Melting Through Portals with Alex Eckman-Lawn July 01 2020

Alex Eckman-Lawn is a Philadelphia-born illustrator who creates multi-layered, hand-cut, paper collages using everything from his original digital paintings to imagery from old medical texts. Each layer is spaced, creating a depth that draws the viewer into the pieces. His work has appeared in comic books, on album covers, book covers, T-shirts, music videos, newspapers, and posters.  

Alex spoke to us about his love for collage, the fear of living in a body, and finding inspiration in the unexpected.

Interview by Louise McIntosh. Photos supplied by Alex Eckman-Lawn.

Tell us a little bit about your background and why you chose to focus on collage?

My background is in Illustration - that was my major in college and I guess now it's my "day job" as it were. I'm really passionate about that kind of work and I think if I'm honest with myself, a lot of my favorite artists are illustrators. I came to collage kind of gradually - it's pretty much always been a part of my work in some way, beginning in college when I started really looking at artists like Dave Mckean, who incorporates collage into his painting/illustration. I loved the kind of smashing together of disparate elements and marks, and I wanted to pursue that in my own work. It took years until the balance really shifted towards collage, and it kind of feels like my process has been slowly overtaken by it since, haha! I still love drawing and I do a lot of it for my other work, but collage is probably my one true love these days.

Your artworks have this beautiful layered or portal effect, where the viewer gets to glimpse inside to what has been hidden within. What led you to work in this way? Do you happen to dream in 'tunnels' as well?

So I found this layered approach kind of by accident. I was making a more traditional, flat collage and noticed that the paper I had cut the pieces out of was more interesting to me than the actual collage that I was building, so I started focussing on carving out spaces and layering those. It took a while before I really started focusing on these specific "portal" style pieces, but I found the process just lends itself really well to a concise descending space like that. Again, just trial and error lead me here. I think this is one of the most appealing things about collage as a medium - you're really free to try things out until something hits you just right. It's like letting your subconscious take the wheel, I guess.

Haha, not very often, no. My dreams are honestly pretty frustrating to me. I very rarely have dreams that are visual in an exciting or inspiring way. I find they're more like wandering through a misty version of a place I used to live - nothing is fully formed except the feeling.


Where do you get your inspiration from, and what do you do in your spare time?

I do all kinds of embarrassing stuff in my free time. I play the drums (badly), I draw comics, I watch cartoons, or get lost in a rabbit hole of old landscape painters. Basically I'm a huge fucking dork.

In the last year or so I've been making a concerted effort to let inspiration come from wherever it wants, from a broader spectrum of sources than before. I used to be very focused on visual arts, nostalgic imagery like video games of my youth, or a place where I used to love being. Lately I'm finding inspiration in the way the light feels in certain rooms in my house, a really amazing breakfast, what the sky looks like on a certain day, etc. Of course, as a collage artist I get to dig through piles of images, so that comes with its own inspiration as well. I also place a lot of importance on music - I think I feel most inspired when I'm listening to something that really connects with me, when my mind feels energized and free to wander.

As I type this, the US is in the process of facing its own racism, its history of slavery and oppression, an endless parade of new and old atrocities. I've been trying to find ways to confront this in my life and in my practice. I don't think my voice should be the one to speak most loudly about these issues, but I think it's the responsibility of myself and others like me to acknowledge these facts and to move in the right direction. I'm sure that this will continue to impact the work I make.

What has been a seminal experience for you and how has this affected your artwork?

Man, that's a tough question. I think probably the easiest thing to point to is my surgery. I had scoliosis surgery when I was about 12 and I may not have realized it at the time, but it definitely changed the way I see my own body, and taught me how precarious everything can feel. I guess part of a growth spurt had gone into the curve in my spine, and I was completely unaware of this so the diagnosis caught me off guard, to say the least. My desperate need to feel in control of a body, and why so much of my work is focused on what's inside, can probably be traced back to this surgery. The funny thing is I don't even think about the surgery much anymore. I have a scar running from my shoulder blade to nearly my belly button, and I actually forget it's there.


How do you find the source material for your collages - what is the process of selecting the right image? 

I think a big part of collage is finding your sources, digging through public domain archives, discovering the imagery that speaks to you specifically. I want to take images and Frankenstein them together into something totally new. I want to make them my own, you know? The personal approach you bring to the work is what, hopefully, makes it unique. All that being said, I'm a little bummed out when I see the same 3 images used over and over again. There's one in particular of a guy's head with a big circular opening that I think every digital collage artist on the internet has worked with at least once. At this point that just feels like a dead image to me. I've seen a lot of cool pieces come out of it, and to be clear I don't mean to attack the artists who HAVE used it, but personally I'd rather find something else that I have a more personal response to. There's SO MUCH out there, and for me at least, the journey to find source images is a big part of the process and something I really enjoy.

"Where do you get your images?" is a question that I get a lot from people, including college students when I've taught digital illustration workshops, and I always think that it's a strange and kind of counter productive way to approach this work. I think you should want to seek out your own inspiration! I use a bunch of sources, a lot of libraries have public domain image archives for example, and I'm just constantly scrolling through, digging up weird etchings, beautiful photographs, parts of buildings that resonate with me, and hoarding them until the time is right. I used to do the same thing in junk stores before COVID, but at this point I'm happy to have them available digitally since my process starts in Photoshop anyway.

The digital part of the process changes a bit from piece to piece, but I usually do a lot of work in Photoshop to change the image - adding color, ornamentation, combining images, etc. I really want to get my own aesthetic in there as much as possible. Here's an example from this show: In Pray For Me I took this pleasant etching of a seated woman and started piling sections of her face up into this horrible tumor-like growth. This one really fed on itself until it arrived at this weird twisted jumble of meat and pearls. Of course I also added the color, and the hole with the descending layers which are what I end up hand cutting and layering. It's kind of two separate jobs - one in the computer, and then the more physical hands on process at the end.

Is there an overarching theme behind your upcoming exhibition at Outré Gallery?

That's a bit of a complicated one. When I first started making work for this show, I just wanted to kind of dig deeper into the themes I generally focus on and the pieces had kind of a psychedelic lean to them. I was trying to experiment more with pattern and melting my subjects, an attempt to leave the body while staying inside it. Then the pandemic hit and I felt myself being pulled in a darker direction, focusing more on body horror, paranoia, pessimism. So there's a kind of split personality to this show. That said, a constant theme of my work is contending with the uncertainty and fear associated with living in a body. I'm always worried this pile of meat that I'm trapped in will betray me, and COVID-19 has really turned that anxiety all the way up.

Can you talk us through the artwork Melt and how this piece was developed?

Melt was one of the first pieces I made for the show! I was thinking about just being completely overwhelmed by something and how that can feel like melting away. The piece came together from a portrait I found of a young woman, which I altered a bit in Photoshop, then removed most of the face and started adding this wavy, linework pattern in a sort of a gradient as the layers descend. There's also a texture applied to her neck/body, and another pattern that's sort of pushing its way out of the background, threatening to overtake the subject completely. Reading that description again, this sounds like a stressful image but I feel very at ease when I look at it.

So once everything is sorted out in the computer I print out about 6 individual layers, hand cut and layer them to create the physical depth, and frame them all in a wall-hanging shadowbox. In the end it's like a topographical map, or like peering into a cave, if the cave was in a person's face. Does that make sense?

How have you developed your 'voice' as an artist and why is this important to you? 

That's a really hard thing for me to answer. I don't know if I specifically set out to cultivate a unique voice, I just tried to make the kind of stuff I like, and I do my best to stay open to all kinds of influences. I just try to think about what excites me in an image and then explore that thing. I'm really happy and flattered that you think my work has a distinct voice, though! That's maybe the best compliment an artist can hope for.

A Collection of New Artworks by Moon Patrol, McMonster, Alex Eckman-Lawn and Yu Maeda
Feature Show
Outre Gallery Fitzroy
10–29 July 2020
Opening night Friday 10 July 2020
319 Smith Street, Fitzroy
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