Small Things with Loud Noise: The Fabulously Sardonic World of Alex Gingrow
Taking items as mundane as daily desktop calendar pages, museum wall labels, and stickers, Gingrow transforms them all into powerful agents with important social messages. She addresses the passage of time with unexpected juxtapositions of quotes in the “Disposable Day Desk Calendar” (as the series is titled) with her daily notes in the form a completed sentence “Today I ____”. - Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
In her “Provenance Label Series,” Gingrow immortalizes quotes she’s heard strewn haphazardly around her while working at a frame shop. She records one-liners many can sympathize with hearing while working quietly and invisibly in and around the art world. Through biting wit and meaningful reach, she captured my attention as I think she will yours.
Alex Gingrow | Artist note: “These are the two small Moleskin notebooks that I carried with me every day during 2013 to jot down my thoughts and activities for the This Disposable Day Desk Calendar series.” Courtesy of the artist.
Ellen Caldwell: The second I saw your “This Disposable Day Desk Calendar series,” I knew I wanted to learn more about your work. What inspired this? Do your “Today I…” refer to factual events and personal truths?
Alex Gingrow: Yes, every bit of text in “This Disposable Day Desk Calendar series” is from my own hand. I started a small journal on January 1, 2013 and every single day for the entire year I kept a log of a thought/wisdom of the day and my action (or mopey inaction) of the day. I knew from the outset that I wanted to create a body of work dealing with the passage of time and the relationship between time, memory, experience, and perception, but it wasn’t until about October of 2013—ten months after starting the data collection/creation—that I finally nailed down the presentation of the text in the calendar form.
I have an old page from a vocabulary-word-of-the-day calendar from 2000 that I framed. The vocabulary word is “clandestine” and the date is September 11. I was thinking about that calendar page and the oddity that I never threw it away and how that one page, that one date, was so innocuous in the year 2000 and how it is now not only part of the art of my wall, but part of my memory and experience, though it was meant to be discarded by the stroke of midnight on that day. After chewing on that for a while, along with making countless studies, failed experiments, and various studio frustrations, I came up with the design for “This Disposable Day Desk Calendar.” In most of my work, the text comes first and then I spend an inordinate amount of time in the studio figuring out the best way to present the words that I’ve written.
Alex Gingrow | Nicholas Robinson: part of the Provenance Sticker series. "No, no. I'm glad you told me. She represents ME in those situations and I need to know if she's acting like a whore." graphite and acrylic on paper, 22 x 30 inches, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.
Alex Gingrow | Gallery installation shot of Provenance Sticker pieces: Installation image from "All the Money IS in the Label" at Mike Weiss Gallery, New York, NY, August-September 2012. Image courtesy of Mike Weiss Gallery.
EC: The series has a similar humor and form to your earlier "Provenance Label Series.” Could you also discuss the inspiration behind that series a bit?
AG: “The Provenance Label series” came to me while I was working at a frame shop in midtown Manhattan, a job I held for about six years. We worked with gallerists, collectors, artists, interior designers, museums, etc. Many of our clients were wonderful to work with, but I was constantly amazed at the kinds of damming, naïve, entitled, and awful things clients felt comfortable saying in a room full of strangers: comments about art, about artists, about difficult clients, or disruptive colleagues.
But I realized they felt comfortable saying these things in front of my co-workers and me because they didn’t acknowledge us as players in their world. We were the workers, the blue-collar cogs behind the machine. And so, like any dutiful documentarian, I kept my mouth shut, my head down, and started keeping a log of their misgivings and bitter barrages. As is my process, I struggled in the studio with how to present these collected tidbits until one day a client said, in reference to the provenance label on the back of an old frame, “All the money IS in the label, you know.” And then it came to me to just start drawing the labels and using that format as the vehicle to tell the stories that I had been collecting.
EC: How have viewers or audiences received your work? I could really picture the art world at large finding humor in them and acknowledging some of the truisms you reflect. Is that the case?
AG: Yes, I think that is definitely the case. Most people recognize the truisms and accept them even if they may sting a bit, as truisms often do. Being able to laugh at oneself is an invaluable character trait. However, there have been a small handful of people who have adamantly denied a tale or two I’ve told along the way and have become somewhat miffed with me. But I can’t worry about that; the door swings both ways. The problem I find with making work that is humorous or sardonic is that all too often viewers don’t look past the joke. For me, the humor is the lure, but the meat is in looking closer and thinking critically about all the choices made in the execution of the work. I think that’s what good comedy is about in any form.
EC: I also am interested in your older “Sticker Project” — could you discuss this a bit and describe how or if you see roots of your more recent series in this work.
AG: If I remember correctly, the “Sticker Project” was in response to a challenge to create an intervention within an environment. I like small things that create a loud noise. I like the disruption of something so innocuous as a sticker questioning something as raw as racism and our own place and function within its structure. I installed them (i.e. stuck them to shit) around Savannah, GA—a city rife with issues of racism, segregation, and class warfare—in a way to create a private moment of questioning, recognition, and contemplation between the sticker and the pedestrian.
I made these at a time when I was really trying to reconcile my absolute love of making heavy monochrome oil paintings with the fact that my ideas were really all text-based and I was writing underneath all the paintings and then covering the writing up and still expecting viewers to understand what I was talking about. Because the environmental intervention was a particular challenge outside of my normal studio practice, it allowed me to branch out and I think when I did, I realized that the tiny stickers packed more of a punch than the big paintings I was laboring over. So, yes, I think this is approximately where my current branch broke away from its trunk.
Alex Gingrow | Installation image from "Your Forest for My Trees" at Diana Lowenstein Fine Art, two-person exhibition with Michael Scoggins, Miami, FL, April-June 2014. This is the month of January of the series, 31 works, each 15 x 15 inches, graphite, ink, and acrylic on paper, 2013-2014. At the very end of the gallery is an installation of a vintage desk, chair, lamp, typewriter, empty desk calendar easel, and the This Disposable Day Desk Calendar book edition.
EC: How do or do you see your work fitting into a larger movement of text-based art? What are you working on now and does it tie into or break from the works we have been discussing?
I wish I had the clairvoyance to see the larger forest and how my work fits into it, but I’m afraid I can only see the individual trees in my studio. I know that I am quite naturally drawn to looking at text-based work and always have been, but I don’t know that I see it as a movement. But I think perhaps that’s something that only time and distance will tell. Regardless, whether it’s a river of movement or an ocean of concrete, it has no bearing on what happens inside my studio walls. As for what I’m working on now, I’m still chugging away on “This Disposable Day Desk Calendar.” There will be 365 works in the series upon its completion and my intention is to create a giant installation of the entire body of work if I can find a space large enough that is willing to exhibit it. In the meantime, I have the text collected for my next body of work and am constantly mulling over how to present it. When I take breaks from the calendar days, I make a few studies, throw them away, and then go back to the calendar.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Born in Knoxville, TN, Alex Gingrow has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally and has received critical reviews from publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Modern Painters, and Frieze Magazine. Gingrow currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She is part of a group show “To the Best of My Recollection,” curated by Noah Klersfeld, now through September 6th at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, NJ.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based writer, editor, and art historian.