Alex Sewell is an oil painter whose work is characterized by his realistic and playful painting style. Sewell’s work looks at youth and popular culture sourced from his own memories and personal experiences, playing with semiotics and perceptions of visual language. His compositions utilize specific objects and images as symbols for exploring constructions of identity and associations of memory and emotion with the subjects presented. While deeply specific to his own personal narrative and life, Sewell’s paintings manage to impart an affective nostalgia through their manipulation of subject matter, which, paired with his almost trompe l’oeil treatment of paint, allows for multiple realities and stories to be read.
Alex Sewell was born and raised in Lynn, MA and earned his BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Sewell currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY where he is represented by TOTAH Gallery and is a founding member of Ess Ef Eff, an artist-run gallery space in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He has shown in group and solo exhibitions internationally, including solo exhibitions “Hookey” at TOTAH (New York, NY), “...but in battalions” at the Arts Research Collaborative (Lowell, MA), and “The Battle Days” at Five Myles (Brooklyn, NY) this past year. Sewell’s work has been featured in Artforum, Hyperallergic, BOMB Magazine, and Artnet.
What is your background in art?
On a very basic level I’ve been interested in making things from a young age; things that didn’t function, but also weren’t just decorative either. I made a lot of fake robots that didn’t even articulate and faux electronic hardware that I kind of just lumped together from functioning TV consoles and radios and stuff. I didn’t understand how things joined or connected to other things, so I started getting lost in the pseudo-utility that the made object was able to just have on its own. I never took art seriously until I took drawing as an elective at UMASS Lowell, and then I fell in love with painting thanks to Stephen Mishol, a now tenured professor at the school. There were so few of us painting in this tiny program in this old basement, and it created a lot of awesome competition and comradery. After that I transfered to MassArt, and a combination of great teachers and mentors helped keep my head straight and find new ways to paint. I owe a lot to Cullen Washington Jr. and Barbara Grad, who were two of my main painting professors.
When I graduated, some friends and I set up shop in the attic of a triple decker in Jamaica Plain, MA and set to work painting and learning and making mistakes for a few years. Lauren Gregory and Nicholas Cueva gave me my shot here in New York, and I grabbed it and never looked back.
How did you get interested in painting? What attracts and interests you in oil painting as a material and medium?
Two people, Stephen Mishol, my first painting professor, and Alexander Giavis, a classmate of mine, made painting very attractive to me. Steve acted as a mentor of sorts to Alex, almost like an older brother. I saw them both as family figures and came to know them as such. Steve made painting magical and earnest, and Alex made painting seem possible. Once I “successfully” painted with oils I could never go back. It’s alive, you know, made to simulate flesh originally. I need to be able to lay paint into itself and to float colors together, and I can’t do that with acrylic except maybe with an airbrush and then very methodically, sort of like Chuck Close’s process in the 1970s.
What were your earlier paintings like and how did you develop your current body of work?
My earlier paintings ran the spectrum, I painted in every fashion I could. I started off having fun with more expressionist landscapes, then I was into British figurative painting, geometric abstraction and color theory (albeit I was a poor student of this), then figurative expressionism, neo expressionism, ham-fisted narrative based work, relational aesthetics, provisional painting, academic painting, and then finally I came to do what I do now. It had a lot to do with getting rid of any process oriented focus, and instead turning my attention to things that I really needed to make, and utilizing tools that I enjoyed and that gelled well together. My current body of work started when I was living in Boston but working in NY during the week, I’d return home on the Chinatown bus at 2am Saturday and paint until midnight Sunday. The stress of the schedule boiled down any fucks I had left to give, and I finally felt free to try to be myself.
Your works include a lot of references to culture, particularly youth culture and playful constructions of popular culture. How are you approaching this subject matter?
I’m approaching it through a personal lens. I don’t care about the object power of a toy or font or trinket from the past necessarily, but I care about how irrationally important that thing is to me. At the same time, I constantly question the role of nostalgia in all art forms. Is it important for me that you like these “things” because they’re sacred to me? Do I need validation to feel understood, or can I just share and be confident in the work landing right? In my mind, there’s a million random things that stick out to me as being of extreme importance of who I am and who I’m trying to be, pop-culture just has more of a ground to stand on since it can be ubiquitous.
How do you approach incorporating your personal experiences and memories into the work?
Those things are the basis for my work, so they develop rather naturally. It’s rare that I make something that doesn’t come from some personal moment, even if it’s an obscure one. There’s inherently a narcissism of sorts most artists deal with, it’s a crazy thing to make something and to expect people to laud it, to reciprocate with validation and acceptance. I feel like if we’re given this chance, why not say what we really desperately want to share? I think Todd Bienvenu said he makes paintings that he wants to see. I make paintings I want to exist. I feel like if I share enough on a big enough scale then inevitably the whole of these will explain what I’m trying to do, who I am and what I’ve learned and if that matters. I like to consider the word hagiography when contextualizing my work, while the proper definition is akin to the stories and lives of patron saints, I like to use it as telling not your story but your adventures. To contextualize experiences and link them together as part of a larger search lends credence to the point of it all.
How do you think about narrative in your works?
I consider narrative to an extent. I like all the works to seem like vignettes, little interstitial stories or jokes or moments between unknown stories. I relate this to life in a personal manner, of how we construct our day to day interactions and experiences.
What is the process of developing a piece start to finish? How are you sourcing/developing images?
The image starts in my head, then I’ll make a thumbnail. After that I’ll either collect or create references for the work. Some of it is sourced online, you know, Google images or whatever, some of it is from drawing, other from staged photography or maquettes I’ll make from common building or crafting materials. The topical drawing is the last thing that happens, and is often the most satisfying part of a painting for me. Sometimes I feel like the painting is a delivery device for the drawings, but never enough for me to be interested in changing my manner of working.
What are you working on right now?
I’m developing two bodies of work stylistically in line with my previous work. The content of one is based on ideas of travel or escape, and the other is a continuation of my work but with a slightly darker tone. Dealing with the messier, stranger side of youth and the culture of exploration and discovery.
Your work engages with semiotics and the visual language of communication. How are you approaching those elements?
I love semiotics, there’s something so perverse about a system that is used primarily for very serious things, archival measures of the most sincere variety and so on, and then have it be used for a personal relational from a creator to an audience. Sign systems and text function for me as another means of communication, revealing a desperation to be heard. One of the reasons I loved faux sharpie lines is because everyone draws and writes with a sharpie so similarly. It’s impossible for handwriting experts to read the character in words written with sharpie. I think. I’m fairly confident that’s a thing, at least.
Some of your pieces play with the canvas shape and size in an almost sculptural way. When did this enter into your practice and how are you thinking about scale, shape, and size?
I was thinking about the impact of items in different scale ratios and the psychological effect this can have and what weight this can give to an object. If an object is the basis for a painting, and I feel like a backdrop for it would be superfluous, I don’t paint one. Some of the paintings have an austere background that has minor allusions to a studio wall or space, but this has to be a real part of the painting and not something I can add to create negative space for the sake of creating an environment for the subject. When I was experimenting with predetermined shaped canvases, or rather intricate shapes, I felt too trapped and that I could only paint out the object, so I’m staying away from that a bit more. Ideally I’d like to be able to add supports as the piece grows like Edward Clark’s early work, but the idea doesn’t really stay in line with the type of surface I like in my work. I do really like the idea of sculpture, but I can’t differentiate from the utility of the made object and its aesthetic appeal. I feel like making something, physically building it, is always different than creating an image, no matter how that image is constructed.
There are elements of abstraction and surrealism in your paintings. Can you talk about your interest and approach to this, thinking also in regards to the trompe l'oeil/realist style of your works?
It sounds horribly pretentious but I don’t like to subscribe to the rules of painting in my work. I don’t want to factor in gravity, or strict color theory or lighting dynamics if I don’t feel like it. Rothko’s earliest subway paintings have very little realism in their dynamics, but they feel genuine. The most important thing to me is the image, and then everything else comes in after it. Most of my works have a shallow depth of field, sometimes even a single object against a single plane. The faux drawings add a veneer of realism through a trick of the eye. Suddenly you’re drawn to the believability of the trompe l’oeil drawing or paper or notation or whatever, and the image seems much more concise and believable.
What are some of the biggest frustrations making work? Is there anything you are actively struggling with or working through right now?
For me, it’s the fragile balance between under-thinking and overthinking a work before the action of painting actually happens. There’s a space for creation that lets things filter through you and can lead to a painting that seems topical or relevant, but if you overthink it, it can ruin the piece. The same can be said for being too confident. There’s a great middle ground of exploration and working that is where good paintings come from for me. Right now I’ve been working small, so I’m a little anxious for some of the bigger pieces that I want to execute. A small painting can be like a joke, a riff, or something punchy or flippant. Larger works seem like they need to say more.
How are you approaching color?
With great impatience and summoned vigor. I like to stick to a limited palette of around ten colors, but it’s recently grown to about twenty, which concerns me. I’m not typically concerned with grass being the exact color of the grass in an exact field, but rather I’m interested in it as local color. “Grass green”, that kind of thing. It helps me keep the works in the same world as one another.
What is your studio practice like?
Monday through Wednesday I work a day job and might get to the studio on two nights, from 5:30pm to somewhere between 7:30 and 9:30 pm. Thursday through Saturday I’ll try to arrive by 9am, but its always more like 10 or 10:30, and I’ll work and take breaks for coffee until lunch. I’ll have something unhealthy for lunch, then I’ll paint until 5pm-8pm. I might meet a friend for a beer or make something unrelated to painting during the day as well. Sunday is date day with my wife, the poet Marine Cornuet. She’s been putting her poems up on a wall in the studio and trying to find common threads to build a collection. She’s relentless, and its nice to have her there working hard alongside me. Sometimes we’ll spend the day partially in the studio with our puppy working on projects or sometimes we’ll take the day off.
What makes a successful painting for you? What is your work trying to achieve?
The more honesty a painting conveys, the more successful I find it. When I’m lucky, painting will happen quickly and with aplomb. Sometimes they hang around for awhile and get annoying. I don’t fuss with anything for longer than around a month. I just want my paintings to be self aware, earnest, and trying to move forward. There’s a play my wife had a poster of in our kitchen for a while, “Demolishing everything with amazing speed”. I like to think about this in my work; I don’t have unlimited time, but I need to make these things and each one should try to do better.
What is influencing you right now? Who/what are you looking at or consuming?
Recently I was reading a lot about hysterical realism, a literary movement from a few decades ago. I felt like it’s defining characteristics gave credence to my crazy ramblings about my works when I really try to boil them down. I’m looking at some corporately sponsored video games from my past and trying to get a feel for the plasticization of items from our childhood. Also I’m constantly bouncing ideas and trading drinks with a great community of artists and friends, I think the most important component to learning and growing is to surround yourself with good people that you love and respect. On a separate note, Marine and I watched some Buster Keaton films recently, and the framing of certain shots really enchanted me. I’m thinking more about how tones of paintings can come from literal direction (related to movement) -- how watching someone run full tilt at the camera can be nerve wracking and conversely, when they randomly high-tail it away from the viewer it’s funny as as hell.