“For me, art and art-making isn't about arriving to art. It's about the journey to get there, which is constantly shifting because it's an imaginary journey. I'm on a journey to art. I'm a traveler to art.”
Alexandra Grant is a Los Angeles-based visual artist who uses text and language to explore ideas of translation, identity, dis/location, and social responsibility. Grant has collaborated with author Michael Joyce, actor Keanu Reeves, artist Channing Hansen, and the philosopher Hélène Cixous, amongst others. She is also the creator of the grantLOVE project, which raises funds for arts-based non-profits, and the cofounder of X Artists’ Books, a publishing house for artist-centered books.
In this interview, Alexandra Grant shares insight into her studio practice, how she started the publishing house X Artist's Books, and what she learned collaborating with Hélène Cixous.
TGL: How was your childhood?
AG: My parents divorced when I was small, I grew up with a good relationship with my father, but I lived with my mother. My mother is a great adventurer and lover of the world and an educator. From a young age, I traveled with her when she explored so many different countries. We lived in different places, and I was an only child on my mother's side. I think that being an only child feeds into being an artist. I had the great fun of learning how to play alone for long periods of time. So, I was a creative child, sometimes a naughty child.I grew up in the southern part of Mexico City for half my childhood, a part called Coyoacán. I was a little dancer at the National Ballet Academy of Mexico. My first album was Kiss, Dynasty. I had a great love of heavy metal, the more pop heavy metal. I loved school. We lived near a cathedral where as a child I saw a miracle: the Virgin Mary appeared in a moisture stain on the wall of a Cathedral. Childhood, for me, is an incredible assortment of being able to play within a home and being able to experience the culture of growing up in Mexico City.
TGL: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
AG: I'm still figuring that out every day. There's a great poem by the Greek poet Cavafy called "Ithaca." The idea of the poem is that you set out to find Ithaca, and when you finally find the city, don't be disappointed by her because it wasn't really Ithaca you were after, it was the journey to Ithaca. For me, art and art-making isn't about arriving to art. It's about the journey to get there, which is constantly shifting because it's an imaginary journey. I'm on a journey to art. I'm a traveler to art.
TGL: What attracted you to the journey of art?
AG: It comes from that sense of play and invention. When I was eight years old, we were assigned to write a newspaper article for school, and instead of handwriting that the weather is lovely, my best friend and I created a masthead and wrote articles and drew pictures. My mother was so kind as to drive us to a photocopy shop where we could photocopy onto real newsprint. We handed in not just an article, but a whole newspaper, and the teacher didn't know what to do. That moment is very much the person I still am. I have a more symphonic vision, without understanding or following the rules about how thing needs to be done. Report cards were funny in our family. One report card said “Alexandra could learn in a dustbin,” which I'm not sure what that means, but I think it had to do with being curious and imaginative. Everyone's brains are wired in cool ways and then we learned to discipline them, but I was lucky at a young age that I didn't see those discipline lines as clearly. Art is the most undisciplined discipline, it has the biggest space for play.
TGL: You studied art at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Did you study art before then?
AG: As a teenager I was actually interested in mathematics. I went to university to study mathematics, but I found in a linear algebra honors class my freshman fall, that after eight dimensions I couldn't get it. I loved a kind of math called discrete mathematics, for example how to color all the countries on the globe without any countries touching each other that have the same color. It's systems based, but it's also aesthetic, somewhere between pattern recognition and systems. I don't think anything was lost along the way, but I did major in studio art in college at Swarthmore College. I took a few years and ended up in San Francisco for my MFA at the California College of the Arts where I wanted to study architecture as well as art. Again, I was thinking about this idea of the boundaries between disciplines.
TGL: What is the core principle of your art-making process?
AG: At CCA I began to look at questions of long-term interest for me personally, but also, my parents were academics, so I came from an academic perspective into art-making. I was reading, and I was thinking, "Well, how can I bring my passion for reading and literature into art-making and into the space of painting?" That question frames my entire career to date.
TGL: Writing is very present in your practice. Do you write yourself?
AG: I do. I wrote a book called The Artists' Prison, and that led to founding the press X Artists' Books. I really enjoy writing. I enjoy reading more, and probably my favorite activity is editing. Writing can be challenging, but I enjoy every aspect of encountering language whether in an editorial role or as someone who's using it as a score or a script for the paintings and sculptures that I make.
TGL: You have a studio practice, but you are also active in philanthropy and you created a publishing house. How did you build these different aspects of your career?
AG: Everything is incrementally done over time. The center of what I do is: I'm a painter interested in language. Through my first show at MOCA, I had my first book publishing experience. I got to work with the curator Alma Ruiz, the team at the museum and the designer Michael Worthington to make my first museum catalog. I was passionate about that collaboration of bringing the writing and the images together to create a narrative around the work, and also bridging to the future. That's when books and artworks are at their best, when they are messages that we're sending into the future. Painting is the core of what I do. It's the time for meditation and reflection and where ideas gestate. People romanticize the life of the artist, but in fact, it can be hours of repetitive filling in areas with paint or processes that take so long and often have to be thrown away and repeated. I distract myself with this peripheral thinking, which is where the ideas for books and other projects come from.
TGL: Can you talk more about your philanthropic organization grantLOVE?
AG: The philanthropic work with grantLOVE was in response to Swarthmore College, a Quaker school I went to. We were brought up to think about how we can participate in civic society in meaningful ways. The school has the largest library of peace. It's the idea of how to be in the world in a way that's really thinking about service. Service and painting don't necessarily go hand in hand. The grantLOVE project, for me, was a way to make editions for sale in a business model and then donate the proceeds to different partner non-profits. It began with one non-profit, and as time has gone on, I’ve been able to partner meaningfully with so many different organizations. Everyone is looking constantly for funding for the arts. It's a satisfying way for me to get to know people and organizations and to help, not just on the fundraising side of it, but on the fundraising. I’m interested in philanthropy in the sense of loving people. Loving people who are different from who I am, but also creating real opportunities for others. So, it's a real joy.
TGL: What are you currently working on with grantLOVE?
AG: I’m working on a project with the curator Cassandra Coblentz right now, we were meant to have an opening at the Orange County Museum of Art in the next couple of weeks. That has been postponed until everyone is safe to be together to make the show happen. The museum is in a temporary space, which is at the South Coast Plaza Mall. I'm going to do painting show upstairs, but downstairs, they've given me permission to do a grantLOVE pop-up shop. The proceeds from that pop-up shop will go towards a fund to diversify their permanent collection. Each one of us has more power than we know, and it’s these smaller gestures. We will raise money to bring diverse women into the permanent collection, because it's my hope as an artist to be part of this collection.
TGL: How did you start the publishing house X Artists’ Books?
AG: I had the joy of starting X Artists' Books and entering into a parallel, but different community from the art community, which is the art publishing community. It's a generous, warm and dedicated group of people who live their lives to make books. It’s been such an honor to work alongside so many graphic designers and writers and to be able to create these spaces. That's what I'm interested in doing with painting at the center, it's holding an umbrella and creating different opportunities to share experiences. The wonderful thing about collaboration is that it's a true exchange, there’s a sense that the artist is elevated in a sort of masculine genius way. Collaboration offers a real exchange for learning skills and exchanging skills.We have a couple of books that were recently published. Of course, we're going to have to figure out how to do a virtual book tour. One of the artists is Asher Hartman, it's a collection of his plays. And another book is with Etel Adnan and Lynn Marie Kirby based out of San Francisco, and 10 years of their exchanges, which Brian Roettinger has designed.
TGL: How was collaborating with writer Hélène Cixous?
AG: Hélène Cixous founded the first women's studies program in Europe, and she was in charge of the section of Paris University with Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari - she was one of the only women in that group of 68 philosophers. Writing is at the center of what she does. Some of her writing is introverted in the same sense of what painting is, but she also writes for the theater. Writing for the theater immediately implies an extroversion, a connection, an exchange with other people. She thinks deeply about how language functions in each kind of writing. That is incredibly inspiring to me. I did a translation published at Extract on the guidelines she has about collaborating with others in the theater, and what you do when you're working across difference. That sense of how do you collaborate, and in her case, in the theater with others who are different from you. What I love about her work is it's not just telling stories, it's also being gentle and aware of the differences of power when you're collaborating across difference.
TGL: What projects you collaborated on with Hélène Cixous?
AG: When I first was working with her, we were working on the ideas of telepathy that Freud had been obsessed with, but were repressed by his followers because they wanted psychoanalysis to be a science and not considered a religion or a cult or a spiritual practice. Derrida was obsessed with Freud's ideas on telepathy. Hélène was in conversation with Derrida, and she wrote the book around their telepathic relationship just after he had passed away. I looked at that trajectory: Freud, Derrida, Cixous, Grant. Even as a non-philosopher, but as an Anglo-American painter, I thought, "How did I inherit this lineage?”We did a talk together to Nottingham Contemporary from Mains d’Oeuvres. Our project was called the Interior Forest, Forêt Intérieure, and Hélène admitted to me, "Alexandra, you misread my book. It wasn't a forest. It was a walled garden." I asked, "Why didn't you correct me?" And she said, "Because I loved that you had created something so beautiful from reading, misreading, misinterpreting, misunderstanding. I grew an interior forest and it got me out of my walled garden and into the forest.” During the talk, she said, "As a writer, as an artist we send arrows into the world. Our work, they are messages that we send to the world, but we don't know who will receive them. We don't know who our perfect other is. You received my message, and you brought it back to me. You were my perfect other.” That's the amazing thing about creation. It's not about getting it right, it's about trusting the intuition, having an authentic response to it. She taught me about hospitality. She gave me permission to show up. Not as an expert, but as someone who had been so moved by her writing that even if I had misunderstood it, it was so generative in that it's welcoming life.
TGL: Do you consider yourself feminist?
AG: When I was young in college, and I hadn't encountered the literature yet, someone asked me if I was a feminist, and I honestly didn't know what it was. I said, "Yes, of course, and I'm a humanist." This person looked disappointed, I didn't realize there was such politics around feminism. Of course, I'm a feminist, but as part of a greater humanist worldview. When you think about the history of feminism, it's a history of blind spots, of not quite understanding that language can be exclusive. It can be exclusive of women of color, it can be exclusive of trans people. What I'm trying to argue for is that within a humanist perspective we are all equal. I'm very cautious. It's important to have identity politics, and to recognize how much injustice has been done around issues of difference, racism, sexism, homophobia, fear of difference. It's still important to have an ideal place where we truly all are equal, which means not only identifying and making amends for and shifting these ideologies of injustice, but remaining committed to a paradigm of equality. Whether that's an Ithaca or an art that we may never get to, I'd say that my feminism has to do with recognizing the history of injustice within feminism, and also continuing to aim towards equality.
TGL: How have you experienced gender discrimination as a woman artist?
AG: I’ve been speaking a lot about the articles published in Artnet with Charlotte Burns and Emily Halperin. Their research about women in the arts is utterly gobsmacking, the fact that from 2008 to 2019, museums only collected 11% women artists, and that the height of women artists was in 2009, 11 years ago. It has been my experience as a woman in the arts to face discrimination based on gender, and it's subtle, it's sly. It's comments like, "You're not going to show up to your opening pregnant, are you?" It's curators telling me, "Your work isn't as valuable as male artists." So few women are being invited into the archive, which is the history of our time. As a woman artist with a lot of female-identified friends, as a teacher where a majority of my students are women, we women - and every time I say women, I want to be inclusive, women with an X, women-identified artists - aren't being allowed to the economic table. Someone said to me, “it's the market that determines value." Well, the market has unconscious bias. People will choose an artwork based on the gender, and they will choose the male artist unconsciously. The money really matters to people's careers. What we're seeing now with coronavirus is so many households have single women. So much labor is falling to women in coronavirus times too. I have friends who are not only having to do their job, they're having to parent, they're having to nurse, they're having to do so many things. And again, it's not to discriminate against the men who are doing this, but there is a need to look at the unconscious bias against women in our labor, in the arts. And it's an ongoing intergenerational conversation. I love the idea that the word economy comes from the Greek word oikos. It was actually Hélène Cixous who taught me this, that it comes from the word for domesticity for home. We are all based from home, how can we think and reinvent the idea of labor and art labor in a more egalitarian sense. And how do we call upon those in power to work on their unconscious biases. Obviously the first place we have to do that is beginning with ourselves.
TGL: What is an unexpected connection you have made recently that has influenced you in a deep way?
AG: I read a book called Sick by Porochista Khakpour, and there were parts of her path that were similar to mine. She lived in South Pasadena as a child, I moved there as an adult. She'd gone to Sarah Lawrence College, my godmother was president of Sarah Lawrence College while she attended the school. There was this unfolding, as I read the book, I felt this incredible familiarity even though we’d never met. I use social media, especially Instagram, as a journal, but also a place to speak as a fan. With Porochista, I wrote a little review of the book and she replied, "Wait, we know these people in common." And suddenly the book led to an exchange, which led to the beginning of a relationship. We haven't actually met in person because of the illness ramping up globally, but that excites me.
TGL: Have you continued to work through quarantine?
AG: I've always found peace and consolation in being an artist. In some ways, the experience of being a painter has always been a kind of quarantine for me - to step away from the world and enter into the world of the imagination. I feel fortunate to be able to work during this period of time. Part of me realizes that when we get through this, wherever we are collectively going, I will have even better habits of self-discipline from this experience. There's destruction happening but it's also a time for creation, almost in the Greek sense of Gaia who was both a creator and a destroyer. We're rethinking and remaking what we do in the arts.
TGL: What can we learn from being in quarantine?
AG: We’re in a moment where coronavirus is telling us to stop being followers and to turn inwards to a deeper connection. I will be so interested to see how then we connect from a place where we've had to be in a deeper conversation with ourselves about what's meaningful. What a mirror it is to be inside your house day after day after day and think, "Why did I buy this blouse? Why do I have 17 books by this one author? Am I still interested in this?” Our homes are mirrors of who we are or who we think we are. It's not about pretending anymore, it's about being by yourself or dealing with your family. You're reconciling with the things and the people you've chosen and deepening that. It’s a painful, but extraordinarily joyful time for people.
TGL: What daily rituals keep you inspired?
AG: A big part of my quarantine has been food. On a really basic level it's access to food, but also the joy of cooking. It's a huge part of how I was brought up, enjoying food with other people. I rode crew in high school, and I played basketball in high school and college. That sense of being on a team, of understanding your role as part of a bigger goal and that discipline, I'm so grateful for that experience. Now my former sporty self, has been translated into a yoga practice. That's part of the daily ritual. I'm grateful to have that access to what is both athletic and spiritual.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
AG: The dinner party question is one that has always stumped me, because I like to be surprised by what happens in life. In the show The Price Is Right, in the Showcase Showdown you get to choose either one thing that's known or the unknown. I would choose the unknown guest. The guest who wanted to have dinner with me.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
AG: The importance of relationships. It's a question deeply uncomfortable in the arts sometimes to talk about things like faith, like intuition, trusting your gut. This comes back to the idea of a feminine way of being in the world that is trusting or of having hospitality for the unknown. Many of us are spending so much time by ourselves now, and we're having to welcome the unknown parts of ourselves that perhaps we’ve been running from or stayed so busy that we've avoided, parts of our shadow side that now we're having to reconcile. To get to know our anxiety is an incredible vehicle for a deeper conversation within, not just without. It has been a way of being in the world that has certainly brought me incredible faith in people who I didn't know to begin with. Strangers can become mentors, teachers, friends, lovers, or your curator. And that can all begin with, "I saw your work in a museum." Or, "I saw this thing you did online." It's important to send out the message if we feel something.