In Conversation With Patrick Alston | Episode 2

Interview with Patrick Alston, Bode Projects
March 30, 2021
@ Patrick Alston Studio, Image: EBAR Photo
@ Patrick Alston Studio, Image: EBAR Photo

To start: Tell us a little, where do you come from?


I am from the Morrisania section of the South Bronx in New York. It is relatively close to the Yankee Stadium. 


You studied at Wabash College in Indiana. What were the crucial stakes within your studies?


I studied art and psychology but took interest in religious studies as well as philosophy. Out of all of the art courses, ironically, I enjoyed sculpture the most. I guess it is because we experimented with so many new materials that I had never used, there was a thrill in learning new mediums, combined with a great professor who helped me develop a deeper passion for art. 


You speak about "Socio-politics, identity, language, and the psychology of color" in your work – Where do you take these topics from, what references do you have?


I don’t think it is possible to remove yourself from socio-politics of your time, so it consciously or subconsciously will always inform your practice in some way. I think that the three areas of interest you mentioned in my work are all intertwined in a way. Socio-politics can inform how you feel about specific colors, and the language you use around them. 


Looking at your work, and reading the text on your website; your work is full of energy. Is it something you would like the works to transmit? Hence, could you describe that this is a part of yourself, you put inside the work(s)? 


Of course, it is unbearable to look at static paintings, if there are any in this world. Philip Guston describes that kind of thing as “Wax Museum”, unlively in many ways. I think that mostly every artist looks for their works to give off specific energy. Even if it’s the black square by Malevich, there are levels of energy that all visual objects give off. My paintings, being very gestural, emit high energy frequencies. I guess you can say its intentional, but I think that is just the nature of that kind of mark marking on a surface. 


One important characteristic about your work is gesture. You once described art, especially abstract art, as another language. Does the gesture form a more immediate way of communication between you and – the viewer, the world? 


It is immediate in the sense that there is an immediacy while creating the gesture. But I think that the language the gesture creates takes time to decipher and understand. It’s probably due to the fact that it speaks to a history of similarly executed paintings but more specifically my own experiences as spoken through this language. To understand those gestures is to understand me. 


Is it a dialogue, while creating an artwork; a monologue; a cry into the world? 


I wouldn’t describe it as a cry. I think that while in the studio, you are bringing dialogues you are having or that are going on in the world, into your space. Then you are filtering those conversations onto the canvas through the action of painting, and that is when you and your paintings begin to have conversations, and most of the time, arguments. The result is given to the world to accept and see, or reject. By that time, it is not in my hands. 


Would you describe your work rather as a questioning or a statement?


Both. I think that I began the action of painting or art making because were questions. The results are the statements. Sometimes its vice versa, you begin with a statement for audiences to question. It all depends on the body of work we are discussing. 


A decisive aspect in your work is color: your paintings are often very playful and positive, yet strong. Again, is this what you want to communicate with art, strength and positivity? Self-confidence?


My paintings are a battle between the two, and that’s life. The ebbs, flows, ups downs, light and dark times. There is a duality in all of us that occurs. It would be very unusual to always be positive and not have that challenged by another emotion. It’s just the way we work as humans. I think that there is a history of colors that we describe as serious. But all colors can be serious depending on the context. 


Your work is characterized by a varied range of material. Stone spray, sewn tarp, oil stick, canvas. How did it become this high variety?


I would say that it was inspiration from my direct environment. The diversity of textures and materials are inspiring. There was an urge for me to balance painting on very traditional materials, like cotton duct canvas, and introduce materials that carry a story and narrative on their own. It became another gesture for me. 


Any favorite or ‘must-be-in’ material?


I am a big fan of colored vinyl at the moment. It changes as I discover new materials. 


Your works are characterized by an inner play of forces, easily to be termed ‘disorder’ or ‘disarrangement’. One consistent feature is the format of the works, very often squares or nearly such as, middle to large size. Is there any particular thought behind this format, is it meant to ‘keep the inner chaos together’?


It helps to balance out the paintings. I usually arrange colored squares to help with how your eye should travel through the painting.


Last year, you created a series of very exquisite works on paper, entitled Trials & Tribulations. In opposition to their titles, the works seem very playful and often positive to me; again full of energy. Is it an intended opposite, or did I miss something in my perception?


These paintings, like people, are seen on the surface level. They help bring into question the idea that you could be missing someone’s struggles in the midst of viewing their positive output. The positivity you are referring to usually comes from color, but the struggle comes in the clash of gesture, so it seems like the work did its job in your perception of them. 


What does the medium on paper allow you to do, what canvas and mixed media does not or do not so easily? 


Paper accepts specific materials more easily. It’s easier for me to work with colored pencils and pastels on paper, but not strong enough to hold diverse materials that canvas does. 


Equally, how is working in a small format compared to large size works?


Working in a small format is a bit more intimate, less room for your arm or hand to travel, less distance between the paper and your eye. They have a completely different feel. 


In Dreams Deferred, you exclusively painted on fabric, sewn canvas, linen. The structure of the fabrics is quite apparent/visible. There is an interplay of different materials; is there any conceptual analogy to the ‘patch-work’ at play?


All of my works are sewn using those same materials, it was important for me for these works to be as minimal as possible, but still speak to the lineage of my practice. The conceptual analogy around the patch work speaks to a multitude of things including the history of Black American quilt making, the concept of a “sewn” patchwork like identity and the fragility of our understanding of what makes up one’s identity. 


The series Anomaly appears to be a study of black. The paintings are marked by heavy, visible structures and its investigation of different surfaces. What was the starting point or motif behind these works?


The starting point was thinking about the many brilliant artist that have used the color black as their muse. It is interesting to me that, depending on the artist and their experiences, their usage of black can have such a wide range of meaning. I think that many artists go through a phase of exploring black. It’s one of the most colorful colors that one can use, you just have to train your eye to see the subtilties. It was a way to study the color black and how it relates to my own personal identity. 

The Anomaly of The Polysemic Negro Acrylic Ink Graphite Enamel, Oil, Oil Stick and Spray Paint on Sewn Canvas 42x 42

Patrick Alston, The Anomaly of The Polysemic Negro No.8, 2020, Acrylic, Ink, Graphite Enamel, Oil and spray paint on sewn canvas, 106.6 × 106.6 cm (42 × 42 in) 


Looking at previous installations, your works seem to form pairs often; at least they go often together. Do you see the works rather in pairings or as individuals?


I think that works inform works. It is better for there to be a balanced view of multiple works that can inform and speak to one another, than for them to display alone. 


You name Philip Guston, Raymond Saunders, Cy Twombly or Mark Bradford as inspirations. In terms of your artistic approach, are you inspired on a visual or on a conceptual level?


I come from a school of thought that all of these artists come from. Cy Twombly can be viewed as the grandfather of gesture. My work is heavily based off of the gesture. Art and art history is a timeline and lineage of conversation amongst artists. There are contemporary artists that visually would seem to be more befitting in aesthetic to my work, but it’s because we have the same “bloodline”. 


Where did you come across their work? What are the best places to see their works?


Different settings, museums, galleries, online. I own a Raymond Saunders work, so I study it in person. I always think that paintings need room to tell their own stories. These works are usually found in the setting I previously listed, but the work will do the talking, no matter what setting, just not online. Images of paintings can never serve them justice. 


Coming back to the idea of art as another language: do different materials have or speak another language? 


Exactly. Materials have their own story. The way that you relate to one material is most likely different than I relate due to our different experiences, and that’s when working with materials gets most interesting. 


Are colors for you strongly or specifically connoted in any terms?


Of course, but again, it depends on the viewers experience with encountering specific colors that sparks a dialogue around the work. 


In an earlier interview, you spoke about abstraction as sometimes having an “inclusive and elitist feel to those who don’t comprehend or understand its significance”. Do you think your art is self-explanatory? Would you like to explain something – here and now – about your art?


I would like people to know that the experience of seeing a painting is just that, an experience. I think that the art world that we navigate in, tries to push the artist to have a meaning around their work. My question would be, which work? It would be a tall tale to say that my art is about this particular thing because there is so much that I think about while creating, that it would be a disservice to answer and leave something out of my explanation. I want to push people to experience the work. I could speak on and on about meaning and the process of creating, but more justice is served in the viewing experience.


The titles of your works are often very complex and allude to philosophical and social questions and phenomena (‘The Anomaly of the Polysemic Negro No. I’). What literal, philosophical, theoretical references or sources are there? Any author or thinker who particularly inspired/shaped you?


That work was about the frustrations of expectations. You become an anomaly to the status quo when you break molds of expectation. A lot of thinkers helped me, but they help to inform me on how to think as opposed to what to think. 


Referring back to art as another language: how does the process of transfer from one language into another, thus from work to title, function in your work? How do your titles become titles?


I serve as a medium of observation and experience. What you see is what you get from my personal upbringings and view of the world. I’m a filtration system for these ideas. Because these forms come out as abstracted, it is important for titles to serve as a bridge into my mindset and ideas in creating these works. As I create, I jot down thoughts and ideas of what I am thinking about while creating, one usually sticks along the process of making, but many times I have to go back and filter through my notes to create a title. 


What other influences are in your work? For example Cy Twombly referred to music and Antiquity as artistic sources.


My environment, music and the Bible. 


The show If Yesterday Was Tomorrow, What Is Today was your first exhibition in Europe. What were the initial responses? What expectations do you have in opening up your activities to the European continent?


No expectations, just appreciative for my work to have a new audience to bring their experiences to when viewing my work. 


Gesture, color and material: which one would you describe to be the main stake in your art?


There is no gesture without color, no color without material matter that makes up color. All are essential. 



Patrick Alston, 2020, Under the Skies Above, Acrylic, Gouache, Oil and oil stick on sewn canvas, 182.8cm × 182.8cm (72in × 72in) 
Interview conducted by Christina-Marie Lümen