By COLTER RULAND
Artist Alexandra Grounds is quite young, but that has been said before. While her age frequently comes up in discussions about her artwork, it is only because she is so young to be doing the kind of work she is known for: large-scale, ambitious, engaging with culture head-on. These are the attributes typically reserved for established artists. But Grounds is proving through her energetic and bold work that she is earning these accolades and then some. She has a large social media following. She already has her worked showcased at the World Trade Center with the Silver Art Program as one of the youngest artists present. The question should not be how someone so young can accomplish this kind of work, but rather what else does she have in store for us?
Grounds looks back fondly at her childhood in the outdoors of Southern Arizona. Born in Tucson, Arizona, she grew up on her family’s ranch in Tubac, a small town locally known for its arts and crafts. “My mom would put out easels for us and I would always paint what I saw, I would paint my observations with my own perspective,” says Grounds. “Those moments gave art such a special place in my life,” she says, “because it was more of a relaxing passion than anything else.” While art can lend itself to the neurotic, Grounds exemplifies such calmness and assuredness in regards to her work.
Eventually, however, the desert iconography began to dull, so Grounds began to explore alternative visions as sources of inspiration. “I began to notice art in places I didn’t before,” says Grounds, “I was really into the show Gossip Girl at the time and saw these striking large works in the background.” The show frequently features large-scale oil paintings on the sets’ walls. This was the first time she had seen such large portraits. “I immediately became obsessed with it,” she says. She googled the artist Richard Phillips and emailed him a picture of one of her 8x6 paintings, expecting no response. Not only did Phillips respond, he came to her school, and she ended up apprenticing with him for a summer. “I grew up never considering ‘artist’ as a career,” she says, but that apprenticeship showed her how painting could become a profession.
Since then Grounds has been blazing forward in her professional career as a painter, dedicating more and more time to painting. Having already started her career, attending Columbia University, where she currently studies, presented its own challenges. She initially felt pressured, told to paint certain things or in specific ways. She normally painted whatever she felt like, now she was being told to consider the limitations. But, Grounds explains, this is a good thing. These constraints allowed her to explore territory she never thought possible.
“I’ve actually never been taught how to paint,” says Grounds. Perhaps this is one of the joys of watching her work and career evolve because it is as if we are right there with her as she is learning, discovering, and trying new things. In many ways, we are also being taught how to view her work as it reshapes itself around familiar concepts.
Grounds’s work ultimately aims to inhabit the fine line between an appreciation of beauty and a critique of the hypersexualization of women. Grounds, since the beginning of her art career, has wanted to create art that puts women in the forefront. She describes her time early on at boarding school as “very intellectual” with lots of students “voicing their opinions.” These were formative years where ideas roiled. She had a hard time being heard amongst all the noise. Her paintings, large and colorful, were a way of giving voice a definitive power. “People started to listen,” she says. She saw her work making an impact, and so she wanted her paintings to become even larger, even more impactful. Her earlier paintings on her mother’s easels had evolved from a mere talent to an expression of womanhood.
“I want to portray women,” says Grounds, “in a way where [sexuality] can also make them powerful. Being a female and having these characteristics, they don’t necessarily need to be diminished if that’s what a woman wants. We should be allowed to embrace that.” Grounds explores this negotiation, something she has admittedly been wrestling with representing throughout all her work. In Lost in Space, for instance, a woman is portrayed as an astronaut, already subverting the stereotypes of gendered occupations. But she is also in a skin-tight suit and her lips are a deep red. Her face is flawless. The reflection of a shooting star gleams across her helmet. In Lunch Break, there is yet another subversion, this time of the stereotypically male superhero role. A woman in a Wonder Woman suit is smoking a cigarette and holding a handgun with an expression, almost a twitch in the eye, of tired beauty. “She has these dreams but there is this expectation that she has to be sexy while doing that,” says Grounds. “It’s exhausting.” That exhaustion is present throughout all her portraits, where her models (usually her very own friends) are portrayed as if they are in the middle of exhaling.
Negotiating that line between critique and representation can be tricky, and Grounds doesn’t want her work to suggest that beauty is a “concrete” thing despite the arguably beautiful models she depicts. Grounds is more than aware of these interpretations of her work, which liken her treatment of beauty to a kind of hyperbeauty in which everything is perfect, every rough edge smoothed out. Whether or not that interpretation is accurate doesn’t exactly matter to Grounds, whose new work is
already responding to these questions of beauty by painting things she considers “disturbing and disgusting.” When we speak, she tells me she is actually in the middle of painting a face that has insects crawling out of it. She plans to work on a series of paintings focusing on body parts not typically associated with beauty. She recently posted the painting on Instagram, featuring a disembodied mouth and tongue that are bright and fleshly and cellular. Ants and bees crawl along the wet body parts. In her post, she writes she is entering a “dream state.”
“I want to be a voice of my generation,” says Grounds. She wants her dream state to translate to the realities of everyday womanhood and what is means to inhabit a body that is being looked at. Speaking of her primary subject, the female form, Grounds says, “She knows she’s being looked at in a sexual way, she’s being objectified, and she’s trying to take it and move forward with it.” Likewise, Grounds is moving forward, showcasing her work, sharing her story online, and attending art school. It goes without saying that Grounds is a young, savvy, and inquisitive artist who hasn’t even ascended to the height of her powers, though we all know that it is merely a matter of time.
Colter Ruland lives and writes outside of Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Territory, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fiction Advocate, Goodnight Sweet Prince, The Thought Erotic, Switchback, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel.view all articles from this author