Chris Shaw: The daggers and axes that appear in your new works are lifted directly from the World of Warcraft video game (WoW). You told me you're not a gamer, but how did you come to build a major new body of work around World of Warcraft?
Alexander James Pollard: I was involved with gaming when I was a kid but I’m not so obsessed with it now. I’ve played WoW but I’m not a regular player. I suppose it’s important to realise that when an artist selects a reference it doesn’t necessarily mean that their work is ‘about’ that thing. The reference might work in a nuanced or layered way. It may open up content in a non-linear way. WoW is not necessarily part of my own autobiography but that’s a good thing. If I’d used it for that reason it would have been boring.
I actually selected it for many different reasons. On some levels it's a response to how myth, magic and mysticism as well as the neo-medieval has become increasingly relevant to us in the Internet age. Games like WoW reveal a contemporary obsession with our imagined medieval past. I also wanted the paintings to refer quite directly to the systems and networks that relate to our digital lives. The paintings appear to accelerate certain aspects of capitalism, such as the embracing of outsourcing to China. They also use repeated motifs that suggest both memes and stock imagery as a theme or subject.
Contextually it seemed like the right time to use WoW, as there is a WoW movie coming out in the next year directed by Duncan Jones. I liked the fact that WoW is a mainstream interest and it is basically quite nerdy. It’s almost an antidote to a lot of cool or rock star rebel abstraction that you currently see around (Zombie Formalism etc). As a reference it has no currency as information capital - it’s simply not obscure enough.
On another level the WoW reference brings to mind virtual networks and their potential. I liked the idea of making a work using a basic Internet business network available to anyone online, but I also liked referring to deviant art images, which are frowned upon within fine art networks. The WoW paintings are produced in collaboration with a Chinese workshop, so in a way the work happens 'in the cloud', and basically I’m working with someone who I have never met in person - like in the WoW game itself where you play with strangers across the globe. It's a form of global community so the paintings end up being made using a form of virtual work-shopping where many people work on them collectively before they are finished.
You use the word 'collaboration' to describe your relationship with the Chinese workshop, but aren't you telling them what to paint?
The team of painters I work with may suggest certain things to try out in the work – such as coloured grounds or different combinations of objects etc. I took up some of these suggestions in the latest body of work. The painters also influence the outcome in different ways and I’m often quite surprised by the paint handling on certain paintings. Some of the works look traditionally Chinese in how they are made and other works look more graphic or more photo-realist. The different styles they use throws up something unexpected to respond to. So there is input from the team on some level but they are not ultimately given equal credit for the paintings or the overall concept behind the project.
It is clear however within the contextual framework I have set up (the press release etc.) that I am drawing the viewer’s attention to this aspect of the project and the tensions that underlie this kind of relationship. Basically it’s not hidden away but revealed as a central theme of what I am exploring. The work may push buttons in this respect as ethically it is left in an ambiguous place as to my intentions or morals around issues of ownership, copyright, human rights, fairness of payment etc. – and this is the way I wanted it to be. I’d like the viewer to consider my project as over-identifying with certain characteristics of capitalism – but this is acted out as a critical gesture.
Embracing outsourcing within my practice alters the attitude of the paintings and it helps create a mood, which I play on. There is a lot of painting out in the world at the moment that buries its head in the sand in relation to these themes. My paintings are an attempt to update the idea of the modification painting for an information age, deliberately reflecting many of the conditions that surround international trade and labour relations, they also reflect on the sheer mess of late capitalism, the chaos of it, the erosion of the boundaries between labour and leisure time and on globalization in general.
Describe in greater detail the process of how the works get made.
I send jpegs of images I’m interested in to China over email. The factory artists produce copies of these images, which are then sent back to me. The way these parts are painted varies quite a lot from work to work as it’s not always the same artist who produces them. As mentioned, one of the artists I work with paints the jpegs I send in a very ‘Chinese manner’ and another artist may use a more photo-realist technique, one I would associate with school boys trying to impress their friends or parents with how much they can get their painting to look like the photo they are copying. How they paint depends on what training they have or haven’t had within China’s art academy system. When you outsource aspects of production you can never fully control how something will look when it comes back. I like this kind of serendipity or space for slippage within the process.
What happens once the paintings are sent from China and arrive on your doorstep?
When I receive them back I then start painting on them in my studio where they become a form of modification painting. I might work on up to five at the same time and just rotate them. I think this working process takes the pressure off the single painting and I just end up enjoying it more. Sometimes I start painting intuitively on top of the image and other times I may get a child’s picture book on medieval knights or dinosaurs to work from. This often doesn’t work though and I end up completely changing track with the work. I try and listen to where the painting wants to go itself and get something to happen in the painting that I couldn’t have foreseen.
Describe your painting style.
Formally I appropriate a modern style of painting which I use to modify the stock images of the swords. The play between the already existing image and my casual modern doodling generates unexpected relationships and further pictorial serendipities. Images are detourned suggesting that reality is not fixed in these images.
The 'modern style' in painting is a pretty broad church - can you elaborate on this?
I suppose the style I paint in does refer to certain periods of modern art such as Fauvism as well as certain strands of ‘bad’ painting, which as a genre crosses over many different periods. The modern artists I riff off would be Kandinsky, Nolde, Asger Jorn, Constant as well as many other artists associated with the Cobra group. Calling it modern is probably a little misleading though as there are plenty of postmodern artists my paintings also have an affinity with, such as Julian Schnabel – in particular his Kubuki theatre paintings, which I think are amazing! Kippenberger is also brilliant as are a number of the Neo-Expressionist painters that came out of Germany in the eighties. I also like Terry Atkinson’s Blue Skies paintings from the same decade and Lee Lozano’s paintings of tools from the sixties.
Who or what are your biggest influences?
I have mentioned a few painters already such as Schnabel, Kippenberger, Jorn. I’m a big fan of Paul Thek – I just think he is a visionary and made really amazing paintings as well as great sculpture and installation work. I know he’s seen as an artist’s artist and it feels quite fashionable to like his work at the moment, but when you see it in the flesh all that hype seems to not matter – it’s just great! In terms of other influences, I’ve always admired the work of a peer called Iain Hetherington – we went to college together and we are still very close friends. He has influenced me a lot over the years.