Giles Alexander: Reflections of the history of painting - Art Collector

Issue 54, October - December 2010

Fascinated by mankind’s grand accomplishment’s in architecture, art and science, Giles Alexander is clearly an artist driven by intellectual curiosity. But as he tells Carrie Miller, that’s all by the by. His main obsession is the craft of painting.

“My practice seeks to be at once reverential and contemplative while also being illusionist and superficial.” What the painter Giles Alexander is pointing to here is the fundamental paradox at the heart of his work, a paradox which elevates it beyond the status of merely beautiful decoration. There is both an aesthetic tension between the subject matter and the highly resolved, painted and resined surfaces, as well as a conceptual concern with the contradiction between the nature of our deeply meaningful, sense-making practices and their banal commodification.

Born in 1975, Alexander demonstrated a precocious talent for art as a child. His early memories include setting up an easel and painting en plein air alongside his father – who was an architect with an interest in painting – while holidaying in the south of France. This early talent was first formally recognised when he won a five-year scholarship to Bishop’s Stortford College at the age of 13. He then went on to study art, photography and design at a number of British art institutes, including the prestigious Central Saint Martins College, London.

His passion for art was also fostered by being exposed to the old masters of European painting – something that has had an enduring influence on Alexander’s practice. In particular, he continues to have “a fascination and aspiration for old-world traditions and old master techniques as an antidote for the relentless logic of the marketplace and a culture that’s been bred to want everything now”.

“I understand we live in a world where it’s feasible to ask: Why spend hours and months (let alone a lifetime) meticulously producing something when you could arguably achieve better results by simply going to Kinko’s and hitting print? But this just reinforces my commitment to the reinvigoration of the craft of painting and elegant possibilities of oil paint as originally intended.”
Since immigrating to Australia in 2000, Alexander has gained critical attention and commercial success including bagging one of this country’s richest art prizes, the Metro 5 (now known as the Metro Art Award). He has also been an artist-in-residence at Wardlow Art Residence in Melbourne and was included in the inaugural exhibition of contemporary and modern Australian art at the London commercial gallery COMODAA.

This year he has built on this early success, being shortlisted for both major Australian portrait prizes – the Archibald and the Moran – and participating in a number of international art fairs, including Melbourne Art Fair, the London Art Fair and ArtHK in Hong Kong. He will also be showing with Dianne Tanzer Gallery + Projects for the first time, with GRANTPIRRIE in 2011 and on an ongoing basis with COMODAA, London.

In addition to his prodigious practice, Alexander has managed to obtain a first class honours degree in painting at the National Art School and is now undertaking a masters there while teaching in painting and drawing. Indeed, one of the keys to understanding Alexander’s practice is that he is a methodical researcher of both art history and theory, as well as his subject matter.

Despite the conceptual rigour he brings to his practice however, the primary subject matter of Alexander’s work is the materiality and possibilities of paint itself. He is emphatic that his work “is by no means esoteric. My work, first and foremost, is a painting; it’s an object you hang on the wall … I’m concerned with beauty. If my intellectual interests were always at the forefront of my mind, then why am I painting? I should be working in the Large Hadron Collider. Painting has always been my primary concern – I can’t think of a time it hasn’t been.”

In particular, his preoccupation here again involves a paradox; he is interested in “investigating the possibilities of painting, while at the same time problematising it”. As the artist puts it: “I’m interested in raising questions about the role of realist painting, the handmade and authorship by sometimes revealing and sometimes hiding the painter’s hand.

“I explore concepts of looking through, at or upon by combining layers of resin and paint over images, presenting a conundrum of illusionistic depth and at the same time an awareness of surface.”
In the end, while the beauty of his work and the theoretical concerns which drive it reveal a commitment to the contemporary relevance of painting, Alexander also seeks to explore some of the main conceptual problems which have circulated in recent art theory – questions of authenticity, originality, reproduction, authorship – that have served to undermine the medium. •

Giles Alexander’s next solo exhibition, Reproduction, will be held at Dianne Tanzer Gallery + Projects in Melbourne from 23 October to 20 November 2010.

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