In a beautiful house deep in the Hollywood Hills, visual artist Alex Gross put the final touches on pieces for his tenth solo exhibition. The native New Yorker moved to Los Angeles in 1990, but his upcoming Antisocial Network exhibit at Corey Helford Gallery (February 25 to March 25) will be the first show in his adopted hometown in nearly 11 years. PRØHBTD visited Gross at his home studio earlier this month, and his paintings sat scattered throughout his living room contrasting framed Japanese posters for old movies like Planet of the Apes and Bullitt that hung on the walls. The artist prefers social themes to political ones, but the themes are nonetheless deep and often cutting. For the interview, Gross sat relaxed in his living room and spoke in a calm tone that disguised the weight of his words. Without the slightest spike in emotion, he discussed commercialism, drug policy, severed heads and why he won’t paint Donald Trump blowing Steve Bannon.
Several pieces include characters looking at their phones ignoring each other, and the title Antisocial Network seems to suggest that social media has made people less social. Is that an accurate interpretation?
Social media is social. I know people I met on Instagram and Facebook that I didn't know before, but when I go out and ignore you because I'm on Instagram the whole time, it's antisocial. So, it's both social and antisocial. I don't want people to think I'm against social media because I'm not, but I have mixed feelings. It's crazy how many people ignore each other in favor of their phones. I see that all the time. It's infuriating, especially when I have my kid in the car. It's like, “You risk killing me and my little son to look at your stupid feed?”
Just to see how many “likes” they got.
Yeah, for your stupid food picture.
How has technology helped you as an artist?
Working digitally has been amazing, and it gives me the ability to connect with people online who like my work. I just worry that Instagram is going to get fucked like Facebook got fucked. When I started on Facebook, all you had to do was like my page to see all my posts. When the company went public, Facebook changed it so only 10 percent of the people who like your page will see your posts unless they went out of their way to click “Follow,” which most people never do. I have 99,000 followers right now, which means only 10,000 people will see my posts. I can advertise my posts to the people who liked my page, but I have to pay for that privilege. Facebook owns Instagram. They haven't done that to Instagram yet, but it's got to be in the future, right? When they screw us all over again, then what? Is there going to be some new platform? I don't know, but it's a bummer.
When you include corporate images in a painting like Monogatari, how does it typically inform the piece?
Monogatari is a Japanese word that means “story,” and this piece is basically a fairytale image. It's a geisha flying on a lion, holding balloons, wearing roller skates, floating over a little town. You see a lot of the same signs in most first-world countries, right? KFC, 7-Eleven,McDonalds... they're everywhere. The idea was to make it look like any town you might drive past on a freeway. I felt that adding the signs to this image took it from a fairytale world to the real world. It's a juxtaposition of a make-believe image with a bit of reality thrown in there.
What are other ways you might utilize corporate imagery?
It varies from piece to piece. I have a piece called Dior that has the logo on the painting itself like it's an ad and a woman wearing Dior sunglasses. Then there is a McDonald’s sign in Arabic in the background, and the whole painting is clearly set in what looks like the Middle East. In this case, the McDonald’s sign addresses Western consumerist culture spreading around the globe, and it’s in an Arab nation that you might think would resist such McDonald’s encroachment. The tanks suggest this is a place involved in constant war, yet there's still a McDonald’s there. The woman is very incongruous in the image. She’s oblivious to all that's going on, talking on the phone and wearing her shades, and she's had a nose and lip job. Putting Dior on the image is from her perspective, her world, like she's living in a Dior ad oblivious to the reality of the rest of this picture.
My favorite piece in the new exhibit is Cock. Can you tell me about the process and inspiration for it?
The inspiration was a Japanese girl group who had a whole series of ads in which they all wear matching outfits and look insanely happy all the time. I saw the girls in a great advertisement on some website, and it made me want to mess around with it. I used to do this a lot in my process—find an image and start fucking with it—but now I tend to shoot my own models and compose my own imagery, so this is a little bit of a throwback piece for me.
The girls were holding little stuffed animals in the original, and once I decided to have them hold heads, in this case severed male heads, it made for the whole set up. Then I felt I had to come up with one more thing, an idol that they're all gathered around, which ended up becoming this rooster. They're all wearing these matching uniforms that are really conservative—not sexy schoolgirl ones—with long sleeves and hot collars. It felt vaguely North Korean to me so that's why I added Kim Jong Il and the dull rainbow. There are also subtle dirt drippings on the page, too, as if it's the background wall, as if it's some shitty studio in North Korea where they shoot really bad movies.
You previously did a series that included world leaders like Putin and Obama.
Yeah, it was called Disrespect World Leaders at my last show. I had [Vladimir] Putin, [Barack] Obama, Kim Jong-un and [Bashar] Assad from Syria, which was particularly popular. I thought about doing a follow up in this show.
Who would you paint?
That's one of the problems. I would have to do Putin again because he's so relevant, but I did him in a Dr. Evil parody holding a kitten. How do you do Putin again with new twists? I’d have to do Trump, of course, and I think you have to do the Chinese leader. Then the fourth one is very tricky. I thought about [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel because she's a woman, but I feel like she's the last reasonable world leader on the planet so she doesn't really fit.
Most Americans won't know leaders like Theresa May, whom many Brits think is too cozy with Trump.
I don't know that she is really relevant. Trump sort of says it all. In the last show, I liked that I made Obama a boy scout with all these merit badges, and each badge is something I think he fucked up on. One is a hooded figure of a detainee, like at Guantanamo Bay, and another is an NSA badge, which I thought was a giant betrayal. [Edward] Snowden is a big hero to me. I wasn't totally shitting on Obama, but I wanted to poke Obama supporters like, “Yeah, this guy is a perfect boy scout, come on.” In retrospect, I'd kill my mother to have Obama back as president, but at the time, I felt very let down by all the things he didn’t do as the great hope so many of us had. Whereas if you do an image of Trump, it can't be anything but a giant parody. There's nothing about him you could take seriously or consider legitimate other than the fear he's creating in all of us.
What about a Trump Administration theme?
I could, but who the fuck would want to live with that in their house?
That's the problem with anti-Trump imagery. It's a great political cartoon, but it's not a painting anyone would want to live with. Do you know the painter Odd Nerdrum? He’s a very famous Norwegian figurative painter. He liked to paint people taking shits, and he's very successful. I remember one show in which he made a giant 10-foot-long painting of people squatting and shitting in the forest, and of course that painting was not sold. I admire that he doesn't care whether or not his paintings are commercially sellable, but a painting of Trump sucking Bannon’s dick is same thing. People would enjoy looking at it, but nobody is going to want to buy that.
Speaking of Trump sucking Bannon’s dick, what are things people try to prohibit that you don't think they should?
I'm against most prohibitions. You know, obviously weed. The ridiculous battle between the federal government and states like California and Colorado over legal weed is moronic, especially given that alcohol has been legal for so long. It's probably Big Pharma fearing that everyone will discover they don't need Zoloft and all that shit if they get marijuana. For sure, I think weed should be legal, end of story. I think the majority of Americans agree on that now as we're seeing so many states legalize it. Hopefully that won't be an issue fairly soon.
The current administration feels to me like we made a big leap backwards. Hopefully we're going to spring right back to the present with the next administration, if we survive the next four years. I think the bigger problem is prescription drugs. People are abusing oxy and pharmaceutical versions of heroin more than heroin itself. From what I understand, a lot of people are now buying heroin because it's cheaper than oxy, and people are overdosing like crazy.
Do themes like religion or drugs or equality ever come up in your artwork?
Not particularly. I'm not really a political artist. My work is more socially oriented, occasionally personal. I'm specifically painting about my world, my culture, western consumerism, what I see with the younger generation and where things are going. My work can be appreciated by people with a wide range of political views or from a wide background of culture or religion. I'm an atheist, and I'm down on religion, but I'm totally cool if you are a religious person as long as you're not hurting me or trying to legislate some shit because of your book.
Anything else you want to add?
You can check out the art on my website, but if you are in town, come check out the show. There’s nothing like seeing the artwork in person. Some of the paintings are six or seven feet wide, and you're not going to get the same experience seeing it three-inches wide on your phone.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.