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Artist Q&A

Stratification and stencilled Michelangelos: an interview with Alex Stewart

Artist and UFV alumnus Alex Stewart just wrapped up his Stratification art exhibit, which was on display in room B136 on the UFV Abbotsford campus from May 22 to June 12. Between taking down his exhibit and travel preparations, Stewart found time to talk to The Cascade about his art, stencilling in general, and having a show in Tennessee.

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By Kodie Cherrille (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: June 18, 2014

Stewart’s intricately layered artwork takes dozens of stencils — and just as many hours of careful work. (Artwork: Alex Stewart)

Stewart’s intricately layered artwork takes dozens of stencils — and just as many hours of careful work. (Artwork: Alex Stewart)

Artist and UFV alumnus Alex Stewart just wrapped up his Stratification art exhibit, which was on display in room B136 on the UFV Abbotsford campus from May 22 to June 12. Between taking down his exhibit and travel preparations, Stewart found time to talk to The Cascade about his art, stencilling in general, and having a show in Tennessee.

I found a really interesting effect upon coming into the B Building entrance on the first floor. The first thing you see is “Flamenco,” with the eyes of a woman looking right at you as you walked through to door. I got sucked in right away, it was such an eye-catching thing. Did you plan that?

I knew the layout of the gallery, knew how it all worked and flowed, and I planned to have a larger piece for the back section of the wall. I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be, but I knew I wanted it to be the focal point of the show. When I did [Flamenco], it just worked. After I painted that piece, I had it hanging in my studio for a while, and I found that the eyes would follow you no matter where you went. So after that happened, I figured, perfect! Let’s just put that dead-centre.

Would you say that Stratification is more ‘out there’ for you? Or is it something that relates to a lot of what you have been doing before that?

A lot of what I do is based around stencils and lots of colour. I tried stencilling in my final year at UFV —  it was a challenge from one of my professors — and I fell in love with it. I’ve been trying to find other ways to stencil — you know, more than what your grandmothers would do on their kitchen cabinets. I try to bring depth to it — all of the faces are stencils as well. Everything I do is stencils, I don’t use a brush anymore. So it’s just about finding new ways to progress that art form: using stencils to create paintings.

How many stencil layers would you say went into the art in Stratification?

If you were to go onto Photoshop and work in layers, that’s how my head works when I’m making a stencil, when I lay them all out and make a stack.  For “Flamenco,” I would say, for her face alone, it was about 12 separate stencils.

How many hours of work is that — just making the stencils?

I lose track of time when I cut out the stencils. I just put on some music and go. But it’s probably between eight and 24 hours to cut out one piece’s worth of stencils.

In most of your displayed works, there are very ornate patterns — like a fleur-de-lis — that surround the women. In “Sinking,” the woman is almost completely covered in these designs. It made me think of someone plastering those patterns over her, like she is literally being painted out of the picture. Is that the effect you were going for? And is that why this exhibition is called Stratification?

Yeah, I’m playing with that a lot — just going for a full painting and obscuring sections, so that your mind can draw its own conclusions about what is missing or happening — and I find using just a design, rather than specific objects, makes the mind travel further, because it is not being told that “this is an anvil” or something like that. It’s just colours, essentially.

Were you looking for something purposefully ornate to do that?

Yeah, I tried out a lot of different styles, and then I drew that one up … I’ve drawn that one up hundreds of times now, since stencils deteriorate quickly when they’re being used. I just keep using it. It’s become a static feature in my paintings now.

Why women in these paintings? 

I’ve been asked that question tonnes of times, especially when I was at school — “why is your subject matter always women?” There is something hauntingly beautiful about the female expression, compared to male expression. You get more of a haunting visage rather than, say, something a little darker with a male face, where it would just look darker, and not have such an underlying beauty to it. That’s, at least, what I think. I’ve always thought, “just paint what you want to paint,” that’s all.

Would you say that ideas of masculinity could possibly “hijack” your work, then?

It could, in a way, I think, but I have also toyed with Michelangelo’s “David,” like that style of sculpture, and translating a style like that into actually painting. This show is more about what I have been doing lately, and from here I will explore other avenues. I’ve seen some work done in that “David” style, and it just blows my mind.

“David” in stencilling? That’s insane!

Yeah. Not like a sculpture, but just that textured look, captured in a stencil.

That would take a lot of layering.

It would, but it would totally be worth it.

Totally. You just recently had an exhibition out in Tennessee. It was your first show outside of the valley.

It was my first international show, you could call it. It was really, really cool. I didn’t have anything to do with it, really. They found my work via Instagram, and then they contacted me, asking, “Would you like to submit to our gallery for our opening show?” I was blown away by it. I didn’t think my art was that far-reaching, but apparently it is. It was a really great experience, and I have stuff down there for another show right now, too.

Have you gone down to Tennessee?

I was going to, but with the overlaps between that show and Stratification, it was hard to find the time to actually get down there. I’m looking to get down there soon, though, because the galleries down there are phenomenal.

Why Stratification?

I was brainstorming titles for my show, and stratification is an archaeological term for objects hidden within layers, and I found that that fit with my style of painting really well. I found it, and it just stuck.

There’s also the possibility of sexual stratification. They are all women, they all wear lipstick and eyeliner.

There is definitely a little of that within my work. I always go for an aspect of beauty that is captivating or haunting. Like when you would look at photos of old pin-up models: that generation focussed all on the face, and not so much on the body. That’s what I try to go for in the work – trying to have it all in the eyes, and have the eyes captivate the audience. The eyeliner is there to suck the audience in.

Have you been influenced by anything local or contemporary?

Not so much local, more so the international art scene and a lot of artists that I’ve admired for a long time. Particularly one artist named Rone, I think he’s somewhere in the States — he does mural-size paintings on a building of female faces, and they’re absolutely wonderful. I’d love to be able to work on a scale that large one day, but for now I’ll stick to what I do on canvas. He’s been a huge influence, as well as another artist named Hush. They both do similar, but different, things than I do … Hush’s work, he calls them “urban geishas,” and he does the almost the exact opposite of what I do. He does the female form, and blocks out the eyes, where I block out the body, and accentuate the face.

This article has been edited for length and calrity. 

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