Alexis Anne Mackenzie is a collage artist from San Francisco and we were immediately enamoured by the dichotomies present in her work. Using images of nature, Mackenzie subverts these, taking something that once was beautiful and unveiling its gritty underbelly. Here Mackenzie talks about what attracted her to collage, what she's been working on and what we can expect from her work moving forward.
Firstly, tell us about getting started as an artist. When did you know it was what you wanted to do?
I think I always knew I wanted to be an artist. It sounds corny but I can’t ever remember wanting to be anything else, except maybe a writer. I’ve always loved writing but it never blossomed into anything for me. So it was more a matter of waiting, working, and experimenting to find out exactly what kind of artist I was; discovering how I could best express myself in an original way, that felt right.
Did you study at all?
Yes at a few places few places. After high school I attended a program in Europe, living just outside Florence for a month and then on an island in Greece for two months. In Italy, we travelled quite a bit studying art history, and in Greece there were studio courses. Marble sculpting, writing, photography, life drawing. For my undergrad I attended Tufts University/School of the Museum of Fine Arts combined BFA program, in Boston. I really loved it: the courses offered by Tufts were so varied and interesting, I feel so lucky to have gone there.
For my studio courses, I mostly took photography and film classes; there weren’t any collage courses, so I am completely self-taught when it comes to that. All of my art studies have been channeled into how I can use it to collage better; just taking the lessons of each medium and finding ways to interpret it in that format.
Why collage? What is it about the medium that you find interesting?
I’m not sure, it just feels the most natural to me: I think the paper and found imagery just feel like paint to me - or ink, pencil, clay - any medium an artist shapes into the thing they want it to be. I love extracting things from their original context, which is generally merely informative, and giving them new life and meaning by manipulating them into something completely other than what they were originally intended to be. I’ve also always been an avid reader: I love books, so it could merely be the evolution of a lifelong relationship with them. And old books can be so neglected, sitting unread on shelves so creating something new from their pages feels like a continuation of their natural life cycle: like they are gardening compost.
Tell us about your subject matter. It almost seems to have a love/hate relationship with nature: both admiring it and subverting it at the same time?
I am a great admirer of nature; I love it and find it fearsome. It is beautiful and hideous and vulnerable and terrifying. What I really enjoy is how easily it all blends: how many correlations there are across so many completely different things, such as the inner workings of the human body and the root systems of an orchid, or how a bone can look like a rock formation and a vein can look like a snaking branch. In some ways I am also maybe addressing my fear of death: just by examining the guts of of everything and constructing some kind of beauty that makes sense from it all together, in a personal way.
What are some of the things you like to discuss in your work?
Duality and balance, I suppose. Beauty and the grotesque. I like for things to be beautiful, but never perfect. There has to be something gritty and grimy involved for it to feel real to me. It’s the way the world functions at a basic level; nothing grows without consuming something else, be it sunlight, air, or the dead. Things that are too perfect seem artificial, and don’t interest me. A certain level of dissonance is required to make anything great.
Tell us about your actual process of collage. Where do your images come from, what are the challenges of the medium?
Almost everything comes from books; usually topical tomes on botany, anatomy, birds, moths, insects, fashions. The challenges generally lie in the paper quality; it can be really varied and I have to understand the nature of the paper in each book. If it’s soft, strong, crisp, glossy, powdery, fibrous, fragile. And to know how to cut it; how fine of a cut I can push it to, or how much extra to leave that won’t be noticeable but will make the difference in holding it all together... Where to place the cuts into things to cut out the interior spaces; how to disguise the scar it leaves. Cutting the paper breaks in the same direction to make glue applications easier, and having everything going into a single collage be compatible in color, focus, depth, etc. so that it can appear seamless when all combined. Getting everything to flow together is the challenge, it’s not easy, and it’s what I’ve spent years learning to do and am still learning.
What contemporary artists do you admire?
Hardly any collage artists, unfortunately. As a medium, I find myself strangely disinterested in it. I love painters and photographers. I am also really terrible at remembering names of things I see and it all becomes a vague mental library of general influence. I did recently discover Ori Gersht and fell in love with his photographs: the exploding series are so incredible. Sterling Ruby is great. Takeshi Murata’s recent work blows my mind.
Where else do you take inspiration from?
Books and movies; I’m a great fan of southern gothic authors, especially Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews, Carson McCullers. I'm also a huge fan of Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver. Movie wise I love the Powell and Pressburger collaborations, Rohmer’s Moral Tales, and David Lean’s Noel Coward movies (Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter). And, weirdly enough, am a huge fan of action movies. I love anything with non-stop violence, fighting and explosions; whether it be really great or really dumb (usually the case), I’ll enjoy it. And of course music, all kinds, and a little bit of fashion... I think all of these things blur together in my mind to create a sort of general aesthetic, atmosphere, vibe, that I strive for in my work. It becomes a state of mind, and a honed vision.
Tell us a little bit about the creative community in San Francisco: do you find it supportive? Is there a thriving community / subculture? What kind of art is being created there?
I was having a conversation with someone recently about the benefits of being an artist in California, maybe SF in particular. It can be very nurturing and supportive; I think there isn’t the competitive edge that one would find on the East Coast (A.K.A NYC), which is both good and bad. It allows artists to relax and explore their creativity more freely, I think, without the urgency of having to stand out from the crowd, or be on top of a scene. I think that does mean San Francisco artists aren’t always perceived as being serious, unfortunately; but every artist I know here works their ass off.
You're about to have a solo exhibition in Sweden, congratulations! Tell us a little bit about how that came about?
Thank you! The gallery, KRETS, had included my work in a great little group show a few years ago; they then asked me earlier this year if I’d be interested in having a solo with them. I’ve been working a lot with the negative imagery remaining after extracting an element from a page, and have also been wanting to try working with photographic source materials again. So I did a little of both for this show; it’s called “Look Alive”.
What are the future plans for your work / yourself?
People keep asking me to work larger, and every time I’ve gone up a paper size it has felt like having room to breathe; so I think I am going to spend some time doing that. Just having one or two really large collages going, and seeing what I can do... I have also been wanting to try painting and drawing again, and maybe sculpture. I’m so comfortable with collage that at this point it is nearly automatic, so I want to go out of my comfort zone a little bit, stretch some muscles. And I would like to write and illustrate a children’s book. We’ll see which of all these things happens first. There are also a few other solo and group exhibitions floating around in the future; I’ll be talking about those once there are dates and titles and such confirmed.
Alexis Anne Mackenzie's solo show takes place from April 28 - May 27, 2012, and if you're in Sweden you should head along to KRETS gallery. and check out the likes of the below.
False Positive I" (2012). Hand-cut collage on found paper, 6 1/4 x 9 1/4 inches
"False Positive VI" (2012). Hand-cut collage on found paper, 6 1/4 x 9 1/4 inches
"Light Metal" (2011). Hand-cut collage on found paper, 12 x 14 1/2 inches
"Look Alive" (2012). Hand-cut collage on paper, 20 x 16 inches
"Milk Grass" (2011). Hand-cut collage on found paper, 12 x 14 1/2 inches
"Nothing Toulouse" (2012). Hand-cut collage on paper, 20 x 16 inches