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Thursday, May 5, 2011

A few questions with Alex Kvares and Mark Hosford

Alex Kvares and Mark Hosford, collaboration
  • Alex Kvares and Mark Hosford, collaboration

On Saturday, Beep Beep Gallery will exhibit Sasnak, new and collaborative work from Alex Kvares and Mark Hosford. The Ukrainian-born, Atlanta-based Kvares has been showing regularly at Beep Beep for years now, rightfully earning local admiration for the hallucinogenic, hatch-mark pointillism of his drawings. The Nashville-based Hosford is an assistant professor of art at Vanderbilt University.

Earlier this week, CL asked them to answer a few questions about the work and that sprawled into lengthy discussion that touches on Marxism, Rorschachs, Kansas, and "Vikings with swords and shit like that." Check out the conversation and a few images from the show after the jump.

What's your background? Why did you start making art?

Alex Kvares: It's a bit of a cliché, maybe. Both my parents are artists. So I saw a lot of art growing up; we'd go to museums regularly and old churches to look at frescoes (Kiev has a quite a few) and traveled around the country a bit too. But I never enjoyed drawing growing up. You never want to do what your parents do. It was all about math and computers and sci-fi and some photography and I was really into music. So, every nerd indicator, I guess, but the culture is different and those things aren't stigmatized or not in the same way.

I didn't really start drawing until I was 11 and in the hospital for a month and the other kid in the room was drawing. So we were bored and drawing all these little heavy metal doodles and other adolescent stuff. So after that I was the guy with the notebook completely covered in blue ballpoint drawings with AC|DC scrawled on it and Vikings with swords and shit like that. You know all those things that were in vogue before we got tired of being postmodern and decided to be children in a different way. The transition from an ironic rainbow to a genuine appreciation of dreamcatchers. So, yeah, lonely kid makes drawing to cope with culture shock in a foreign country, that's were I was going with that, so yeah, pretty cliché. I guess.

Mark Hosford: To be honest, I don't know when I started making art. I have been a neurotic doodler as far back as I can remember. I do know that I drew constantly because I enjoyed how I could speak in a visual language rather than a verbal language. I would draw everywhere I went. When I was in church, I filled the church program with images; when I was at school, I covered my desk daily with pencil mayhem. I always felt like a shy and outcast child. I never really felt comfortable in reality so I created my own visual world that I could feel comfortable in. I didn't like to share personal feelings with people so I learned to express myself in images. It was a language that seemed to make more sense to me. That is not to say I was an art prodigy growing up. Looking back on my old drawings, that were pretty raw, but they were extremely useful to me psychologically. You can't control life, but you can control a drawing. Just like Alex, I grew up listening to punk, thrash, hardcore and death metal. I fell in love with the visual frenzy that surrounded the music and the movements, from the cover art, to the graffiti. The punk and hardcore scene had a real DIY attitude about it that I was drawn to as well. I was obsessed with music, but I sucked at playing it so I just focused on the art component.

Alex Kvares and Mark Hosford, collaboration
  • Alex Kvares and Mark Hosford, collaboration

You've known one another since attending the same high school in Kansas, right?

AK: We did go to the same high school for a year but didn't really meet until college [at University of Kansas]. Mark played a skinny death metal weirdo and I was generally not speaking to people that year. So our friendship had no chance to blossom. We were both drawing already though.

MH: KU was full of teachers that taught art as if it was still the 50's through 70's. I felt constrained as I took many classes from some Ex-Ab-Exers. The printmaking department was one of the few places that allowed us to explore the type of cultural imagery we were into. Our professor, Michael Krueger, had a similar background as us and really fostered our neurotic need to crank out images and ideas. Alex and I were in the printshop all the time and ended up working together all the time. It served as a hub for all of us at the school who were in that mindset. We would spend a lot of our free time all working around each other to let all of our influences influence each other to some extent.

Can you explain more about this theme of distortion that Sasnak is exploring?

AK: I'm not sure if distortion can really be theme-worthy. I guess it is more of a by-product of the theme in the sense that a lot of the work is about cultural mechanisms that produce distortions. My last body of work mined the ideas of hope (mainly political, mainly unfulfillable) and idealism (as related to ideology). I was particularly interested in the notion of purposefully self-deceptive idealism. Symbols we can invest with collective faith in order to achieve greater societal goals without the necessity of any one individual believing it. Not after the initial ideological honeymoon period.

For me the reference points were Marxist, partially because of my background but also because it is the dominant theory within the art world. It is also something I do believe in. This was as much a personal crisis of faith as cultural commentary.

So, this new work explores some of the similar themes but in looser, funner ways. It's more about escaping fixed ideologies and styles and more about hybridization, of ideas and formal notions, in-betweenness, slippages, etc.

A big part of the show is a series of small drawing collectively titled "Mondegreens". I think that title explains more about the work than I did in the last two paragraphs.

MH: Most of my work will be from a new series I have been working on dealing with inkblots. Ten of which use Rorschach's original inkblots used in psychoanalysis. For these I have printed out the original inkblots in a very light gray color. I then proceed to draw exactly what I see in them. I started doing these when I was thinking about memory. I have a sort of memory loss problem and I don't remember most of my childhood. I also had a sort of daydreaming problem as well growing up. I would get confused and think the daydreams were real since I would forget what really happened. My parents still have to tell me who I hung out with and what I did. They could make up stories of things I did and I would never know. I have to except it as reality without any proof. When I would reminisce about the past, people would stare at me blankly and tell me that my solid memory never happened. That got me to realize how much reality and history are never really concrete. Maybe I was really correct and they were wrong. Who is to say? Two people can see the same thing and interpret it differently. To an extent, whatever you think is right in front of you is your reality. I enjoy letting my unconscious have full reign to come to the surface when I draw, revealing what my reality is at that particular place in time when I work on an inkblot. In a way, it is like a collaboration in that the parameters and composition are already determined for me by someone else. I just have to fill in the blanks. I can regurgitate all the things that have been rattling around in my head.

Alex Kvares, from the Mondegreen series
  • Alex Kvares, from the "Mondegreen" series

Alex, can you talk a little bit more about how Marxism shaped your background? You worked a lot with Cold War era architecture in Oh So Fail.

AK: Well, I grew up with it and saw the discrepancy between public manifestation of Marxism (this became a totalitarian monstrosity) and private (this became a moral code still based on Marxist theory and that strange Russian patriotism and humanism in the absence of religion and superhuman intake of alcohol). And to be blunt, the way I think about it, it's a great ethic to live by personally but on larger scale some asshole will always make it about him and you get your Stalin/Mao/Ils.

But I always stayed away from those themes because I didn't want to be that guy, the Russian artist who makes work about communism.

I started thinking about it in terms of my relationship to hope and optimism. My mode until then, 2007 or so, was fairly cynical and detached and playfully cruel: a lot of Baudrillard and Momus in my twenties. But after a while being cynical gets boring and I started thinking about hope and things that genuinely gave me hope and had to reach back pretty far. And that's when I started making portraits of Gagarin and that led to all those things about the sad turn Marxism took in the real world and the sacred turn it took in academia, what is that Thomas Lawson line, something about, it's hard to call for revolution while applying for tenure. Because that's another side, I have been in academia all my life, studying or teaching in a safe art school bubble.

But one more thing about the Oh So Fail work, there was a drawing I did fairly early in that cycle. I tend to work in roughly two year cycles with a year in between to figure shit out. This upcoming show is very much a figuring shit out show hence many small works.

[The drawing] was a pretty direct take on a Louis Vuitton ad from a Marc Jacobs campaign. It was a photo of Gorbachev in a back of a car going pass the Berlin wall with LV bag next to him. And he looks tired and simultaneously dishonored and distinguished. And I was thinking of it in relationship to all those Shepard Fairey, Obama posters. I remember when Gorbachev was that beacon of hope, not unlike Gagarin back in his day, and now he's in LV ad. So to me it was like a Hope poster in 30 years. It wasn't in the show because it was gone already but it was in a way a key to the series.

Mark Hosford
  • Mark Hosford

How did the process of long-distance collaboration work? Did you talk or email about the work or simply send it back and forth?

AK: We each started a drawing and after few weeks mailed to the other and back and again. There was very little discussion but we have done similar things in the past and have a pretty good feel how the other works. So, a pretty loose process but based on a lot of trust.

MH: The great thing about working collaboratively with Alex is that I feel we are similar enough that the drawing seems fluid and cohesive, yet we are different enough that I am always excited and surprised when I see what his addition is. It is never what I would do, which makes it more interesting to play with in some ways. It frees you up in a way as you get to loose a little control. Trusting his ideas and having always been into his work certainly makes it easier to collaborate. We trust each other enough not to need rules. Neither of us have a big ego that thinks our work is sacred and should not be altered. If I was worried that I could do something "wrong", I wouldn't even want to start.

Did you ever feel unsure about crossing a line of altering the work that had been sent to you? What sort of intuitive rules did you follow in the absence of discussion about the collaboration?

AK: Never really felt unsure about crossing a line like that. You have to be willing to have what you do erased, altered and defaced when you collaborate and when you trust the other person you trust them to understand that. I think with us it's more about obsessive desire to keep the paper clean that prevents erasing.

As far as rules, I was trying to set up open ended prompts of sort. Like having a figure reacting to something but letting him put in the something, the counterpart. Or messing with the notions of symmetry in the Rorschachs by using slightly asymmetric modernist forms from the same period and throwing it into a psychologist's office to make it slightly soiled.

Sasnak, featuring work by Alex Kvares and Mark Hosford, opens at Beep Beep Gallery on Sat., May 7 at 7 pm. More details at Beep Beep.

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