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Words: Victoria Comstock-Kershaw

Photography: Maria Payro

In her gloriously-lit Chelsea studio, surrounded by vast canvases depicting sculptural swathes of tangled limbs, interwoven bodies and deep, vivid colours, FETCH London sits down with artist Alexandra Zarins to discuss her upcoming exhibition alongside Gokula Stoffel at Elizabeth Xi Bauer, The Moon Between My Teeth. Via the exhibition of four sumptuous works -- The Lemon Lounge, Road Trip Part II, Disagio’s andThe Kiss -- Alexandra invites us to delve into a world of nostalgia, tenderness, intimacy, and isolation.

Zarins in the studio. Photography by Maria Payro.

Zarins' artistic journey has been one driven by a fascination with the human form. Prior to working in the more contemporary way that she does now, Alexandra painted traditional portraits. "What drew me to portraiture first was always the psychology of the sitters, and trying to capture that." she explains. "Even when I stopped doing portraiture, it was still always the figure that fascinated me so much. There are elements of [my work] that are still abstract, but my work is still very much figurative painting."

Drawing inspiration from her own imagination and experiences, she abandoned the need for models or photographs, immersing herself in the liberating realm of abtractness. "It feels a lot more like creative writing," she says, emphasising the seamless integration of storytelling and figurative painting in her oeuvre. The influence of Zarins' writing on her artwork is palpable, as she intricately weaves anecdotes and personal experiences into her captivating compositions. "I’ve always loved stories and story-telling – and I’ve always written. During my masters in New York, under the guidance of some great tutors and very inspirational friends/mentors, I began to work from my imagination, and found the way that I could integrate my own stories. and from there I found a way to be working from my own stories. I did away with the need for a model, and I don’t work from photographs; it’s a very liberating thing to only need your own imagination."

Zarins' works addresses themes of hedonism, guilt, and the paradoxes of an unrestrained existence. "Yes, they're hedonistic, but they're also quite dark," she acknowledges. Speaking about her time in Florence, she says how she felt a lot of guilt around the way that they lived. One such home of hedonism was the bar known as Disagio’s, the title of her largest painting -- which itself stands out as a poignant exploration of rejection, self-consciousness, and the feeling of inadequacy. "Looking back, this could be any party." she says of the work. With its bird's-eye view and the central figure engaged in conversation, yet cut off by an arm coming from outside of the plain of the painting, the painting takes the viewer on an introspective journey of vulnerability and solitude. "This is the only painting in this series where I came up with the title first. Through the composition, I wanted to create something that felt claustrophobic and uncomfortable. This painting explores the feeling of rejection, of somehow feeling inadequate to those around you — of feeling less desirable. I put the viewer in this crowd, surrounded by a throng of people, but—unable to meet anyone’s gaze—you’re looking down—feeling very self conscious and very alone."

Left: Road Trip Part II (detail). Right: Disagio's (detail). Alexandra Zarins. Oil on canvas. Photo by Maria Payro.

Disagio's may be Zarin's most recent and fully realised work, capturing the essence of self-consciousness she has long sought to convey, but it's certainly not the only piece to be infused with a nostalgic quality that lingers on the mind. Road Trip Part II captures the slumbering memories of family car trips down to Devon. "My sister and I would always be sitting in the back seat, sort of folded over each other. I sent her a very quick sketch before I had even started the painting, asking her if she recognised this – we had never spoken about this experience before, but she knew exactly what I was talking about." Each canvas carries an ethereal quality of profound intimacy and nostalgic contemplation, inviting onlookers to delve into their own memories and emotions. Zarins's art resonates with a delicate balance of vulnerability and strength, capturing the fleeting moments of human connection and the enduring essence of shared experiences.

The Kiss. Alexandra Zarins. Photo by Maria Payro.

The Kiss in particular revels in this space of interconnection, upending traditional notions of balance and perspective by featuring an abundance of hands. Viewers are invited to question the nature of the touch depicted— are the hands gentle, enveloping, or perhaps even smothering? "I wanted it to be passionate, deep, erotic, tender," says Zarins, and she has succeeded: the composition itself adds to the narrative, with the tonal values uniting the figures in an oval shape reminiscent of a love-heart, carrying observers across the work.

Much of the success of these visual qualities comes from the deeply impressive physicality of the pieces - not just in subject, but in matter and technique. "You can see that so much labour has gone in this painting" she says of The Lemon Lounge which, along with Road Trip Part II, has been in the works for nearly two years. "[This painting] has been such a battle. Mainly compositionally, but also started in a very awkward colour space. It started out purple and yellow, which are complementary colours, and I felt like I could make it work–until I realised I just don’t like working with purple!" Her paintings certainly do exhibit a three-dimensional depth and form, as if the canvases themselves have been transformed into tangible sculptures. The viscous build-up around the most loved areas of her canvas - the hands, the hair, the joints - adds a sense of realism, but also imparts a heightened sense of presence, as if the figures depicted could step out from the canvas at any moment. This sculptural approach infuses Zarins' works with a sense of solidity and substance, inviting viewers to explore the intricacies of each brushstroke and the delicate interplay of shapes. "I feel like this labour is important for me; I want to embrace that." she says of the raised spaces. "In Florence we did a lot of scraping off. I think I’ve wanted to detach myself from that way of working and embrace these mistakes. They feel like part of the history of the painting."

Zarins in the studio. Photography by Maria Payro.

The desire to detach herself from her formal academic training was clearly a key moment in bringing Zarins' to her current level of creativity. "I had all of these hang ups about how a painting should look a certain way." she admits. "The training in Florence was very dogmatic. You’re working with a very strict formula. I then personally felt like I creatively hit a dead end. This is why I love working from my imagination, there are no limits." However, it wasn't as simple as getting used to brighter colour pallets or re-embracing impassto ("a lot of my work in New York was very neon and purple, because I was getting used to having colour again!" she laughs) - Zarins faced human as well as technical re-inventions. "[In New York] I was riffing off of Florence so much becausethat was what I was missing. I was in New York through Covid. So there was just no fun to be had at that point. Which is perhaps why I was reliving these memories. Florence was a time was so rich and so full of anecdotes. After I came back from New York, where I felt quite isolated, we were coming out of lockdown and the world was finally opening up again. That summer was so wild – so much fun, so many parties. I didn’t have a studio at that point and I was just going around with my sketchbook. It was very inspiring. Both Road Trip and The Lemon Lounge came out of that summer, a very inspired time in my life. The Kiss and Disagio’s came later. There is a painting that joins these two periods together, but I’m not exhibiting it this time."

When asked if she feels like her work is more commentary or an expression of these conflicting experiences, Zarins thinks deeply before replying, "You have to navigate the fact that painting is aesthetic, whether or not you like it, and they’re designed to be hung on walls and to be lived with. When I was in New York I was riffing quite directly off memories of my time in Florence and that hedonism and my own conflict with that. But now I think I try to address that in a more oblique manner; they still feel dark, but I think [my paintings] more subtle in their meaning than they used to be. And I think this is a much more interesting place to be. I’m not concerned with making my paintings beautiful in a traditional manner. Nor am I trying to convey a specific message– I want to challenge the viewer, and make them question how they experience and identify with [the paintings], and also subvert their expectations in some way. I wouldn’t want them to be didactic or to have one straightforward message."

Left: Alexandra Zarins, Occupied, 2021. Pen on paper, 13 cm x 21 cm. Right: Gokula Stoffel, Love me, love me not, 2021. Cold porcelain sculpture, wool and cotton cords, felt, flannel, tulle and taffeta, on a silk background, 130 x 90 cm. Photograph: Eduardo Ortega. Courtesy the Artists and Elizabeth Xi Bauer Gallery, London.

Her upcoming exhibit at Elizabeth Xi Bauer, The Moon Between My Teeth, Zarins's work enters a dialogue with Gokula Stoffel's sculptures. "[It's] a really interesting dialogue." she says of the show. "Maria [do Carmo M. P. de Pontes], the gallery’s curator, recognised that Scale-wise, both of our figures are just about one-to-one, so it’s sort of an immersive experience. There’s a lot of similarities across our works anyway – there’s a kind of gnarliness or gargoyle quality to both of our works." This intriguing similarity infuses both bodies of work with a certain ruggedness and an exploration of the darker aspects of the human condition. It suggests a fascination with the intricacies and complexities of life, delving beyond the surface and unearthing the raw and unvarnished aspects of existence. This shared aesthetic sensibility creates a harmonious resonance, allowing the viewer to navigate between the two artistic worlds, recognising the bodily threads that intertwine them. "There’s the hands and the feet as well: sometimes the hands that she makes are detached from the heads, some of my paintings don’t even have heads!"

Zarins in the studio. Photography by Maria Payro.

With a delicate balance of vulnerability and strength, Zarins' work captures the delightfully somber tensions between past and present, home and away, lovers and strangers. 'Bittersweet' isn't quite the term to describe the emotions illicit; there is still a joy and resilience hidden amongst the solemnity captured by the meticulous crafted build-ups and technically impressive brushstrokes. The transformation of the canvas into tangible sculptures is reflected in the viewers' own involvement with the pieces, which invite us simultaneously to reach out to interact with the physicality of the works and reach in to interact with the internal images and longings they ellecit.


Elizabeth Xi Bauer presents Alexandra Zarins & Gokula Stoffel: The moon between my teeth, which will run from 16th June – 22nd July 2023, open Wednesday through Saturday, 12 – 6 pm or by appointment. A Private View will be held on 15th June 2023, 6 – 8 pm in the presence of artists.


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