March 7, 2014

Spotlight: Alice Lancaster

 Unordinary things exist in life, and Alice Lancaster brings them to the forefront.

Once I read artistic people are more prone to madness because they have higher amounts of energies than most people, and sharpened abilities to see things in an original and different way. I remember wondering why higher energy levels and an idiosyncratic perspective were considered unbalanced; to me, those qualities were synonymous with creativity. I revisited that conundrum when I first saw Alice Lancaster's work. Her pieces highlight aspects of life most people shy away from, from sexual fetishes to the natural, bare female form. Looking through her collections can be unsettling: the rawness of the subjects she paints gives them a palpable sense of intimacy that's almost startling. Her portraits are relatable but exaggerated; the internal worlds of her subjects play an outsized role in their cartoonish visages that gives them a dystopian whimsy.

While Alice has garnered substantial recognition for the boldness of her pieces of the human anatomy, I found her most rare quality to be her ability to dissolve the border between sanity and insanity while maintaining sensitivity toward her subjects. Her collections seem to exist in a liminality, vacillating between the two with a strange fluid characteristic of a George Condo painting or a Kafka novel. The emotion she infuses into her paintings affords them the complexity of the real individuals they were based on, and acknowledges that people are not homogenous, but comprised of veins both light and dark. Poet Cesar A. Cruz once said art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, a sentiment that was later reiterated by Banksy. I found that idea to be thematic in Lancaster’s paintings. Unordinary things exist in life, and Lancaster’s work displays that she has the vision to bring them to the forefront and the artistic literacy to portray them in a way that showcases their significance. Her work is important not only because of the imagery, but its ability to draw attention to the elements within it. I talked to Alice Lancaster about the reactions her art has engendered, the meaning of feminism and quitting her day job.

THE LE SIGH: Can you name a moment or period of time when you knew art and painting were something that would be a theme in your life?

AL: I don't think I can pinpoint a specific moment when I knew art would be a theme in my life because I think it was something I sort of always knew. My dad, aunt and grandma are all artists so it came very naturally to me.

TLS: How did you become involved with The Ardorous? How has your involvement in that collective affected and shaped your artistic vision and career?

AL: Sometime in 2007 or 2008 Petra Collins came across my work on Flickr and we began corresponding and developed a mutually supportive friendship. When she asked me to be a part of The Ardorous it was a no-brainer, of course. It's taught me a lot about feminism and what it is to be a feminist. There's a lot of stigma attached to that word and I think it's our job to inform people (especially young girls) what it's about and why it's so important to be one.

TLS: Can you go into that a little bit more? Why do you think it's important to be a feminist and how does your work invoke that?

AL: I think a lot of people interpret the word 'feminism' as a hairy man-hater. Some of us are hairy, but hating men is not a part of the equation. I think for the new generation of feminists it's less about burning bras and more about equality. It's important to be a feminist because being one means you respect yourself and you know you can do anything a man can do. I'm not sure my work evokes that to be honest. I don't put too much thought into my paintings. It's more about having fun, putting a lot of color into it and making something beautiful or funny or sexy.

TLS: Could you describe your work and your aesthetic? What adjectives do you think best describe the themes of your paintings?

AL: I think I would describe my painting style as playful with a touch of grimness. There's a lot of color and at first glance it may appear childlike, but when you keep looking at it you see there's an element of darkness.

TLS: I see you've lived in St. Louis and Chicago, and currently reside in New York City. Has your work and style been influenced by your different environments? What were the benefits and disadvantages of living in those different cities?

AL: Yes, I guess I didn't realize it before, but my work has changed drastically since moving to New York. I didn't make much work at all while living in St. Louis and while I lived in Chicago I took a ton of photos but didn't paint or draw too much, but I began painting like crazy when I moved to New York. I think I got a jolt of motivation. It was like, "Ok, you're here. Do something. Make something." I felt very motivated to produce things after moving here. Chicago is great because large loft spaces are actually affordable so I think it's a great city for painters. The same goes for St. Louis. It's significantly less expensive but I didn't get any inspiration living in the suburbs with my parents.

TLS: Many of your illustrations and paintings have a strong sexual element. Have you ever felt inhibition about expressing parts of sexuality that others shy away from? Have you gotten any criticism for those themes? If so, how do you move past it (or does it affect you at all)?

AL: No, I don't feel inhibition expressing sexuality through my art. I haven't really gotten criticism for it, but I have had family members question it, and I wish I could show my grandma my art but it would probably make her uncomfortable so I just don't go there. When we were at her house for Christmas my brother-in-law quietly asked me if everyone knew about my recent American Apparel t-shirt success and I told him they didn't and that I wouldn't mention it due to it's “controversial imagery.” It's too bad, because I'm so happy with it and I'm proud.

TLS: Your paintings often depict cartoonish images with morbid details that set the tone for the piece. How has this style developed over time? Are there certain artists, works or ideas that have informed your style?

AL: For a while I was really into very dark imagery (Japanese bondage, circus freaks, etc.) then I was obsessed with Deee Lite, Tiny Tim and Kewpie dolls. So, I went from one end of the spectrum to the other and now I'm somewhere in the middle and I've learned to combine it all into a specific aesthetic. Some of my favorite artists are Niki de Saint Phalle, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Balthus and Kitaj, but I wouldn't necessarily say I was consciously influenced by them. Maybe I was and I don't even realize it.

TLS: Can you tell us about an exciting moment in your artistic career?

AL: I think one of the most exciting moments was when I found out that the "Period Power" shirt had gone viral. It was on Time magazine, Perez Hilton, the Huffington Post - everywhere. It was insane. However, only two websites gave me credit for the drawing. Every other website (including American Apparel) gave Petra credit. It was equally as exciting as it was frustrating.

TLS: What are some challenges you face in your artistic work?

AL: Making money from my art is a constant challenge, but I am absolutely determined to make it happen.

TLS: What are your ideal conditions for creating work? Do you listen to music, have a certain workspace?

AL: My ideal working conditions would include a studio with high ceilings and tons of natural light. Realistically I paint in my apartment and sing along to Fiona Apple or listen to Podcasts.

TLS: What upcoming plans do you have for your work? Where do you see yourself (in general, or in terms of artistic development and progress) in five years?

AL: My next project is to find a company who can silkscreen my drawings onto tote bags and t-shirts instead of me hand-painting each item individually. I've made some prototypes, which I really like, so I'm excited to get the ball rolling with that. In five years I see myself collaborating with a brand like Prada or perhaps designing for my own line of clothing (and I will no longer have a day job!).

View more of Alice Lancaster’s work here.

Carolyn Lang, who likes to write and travel and spends most of her free time in Middle Eastern restaurants. She is the combined effort of everyone she has ever known. Carolyn keeps track of things that fascinate her here.