Lewes Arts Artist Profile – Alex Grey
‘All of my life has been shaped by my idiosyncratic relationship with sound,’ says contemporary abstract artist Alex Grey. ‘I have synaesthesia, tinnitus and an auditory processing disorder. When I hear music, I see colours. I experience loud noise as pain.’
In Maiden Voyage, her first UK solo show, Grey has created a multisensory experience which takes us on a journey into sound, vision and emotion. Visitors are invited to listen through headphones to the soundscape that inspired each artwork and compare their emotional response to both simultaneously.
Maiden Voyage is at the Hop Gallery, Lewes, from 26 July to 17 August, with an opportunity to meet the artist on Saturday 26 July, 12.30–2.30pm, and including Live Art performances on three ‘Sensory Saturdays’ (2, 9 and 16 August, 12.30–2.30pm).
There is a further opportunity to see Alex Grey’s work at the Stable Gallery, Paddock Lane, Lewes, as part of Artwave 2014 (weekends from 23 August to 7 September).
What are you doing today?
Today should have been a studio day but one of my children was home from school, so instead I’ve been catching up on admin – writing press releases and designing publicity materials in relation to my show Maiden Voyage, which is going into the Hop at the end of July. It’s a multisensory show I’ve been planning for a long time, where people will be able to experience my pictures in conjunction with the soundscapes which inspired them.
Describe where you do most of your creative work.
I rent an outbuilding on a farm just outside Lewes, and do almost all of my studio work there. Its key attributes are peace and quiet, proximity to home, a beautiful view and a dedicated parking space! I do a lot of my creative work in my head, though, long before I get anywhere near the studio.
What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
I always feel as though my current project is the most exciting ever, and at the moment it could well be true. Maiden Voyage has been a long time in the planning, and at the moment is in that rather scary, seat-of-the-pants phase when it’s all about to come together beautifully, but hasn’t quite yet. I’m not fond of stress, but I recognise that I do some of my best work under pressure so I’ve had to cultivate in myself a sense of forced calm. No anxiety, only excitement.
What made you decide to become an artist?
I desperately wanted to go to art school in my teens and actually was originally keen to work in art restoration. Then, for a variety of reasons too boring to enumerate, I flunked my exams and the decision was taken out of my hands. After a stint as a junior journalist, I studied Theatre at Goldsmiths’ and went on to become a lighting and special effects designer, originally in the theatre and then in the theme park industry. In spent my twenties travelling all over the world creating fibreoptic visual effects and in many ways it was a very exciting career, except to say that the creative vision I was fulfilling was always somebody else’s, not mine – which is actually what would have happened if I had ended up in art restoration, of course. To cut a very long story short, about two years ago, I finally woke up to the fact that nothing except an art career would make me happy and decided to take the plunge. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long, as the art world is rather ageist when it comes to emerging practitioners, but also suspect I would have lacked the confidence both to express myself with creative integrity and to weather the ups and downs of the business of art had I had the opportunity first time round.
What are you currently working on?
As well as Maiden Voyage, I’m also busy creating work for Lewes Artwave, which will be showing at the new Stable Gallery in the Paddock Studios from 22 August to 7 September. After that, I’ll be turning my attention to a new venture creating silk scarves and ties based on my pictures, with the encouragement of a collector I met at an arts festival last year. At the moment, my head is full of plans and ideas, so it will be exciting once I can move into the phase of actually putting them into action. I hope to launch the new venture in time for Christmas 2014.
What are the key themes in your work?
Emotion, perception and shared experience. I’m very interested in what social scientists call ‘situated perspectives’ – the idea that one’s viewpoint is unavoidably rooted in one’s own origins and experiences – and the extent to which consensus or at least overlap can emerge when perceptions start being shared. My work takes an objectively identifiable source of inspiration, usually a piece of music or recorded sound or sometimes a news story that grabs me, and uses it as a starting point to create something visual and entirely personal. My excitement about Maiden Voyage stems from the fact that it’s almost the first opportunity for people to experience both the inspiration and the response at the same time and I’m deeply curious to see how closely people relate to the emotional landscapes I’ve created.
What would you like people to notice about your work?
The detail in the colour. I would like it if people looked at my work both from a distance and up close, and had regard for the way a changed vantage point alters their impressions.
What attracts you to the medium you work in?
I first started working with oil pastel nearly 20 years ago and love its fluidity. I blend colour with my fingers and have gradually acquired the confidence to permit the medium a mind of its own. When I can resist the urge to try and control what takes place on the paper, the alchemy is more likely to occur. During the run of Maiden Voyage, I’ll be doing some Live Art sessions (Saturdays, 12.30–2.30) and the prospect of conjuring that muse in front of others is both exciting and terrifying.
What equipment could you not do without?
Just my paper and oil pastels. I travel pretty light.
Who or what inspires you?
Sound, silence, thoughts, memories, feelings.
How is your art affected by living in this area?
I relate closely to Lewes’s bloodyminded, nonconformist history and the tradition of dissent which underpins local culture and politics. While this probably influences my daily life more than my art, it’s true to say my career has benefited from the uncompromising streak in my personality that living here has fostered. I have an unshakeable belief in the virtue of doing things my way.
What’s your favourite thing to do locally?
Watching Lewes play rugby at the Stanley Turner Ground. Probably not what you expected!
What’s your favourite gallery (or place to see/experience art)?
Once upon a time it would have been the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, a bizarre higgledy-piggledy glory hole of a place that housed a hotch-potch of artefacts in a deconsecrated church. I lived in Paris in the early 1990s and used to go there all the time. About 5 years ago I went back with my children only to find, to my disappointment, that it’s been refurbished into a slick, streamlined contemporary tourist experience. So now I would have to say the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which would have jostled for position anyway. Closer to home, I like Pallant House in Chichester and Mascalls Gallery in Paddock Wood.
If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
Picasso’s Guernica. I find it clean, clear and direct. Both calm and angry. I love its scale. And I love the fact that its very existence has had direct political importance.
If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be and why?
John Piper. I love everything I know from his extraordinarily diverse body of work and feel I could have learned a great deal just from watching him work, never mind collaborating with him.
Who do you think is the most underrated artist?
John McSweeney, whose work I fell in love with at an open studio in East London in the very early 1990s, when I was still at Goldsmiths’. I blew £300 of my student grant – a small fortune – on one of his paintings, which he very kindly let me pay for in instalments.
What’s your favourite colour?
Grey. Of course.