Alexandra Pacula, Diverse Rhythm, 72 x 288
Joe Heaps Nelson in conversation with Alexandra Pacula
I first encountered Alexandra Pacula's big, bold, colorful paintings in 2009 at the Governors Island Art Fair. Since then, we have become friends, and I have had a chance to visit her studio in Bushwick as well. She was born in Poland, emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 14, studied painting with Julie Heffernan at Rutgers, and received her MFA from Montclair State. Last year Alexandra received a fellowship from the The New York Foundation for the Arts, and moved into a big studio in Dumbo, provided by the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation. The Dumbo studio is where the following conversation took place. We discussed her intentions, her technique, and dragons.
Joe Heaps Nelson: One of the things about being a painter is you want to make paintings that will stand out, and you want to develop a style that is recognizably your own. I think you may have found your "thing". Tell me, Alexandra, what is your "thing"?
Alexandra Pacula: The style I have been working with and developing for the past 6 years I call Visual Intoxication. It's Visual Intoxication because it's enticing to the viewer. With brushwork, and vibrant colors, and seductive... They capture nightlife, the city at night. That in itself is pretty enticing. I want to capture that in my paintings.
Heaps: You do night paintings, mostly, and artificial light, the built environment. They are New York paintings, but what you don't see is people.
Pacula: It's not about people so much as the experience of the place, you just have to project your own vision. There are suggestions (of people), some shadows, but I want to concentrate more on the light.
Heaps: It brings you there. Whenever I am in Times Square at night, I think of you.
Pacula: Yeah, that's the thing, that's what I want. I want to capture that feeling, that craziness, that energy that's there. That overwhelming kind of atmosphere. You have so much light there that those paintings of Times Square are more vibrant.
Heaps: These are paintings based on photographs. Do you ever take pictures from a moving car, or a train? There is a lot of movement in these pictures.
Pacula: Sometimes I drive and take pictures, but a lot of times I just walk around, and I want them to be like snapshots. I take the picture as if someone just had their digital camera and was just walking around the town, and I use the ones that are not successful, like the ones you would throw out, because they are blurred. But I think that's the most significant thing, the blurred ones, the off-center ones, because they really show the moment, the energy of nightlife.
Fluid Illumination, 30.22 x 4.22, 2011
Heaps: Where the camera is moving, that gives you the opportunity to do some expressive and interesting brushwork.
Pacula: Definitely I am inspired by the light, the way the light is kind of painted on the photograph. So, that's what I want to paint, the light.
Heaps: Tell you what, I have been to your studio before, in Bushwick, but I have never seen one of your paintings under construction. Do you even use underpainting?
Pacula: When I paint, I look at the photograph, and when I start painting I lay it out, sketch it in with turpentine, and then I come in with really thick paint, and I start putting in all the finishes. On top of that, once it dries a little bit, I put in the light. Unless there's a specific area of light, then I'll do it from the beginning. On top of that, glazes, to make the painting glowing and really luminous.
Heaps (looking at paintings): They really draw you in. I guess you use pretty much pure color, though sometimes there is some white in there.
Pacula: I'm comfortable with oil paint, because I have been using it since I was 12, so I know how to create that glow.
Heaps: You come from Poland, right? How long have you lived in New York?
Pacula: I have been in New York for 19 years now. I was young when I came over, with my parents.
I want to talk about why I shoot digital. Basically I want to show our time, early 21st century. Right now everybody has digital cameras, and people take thousands of pictures, and that's how we see the world. People take a picture and look at the screen on the camera, instead of actually seeing the scene in front of them. Now we view the world through a digital image, a lot of the time.
Heaps: Does anybody even carry a sketchbook any more?
Pacula: Well, a couple people. In order to capture our day, I work from technology, digital imagery, viewing the world through a lens.
Heaps: Do you print these out, and then scale them up?
Pacula: Yeah, I print little pictures, but I don't want the paintings to be exact, or photorealism, at all. It's just a small reference. The shapes change. Once I start painting they become much more stylized, also they have much more of the painterly motion of the hand. They're not that tight.
Heaps: I think the paintings come across well in reproduction, but to me they look much better in real life, because it's so much about the vigorous brushwork.
Pacula: Yeah, they are pretty loose, and they're painterly.
Heaps: That saves them from falling into the trap of photorealism.
Pacula: Right. It becomes more expressionist, impressionist, and photorealist, a combination of the 3, in one painting.
[Now, we are looking out the window, at a spectacular view of the East River and Manhattan, with both the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge]
Looking from my window here, actually, at night, at dusk, it's really beautiful here. We get beautiful sunsets, I've done a series of paintings of the view and they're lighter. [We are looking at a new painting of the Manhattan Bridge at dusk]
Heaps: Still, the artificial light is really the subject of the painting. And I see that you love bright colors; you use the full spectrum of colors.
Pacula: It's about getting lost in your environment.
Heaps: Or, dazzled.
Pacula: Dazzled, that's what it is. That's the kind of Visual Intoxication I'm talking about.
[We discuss her idea for a giant painting which would surround the viewer. I mention that in the 19th century, there were 360 degree paintings, which would move, but I can't remember what they were called. The word I was seeking was "diorama".
Because I can't remember, we take a short break, and I call my friend Taylor Pierce, who is an architect and painter and general quasi-polymath, to see if he knows what I'm talking about. Alas, he does not, but in the meantime, at work, he is checking out Alexandra's website with enthusiasm. Alexandra brings out something new she has been working on, a spinning painting, which crashes to the floor with a loud noise.]
Progressive Current, 90.22 x 108.22
Heaps: OK, tell me about your spinning paintings! [Laughter]
Pacula: They are round, and they go as fast as you want, or as slow, also they go fast at first and it slows down and you get a different view of the image.
Heaps: That is fun, and unusual, because normally, paintings don't move.
Pacula: I wanted it to be kind of interactive.
[At this moment Taylor Pierce calls, because he has thought of a question for Alexandra!]
Taylor James Pierce: It's about attack and decay. You can see each brushstroke. You hit the canvas and pull up. Do you make corrections, or is each brushstroke sacred?
Pacula: Yeah! Each brushstroke is sacred, but sometimes if I do a brushstroke and I'm not happy with it, I'll wipe it out and restart the whole process.
Heaps: But you would do it right away, and not wait until the next day.
Pacula: No, because my brushstrokes are pretty thick, even if I go over it with another brushstroke, there will be ghosts, and I don't want ghosts.
Heaps: Did that answer your question? Thank you sir. If you remember what that thing is called, call back!
[Alexandra brings out a painted hubcap.]
Heaps: OK, Alexandra, tell me about this one!
Pacula: It's a piece I'm working on for Landfill Art, a project. I think about a thousand artists will be in it. It's organized by a guy from Pennsylvania. I'm doing it to bring awareness to all the garbage, we need to recycle it, do something with it, and clean up the world. There's going to be a big show and it's going to go on tour.
Heaps: This, too, is round. You are getting interested in round.
Pacula: Yeah, I didn't know what I was going to do when I signed up for it, then he sends me a hubcap, and I'm like, oh, cool. It's a round thing and it's got depth too, it's convex. I thought I would do a little spinning painting inside, it kind of looks like it rolled off the car, through the city. It gave me a chance to create a vortex.
Heaps: And this is even more abstract. This seems like it's going further in that direction. I can see what is up and what is down, but it kind of doesn't matter.
Heaps: Do you think about painting stuff that's not New York?
Pacula: Yeah, I've painted London, and Taipei. Now I just came back from Paris a month ago, and I'm gonna do Paris. Kind of as a comparison to New York. Hopefully you can see the similarities and the differences of the metropolitan areas
Heaps: Tell me about Poland. You are from Krakow. Do you remember any castles, or anything like that?
Pacula: There's a castle in Krakow, and there's a story of a dragon who lived in a cave, under it. He would steal virgins from the little town, when Krakow was a village, and bring them back and eat them. So everybody was really upset, and then there was a little kid, I think his name was Johnny, so he got a sheep and he filled it up with, kind of combustible, yellow stuff... What's in a bullet?
Heaps: In a bullet? Lead.
Pacula: Yeah, he filled it up with lead. So then he brings it to the dragon, and so the dragon eats it, and blows up! Because it had fire in it. Now there's a statue of the dragon outside the little cave and they blow smoke out of it. Every five minutes there's smoke coming out of the dragon.
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Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.