the Swatch Hotel on the Bund. “It’s a general theme to work with. Over the years I’ve used that theme to examine different things. My early work is more an examination of the self and other, the physical and the metaphysical.”
I first saw Alex’s works in 2016 at a group exhibition at Plaza 66. What stood out for me was the medium he used, pastel. It wasn’t something I’d seen much in China before. As I learned more about the theme of movement within his work, it struck me that pastel was a good way to convey this.
But as Alex explained, time and body are also central components to his art. “It’s not just movement, I’m also looking at how movement and the body are experienced with time. And pastel gives the sense that it’s something that can be easily wiped away, it brings those notions to the front. If I use oil or acrylics it has too much presence. Canvas is a very dense object and I want something light so I’m working on paper. I want the materials to be light. And it’s very easy to capture that movement because I do everything with my hand. So I might build up a form with shadows and values and then just wipe it away and that becomes part of the picture.”
Looking at Alex’s images many emotions are stirred within: uncertainty, anxiety and maybe a sense of horror with some of the more provocative pieces. But this isn’t in a negative sense, as he explains, “I want it to be unsettling to a degree but more spiritual and transcendent.” Herein is the crux: art is intended to give the observer a feeling, that surely is its purpose; to look at a painting and have your emotions aroused.
“Whenever you distort the face it does offer a feeling of being unsettled. It can even go into feelings of being a horror film. I try to stop just before that. I don’t want it to be horrific, I want it to be more wraith-like, more ghostly, but not like in a horror way, but ghostly in a transcendent way or ephemeral way.”
Where do the images come from I wonder? Alex works from photographs he takes himself. “Initially the camera works as a sketching tool,” he says, “a starting point for distorting the figure and distorting the face. From there I translate into a larger drawing.”
He starts by setting up a long exposure film and putting himself under a direct lighting source. He then moves the camera and himself together, but in opposition. “If you can move in opposition to the camera you create a double imagery,” he explains. It’s here that you understand how important movement is to the whole concept of what he does.
Sometimes he takes random pictures in the street or occasionally he’ll use a model. The In Flux series is an example of when he used a model to capture movement and body as a sketch for the larger artwork. “These are from Lulu, she performs at The Pearl,” he begins. “It was great because I went and did a shoot with her at The Pearl. And I didn’t even know, I hadn’t planned it, I hadn’t given her any direction and she was actually in a dress rehearsal.”
“So we’re in The Pearl,” he continues, “and she has this black dress and it’s really low cut and the whole background is red, it created such a sensual thing. The black and red colour palette, first of all it feels really like China to me, and it really has a feeling of Shanghai; this provocative city, and being sensual as well, and also being very distorted, the movement of the city, just constantly changing. Having that juxtaposition of being very sensual and very unsettling at the same time was what drew me to these.”
So does the theme of movement come from living in Shanghai these past 10 years? “I’m not setting out to do this movement work about Shanghai because ‘Shanghai is really fast’, no. Shanghai is a vehicle for collecting images for the much larger theme of looking at movement and how we experience time. I like that the more I do it, the more Shanghai does creep into it. I want it to be present in the work, but I’m not forcing it.”
As we browse through the many photos Alex has on the wall of his studio, we begin to discuss what he might do in the future. “I have one photograph, there’s this figure and this negative space between another figure in the background. That might be something to explore there. Using that darkness as a compositional element to bring in the colour. It would be fun to fade that to black.”
Alex also talks fondly of Chinese New Year two years ago as another opportunity to create new works. During a family trip to Guangxi province they went to some villages and saw firsthand the festivities taking place. “Here,” he says referring to the In Flux series, “the red has this really sensual and provocative feeling with the figure that’s being used. But when I was in Guangxi during the Chinese New Year celebration you have everyone in red, it’s festive, but at the same time everybody is slaughtering cows because everyone is preparing these great dinners. I saw so much blood, and then people in red and lanterns. I want to do that work as well where I’m using those reds.”
“Red is such a crazy colour to examine because it has so many emotions and so many different extremes and experiences attached with it. You can play with that idea. Red in China is so differently viewed from red in the West, it’s interesting to think about how you can use that duality.”
It’s clear that even though Alex’s time in China is coming to an end, his exploration of the themes that run through his art will continue back over in America. Clearly, the experience of settling back will have an impact on his work, and it’d be nice to see where it’s at after another 10 years.