What Glorious Shape Comes This Way Moving
by Megan Abrahams
In her eclectic body of work—painting, sculpture, drawing, photography—Los Angeles-based artist Alexandra Grant has tapped into literature, language and exchanges with writers as the catalysts for her own profound and engaging imagery. Shadows, her latest show at ACME Gallery, has the artist collaborating with actor/writer Keanu Reeves to produce a series of photographs capturing his shadow—the essence of his figure in space—as well as an accompanying book, which combines the photographs with text by Reeves.
While this is her second project with Reeves, it is something of a departure, coming off the heels of the strikingly different 2015 Pasadena Museum of California Art exhibit, These Carnations Defy Language. Also a collaboration—with artist Steve Roden—that project used the proèmes of the dead French writer Francis Ponge for inspiration. Grant’s resulting series of abstract paintings symbolically referenced different perspectives on the Antigone myth. The work was driven by Ponge’s tendency to write variations on themes, as in his piece The Carnation, which gave the exhibit its title.
As Grant acknowledges, “Collaboration and texts (literature and reading included) are at the center of my practice.” The first book by Grant and Reeves, Ode to Happiness, was published in 2011. The shadows theme emerged in 2013, when Yan Ceh, a friend of Grant’s, was producing a new version of his magazine Zeitgeist. He invited Grant and Reeves to contribute a page.
“The initial concept was to have an image on one side of the page and the text on the other,” Grant says, “so they could shine through.”
Grant proposed the idea to Reeves that she would photograph his shadow. The first of two photoshoots took place in 2013 in the dining room of the actor’s New York home. “We moved Keanu’s dining room table out of the way in order to have a wall to shoot on,” Grant says. “In some of the pictures you can see light pollution from the microwave oven light—green!—affecting and infecting the picture. Also present are finger marks in the plaster job in the wall—because these are, ultimately, photographs of a wall. So all the details come from a single light source projecting Keanu’s shadow onto the wall.”
In the final images, Grant reversed the values, so the shadow appears white and the backdrop dark, giving the shadow more gravitas and filling its silhouette with light. “It was a decision I made before I shared the photos with Keanu,” Grant says. “I looked at the first photoshoot, and I realized two things: that I wanted the light to come from the figure—Keanu—and that the photos would have color (that was in the photos already). I approached the photography—all digital, by the way—as a painter would.”
In the course of the project, Grant encountered a prevailing misperception that painter and photographer are not mutually exclusive. “Another painter, for example, who does photography is Ed Ruscha,” she says. “I’m surprised by how surprised everyone is that I, as a painter, would take photographs, when many artists—mostly men—have been doing it for generations before me. For heaven’s sake, we’re all looking!”
Perhaps more intriguing is the artist’s observation about the reversal of expected gender roles when a female artist photographs a male: “What does it mean to be a female artist and be capturing the beauty of the male form? Is there such a thing as the female gaze?”
The quality of the prints and the rich velour paper used by German publisher Gerhard Steidl provide a perfect ground for the images. The book is its own self-contained art piece; the text by Reeves, while minimal, seems self-revealing. The photos have their own narrative thread. The accompanying words add another story line.
“The text came first,” Grant says. “Keanu wrote about 85 different Shadows variations months before the first photoshoot. At the same time, we didn’t have the texts with us when we shot the images. We were both in sync. Later, when we were matching images to texts, that’s when our innate senses of storytelling kicked in.”
The images are gestural, full of motion and pervaded with character. In the accompanying text on one of the pages, Reeves references the theme of shadows:
It is a dance
“Keanu’s performance was a breathless alphabet that ranged from stillness to dancing,” says the artist. “I had the pleasure of directing him a little, but mostly he knew, wordlessly, what to do.”
She continues: “Keanu is one of the best physical performers alive. I think this, more than his reputation, is captured in the pictures. Who else could present us with movements that are gentle and hard, static and ecstatic, genderless/divine and masculine/feminine?”
Back in September, at a panel discussion at the PMCA, Grant remarked that painting is one of the few non-linear platforms. With it, “you can really represent dreamlike ideas.”
For the PMCA show, Grant’s abstract paintings were characterized by lines, chevron shapes and Rorschachian blots, which interacted with the resounding refrain from Antigone: I was born to love not to hate. The paintings are indeed dreamlike, as in the way the subconscious wanders through mysterious imaginary vistas. Grant’s shadow photographs, while figurative, achieve a similar effect. They are intimate, gestural, playful images that convey a feeling, a peek into the personality of the actor and the synergy between two artists.
1) Beyond a shadow of our doubt
2) Shadow (9): 'Til death do us part.
3) Shadow (10): Everything as much as I can.
4) Shadow (7): I am a mere me.
5) It is my last chance
6) Shadow (9): It shows us how amazingly impossible it is
7) Shadow (5) And you couldn't hold me in that way all thin
8) Shadow (3) Me and my shadow and it still doesn't help
9) Shadow (6) Playing shadow games