Framed reflections: An Interview with Vikky Alexander

Artist Vikky Alexander. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Canadian artist Vikky Alexander is internationally acclaimed for her work as a photo-conceptualist. Emerging from the so-called “Pictures Generation” of the 1970s and 1980s, she was part of the cohort of New York City artists, including Richard Prince, James Welling and Sherrie Levine, who revolutionized the use of appropriated images from popular culture. Taking images from fashion magazines, advertisements and other media, these artists focused on “re-purposing and arranging them to unpack what those images were doing to the viewer,” says Adam Welch, Associate Curator of Canadian Art at National Gallery of Canada.

In 2017, the National Gallery of Canada added to its extensive body of work by Vikky Alexander with the acquisition of Blue Obsession, three inkjet prints of American model and actress Christie Brinkley mounted with blue Plexiglass. “This is the work closest to what was happening in New York City at that time,” Welch says. “It speaks to how implicated she was in that world and that set of concerns she shared with those other artists.”

Vikky Alexander, Blue Obsession, 1983, printed 2016. Ink jet prints and blue plexiglas, installation dimensions variable. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Vikky Alexander Photo: NGC

Alexander is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design where she was also drawn to explore building design and structure, enrolling in an experimental architecture course at the Technical University of Nova Scotia. Her work across these disciplines led to, among others, three iconic photo series: West Edmonton Mall (1988), Disneyland (1992) and Las Vegas (1995), each focusing on environments known for their artificial and constructed elements. She continues to work in Vancouver and Montreal as a photographer/photo-conceptualist, sculptor, collagist and installation artist. In this interview she talks about the evolution of her work and where it is currently taking her.

NGC Magazine:  The National Gallery of Canada acquired Blue Obsession (1983/2016) in 2017. What were you trying to achieve with that piece?
Vikky Alexander: I was trying to show that it takes more than one image to get an accurate description of a person, of anyone. I had already been doing appropriated photography for a couple of years, gleaning material from pop sources, taking those images, cropping and enlarging them and turning them into my own piece. At the time, my primary source of material was fashion magazines and as I was looking through them, I began noticing a lot were featuring Christie Brinkley. Almost every magazine had images of her: the smoking Christie Brinkley, the photographer, the girl-next-door, the swim suit model, the gambler in Las Vegas. As I collected these images, I started seeing how she had all these different personas, so I couldn’t use one image to show who she is. Blue Obsession is kind of an infinite description of her.

NGCM: How has your work evolved?
VA: I grew up going to art school and doing dark room photography. Then I started re-photographing images. In the late '80s I began using found and ready-made materials, cheese weaves (wool fiber), landscapes from magazines, shelving paper, all kinds of things for collage pieces. I still use stuff gleaned from pop culture, from the everyday, but I also go out and photograph architecture. The National Gallery of Canada also has four pieces from the Model Suites series of 2005. It's a condominium showroom in Vancouver, on the ground floor, but I was quite interested in how the views from the fake windows were all backlit images as if the condo was on the 40th or the 50th floor. None of the views made any sense together: one of the views was dark, the one in the bedroom was quite bright. I’m interested in commerce and ways of selling things.

Vikky Alexander, Bedroom View, from the Model Suites series, 2005. Dye coupler print, laminated to acrylic, 101.6 x 152.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Vikky Alexander Photo: NGC

NGCM: What are you trying to capture in your work?
VA: It’s always about the architecture, how things are framed to project an ideal. Sort of the way storefronts are arranged to promote sales, to make you want what is in that window. I’m interested in that, as well as making the viewer be self-aware – as in, "I’m looking in the store window and I’m seeing that handbag, but because there is glass I’m also seeing it reflected, so how does it look in my hand?" The West Edmonton Mall series was more about how they were trying to incorporate nature into architecture. They have the wave pool and all these little areas, and I thought, well that’s weird, they’re trying to bring the outside inside and make it another kind of utopia. I talk about utopias quite a bit and I think utopias are inherently flawed, they can’t exist. The minute you get it, it’s normal life and it’s not ideal anymore. It’s only ideal in the possibility.

Vikky Alexander, West Edmonton Mall Series, No. 13, 1988, printed 1992. Dye coupler prints (Ektacolor), 50.7 x 67.7 cm; image: 45 x 67.7 cm. Gift of the artist, Vancouver, 2009. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Vikky Alexander Photo: NGC

NGCM: You are a photographer, but you also do some sculpting, photo collage and installation art. How does each of these disciplines inform each other?
VA: As an artist, you just find something that interests you. I like reflection, I like glass, I like commodity, I like architecture and the ready-made. I like things that exist. Then I try to make sense of them. I think one discipline leads into another. I wouldn’t really call myself a sculptor, even though I have made sculptures. It’s like photography. I have printers who help me. I’m more of a conceptual artist. My projects are about the idea, and then I figure out how I’m going to get that idea made. Sometimes I can do it, but quite often I need help. Photography has been with me the longest and occasionally that branches out into an installation project or a sculpture project.

NGCM: What are you working on now?
VA: I’m doing some large wall-sized, self-adhesive vinyls that will be 12 by 8 feet [3.6 x 2.5 m]. Now that I am working in these room-sized formats, I am exploring a video reality (VR) project. I’m interested in doing VR so that you can put a headset on and be in that room or you can look out that window which would be quite cool. With a collage you can project yourself into the space but with VR you can be in it. It’s kind of the same direction but ramped up.

NGCM: What advice do you have for emerging artists?
VA: Get into a community that you like and do the best work that you can on what you can afford. Try to get your work out there. Enjoy yourself.

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