Josh Alan uses his work as a platform for communication by transforming images from media and opening up opportunities for reconstructed dialogue. Using hands-on approaches to photography, painting, and ultimately collage, Alan addresses social and political issues relevant to audiences today that might challenge mainstream viewpoints of history. Unlike appropriation, Alan wants his mastery to focus on the act of manipulation and how he can create ownership by breaking down the image in form, memory, and history. His work was recently featured in Elephant Magazine issue #23 addressing the theme of what is post-internet art and has been featured in many art galleries across the state of Texas where he resides.
When did your relationship with art begin?
When I was a kid I was drawing all of the time. Cartoon characters and cars first. Later I wanted to work on inking comic books. My mom used to paint a lot. She was good. I guess I was just around it. In high school I was painting a lot, making collage flyers for punk shows. In community college a professor showed me Rauschenberg for the first time. It changed my life. That’s when I got serious and started to consider what I’d have to do to make a living as an artist.
How has it changed or developed over the years to the point it’s at currently?
As an undergrad I was collecting images that I would use to photocopy on a large scale and collage on canvases. I would paint into them. I referred to them as paintings. Once I graduated I never had a dedicated studio space. I was frustrated with the way my progress was slowing when, one day, I opened one of the many books I bought off a clearance shelf and took a rotary blade to it. My instinct was to photograph the results which led me to working with the camera as my primary tool. From there it developed into what I do now. The newer work has a lot of text incorporated into it.
Does text play an important role in the information it provides a work?
I think it does. It gives a lot more control over the conversation between the piece and the viewer. It also gives me a way of separating the image from its origin a bit. If I work with a portrait of Jackie O or JFK or Malcolm X, it’s important for me to bring that image, that figure and that history into the context of what is happening today. I want to use text in a way that addresses what is happening now and how it relates and differs from similar times in our history. Also, just relative daydreaming about the future. They started as a series of slogans that I thought of as part of a fictional political campaign. Sort of these vague, meta statements that could be about politics or religion or something more personal. I want them to be open enough that they are available for anyone to interpret.
What attracts you to your media?
I’ve always had a thing for collage. It suits me. I love working with a built-in historical narrative. It’s essentially working with photography as a found object. I love the relationship photo has with the history of modern art. It’s responsible for it. I tend to approach the images I work with sort of like an Ab/Ex painter. But instead of a brush I’m using a blade.
What kind of research do you do to prepare for new work?
I don’t do a lot of research specifically for work. The books I’m reading, news stories, music, films; my radar is always on for what might be useful to my work. For example, I have list in the notes of my phone that is just phrases and fragments and texts. Mostly things I write in reaction to a book or article or news story or a conversation I overhear. I like taking all of this information and quoting it out of context when it’s paired with an image. In some cases I will do some reading specific to a project or an image if I think there might be something there. Most of the time I don’t like to research the details of my source material. I feel that it narrows my ability to use an image in a new way. I don’t want to create a burden of information that keeps me from seeing that source material as malleable. I work on instinct as much as possible.
Before you mentioned your lack of a studio space after graduating – do you have one now that allows for you to organize these images and texts in a creative setting and can you tell me a little bit about how you interpret your studio space in relation to your work?
I do work from a home studio these days. My work adapted to not having any space before so now I technically don’t need it as much as when I was a painter. But I do use it for my current work. I collect lots of things that I see as potential materials so it’s nice to have a place where I can put ideas up on the wall and sit with them a while. It serves more as a photography studio than anything else.
What first attracted you to experiment with the use of American iconography?
Most of my concerns are in addressing social and political issues in my work. I work with American iconographies because it has an inherent history built into it. I like to talk about how history is so heavily manipulated and distorted with the intentions of furthering certain kinds of current political philosophy and theory. It’s a way to make history agree with your viewpoints. Like how people use the Founding Fathers in their arguments, but seem to know absolutely nothing about them. It’s tied to how memory changes over time. Sometimes it evolves naturally. Sometimes it’s forced. And since people like the Texas State Board of Education insist on adopting these kinds of manipulation into our textbooks people are losing their bearing on reality.
That is a very critical viewpoint to approaching your media and I love it. It seems so many people are uncomfortable with challenging themselves visually and have a hard time accepting new viewpoints. Do you ever witness viewer discomfort in relation to your subjects?
I have had a couple of uncomfortable conversations with people in galleries that were not too happy with what I had up on the walls. I try to engage in those when they come up, but I don’t to what effect that ever has. I think if anyone is actively trying to confront serious topics in their work it’s bound to not play well here and there. And that’s ok. At least the conversation was there.
What role does deconstruction play in your work?
Deconstruction is pretty central to the work. Since I’m working with a source its important to break that material down so I can begin to feel some ownership of what can be made out of it. Once a book a images is broken down and photographed I keep it around and make collages from it. I like to think of the process as allegorical in its relationship to memory and history. That deconstruction/reconstruction theme is central to progress and evolution in general.
Discuss the importance of authorship in your work as it pertains to your experiments of other images. Would you say you are the author, the original image creator, or the viewer?
I think that it is important to feel a sense of authorship in work like this. Collage always starts as someone else’s work. You have to really work at changing that material in a way that has purpose; or in a way that has some kind of personality. As much as I appreciate the legal “protection” Richard Prince has made possible for artists like myself, I don’t see appropriation as an act of art in and of itself. That’s just art theory. I want to see something being made, materials being manipulated, something. I want to see the gears turning. Or maybe that’s just the way I feel it needs to be. I was raised to work hard so if it comes to easy I don’t get much satisfaction from it.
You studied painting, but most of your work involves works on paper like photography and collage. Where do you see influences of painting are present in your current creations?
I approach it with the same caution for color. When I was studying painting I realized early on that I needed to reduce my palate to just the essentials. Almost all of my work at that time was black, white, and yellows. Some red and pink too, but that was the extent of it. Even though there is more variety in my photos I still try to keep each piece within a certain limitation. I mostly thought of my use of paint as an editing tool. I tend to approach my current work more as a painter than a photographer. And like I was saying before, when I cut into the books it always reminds me of my love for the Ab/Ex painters. It feels like that kind of mark making. I would eventually like to have an excuse to print images on the same scale as painting. I love the grandeur of painting.
I love seeing monumental works in media that aren’t traditionally created in its size – like Rauschenberg’s Skyway that’s on view at Dallas Museum of Art. I’m hoping you’ve seen it in person if you’re from the area. It’s such a grand size and exposes so many conversations Rauschenberg makes in the piece. Rauschenberg is one of my favorite artists, so I love hearing your references to his work as well.
I have seen that one. I lived in Dallas for about a year and whenever I went to the DMA I would always make a point to spend some time looking at that one. It really is such a beautiful piece. I think the scale catches you off guard. I knew the picture well from books, but when I first saw it I was blown away. And when you get hit with that kind of imagery and scale it demands you to consider the artist’s decisions. Even the happenstance stuff becomes meaningful.
As a musician, are there any evident influences of music in your work?
Music is certainly always playing when I work. I like to focus my attention to something else while I work. Music is a good catalyst to work a bit unconsciously. I fight my perfectionist tendencies by making it a more automatic process. I kind of see music, painting, collage, photography, all art practices as one big thing. I always find one thing influencing another. It’s all about dynamics of information and knowing when and where to edit. I’ve learned a lot from editing and mixing songs. On a side note, if it were up to me I’d quote Tom Waits’ lyrics in every piece.
What movements or artists do you find to be inspirational to your work?
I like a lot of artists and movements of course, but I’m not always aware of how it directly influences me. I’m always interested in how artists deal with space and other compositional issues and the like. I’d say the ones I can definitely credit with influence would be Robert Rauschenberg, John Baldessari, Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha, and Barbara Kruger, and the DADA movement. Others that I just love would include Mira Schendal, Sol Lewitt, Warhol, Julie Mehretu, Paul Wackers, Cleon Peterson, Doris Salcedo, Richard Colman, Sara Sze, William Larson, Richard Diebencorn, Barkley Hendricks, Moholy-Nagy, Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, Richard Serra and on and on and on.
You were recently shown at Craighead-Green Gallery in Dallas. Why is exhibitionism important to you?
Selfishly, I want my work to be seen. I think all artists want what they work hard to make to be seen. But I also think it’s important to put your work out there and see how it lives. If art is completed by the viewer you have to allow it to be seen and interpreted and argued against and try to learn from the experience. I also have a strong desire to use my work to address the social and political climate we live in today. I would hope that it could be, in some small way, a form of activism. I see a lot of problems in the way the art market is encouraging very shallow, internet-meme styles of work that are purely decorative. And while I think we all could use a break from the constant problems we face in the world I’m more inclined to confront those problems in my work.
Last modified: October 26, 2015