Becoming Formless with Alex Eckman-Lawn May 30 2021

Alex Eckman-Lawn is a Philadelphia born illustrator who spends his days in the gutter and his nights in the sewer. Alex 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.

Interview by Joseph Estorninho. Photos supplied by Alex Eckman-Lawn.

Thanks for talking to us in preparation of your upcoming solo show! We're so excited to have you here again with us after your last show a year ago. Can you tell us what to expect for this show?

Thanks man, I'm really excited too! I think this year my work got a little weirder and a little more psychedelic. I've been thinking a lot about the insane build up of chaos and pressure that I (and likely all of us) have felt over the last year, and then the sudden, sometimes unexpected moments of calm/euphoria that have totally floored me. In those moments I feel like I've finally disappeared completely and I want to chase that feeling.

Is the fragility of the human body still a major theme for you? Has it evolved or shifted in any way?

Haha, unfortunately I think that will always be a major theme for me. I'm a real anxious psycho, in particular about what bodies get up to without our permission. I do think for this particular show things have shifted a bit in the sense that I'm less obsessive about the constant slow decay, and more stuck in these kind of explosive moments. The tunnels are maybe a bit more surreal this time, and less rooted in my very real world fears. I hope that makes any sense.

Tell us about the collage process. You can either find an image and are inspired by it, or have an idea in your head and search for the perfect image to realise that idea. Do you prefer one approach over the other?

That's a good question! I think I was a bit more open to inspiration as it came to me for this collection, less directive driven, though as I started to see things coming together and found my themes for the show, I did let myself pursue imagery that I knew would fit within that space. I also did some kind of drastic last minute color changing for a couple pieces to reach for those prismatic euphoric moments I mentioned.

It almost feels like with collage you can't overly plan or have a set idea because you'll set yourself up for disappointment. Do you agree? How do you approach a new work?

That is absolutely a danger with collage! And also something that I find really freeing. Yeah, you're never going to be in COMPLETE control as long as you're working with found imagery. I think that's a really exciting tool to keep myself constantly reevaluating an image and letting it go where it needs to. I do think it's absolutely possible to achieve a very specific goal with collage, though. For me it all depends on how much I'm willing to let go of. When I'm working as an illustrator I try to think of collage as one tool that's available to me, even when it's the primary medium I'm using. That way if I need to add things, change things, draw something by hand, I can get closer to the "complete control" necessary to hit the idea. Again, this is a freedom that is really energizing for me.

Another consideration with collage is the history of the image you use. Each image comes with its own past: what it was previously used for, as well as who might have viewed it. Is this something you think about a lot?

I typically aim to recontextualize the images I'm using, kind of destroying their history and reclaiming them as my own. This isn't always possible if there's too much inherent history in the photo, and sometimes that's absolutely the point. So yes, I do think about this a lot, but usually more because I'm thinking of how to erase that context. That said, I'm also excited by the prospect of the weight that comes with certain objects - for instance classical sculpture, or a particular kind of architecture. For the most part, in THIS particular show I'm trying to obliterate all of that. Hence, "formless, aimless, nameless."

Can you talk a bit about your choices with colour? The surfaces tend to be more muted and the colours on the inner layers being quite vivid.

Color was one of the areas where I tried to really stretch out for this show! I absolutely used to think of the surface layer as kind of dead, or motionless, with a churning chaotic core, and there are still works in this show with that approach. For the others, I wanted to bring that energy from the inner layers to the entire space of the image, overwhelming their container. I think I'd like to push this further in the future, but we'll see where I end up.

In our previous interview you said music is really important to your creativity. What are you listening to?

Obviously I love this question. I've been all over the place this year, but lately I've been really into either the harshest most disgusting unpleasant metal I can find or really beautiful pop, r&b, and jazz.

I've been listening to the new Altarage album succumb a lot, which I just described to a friend as sounding like "some sort of alien plumbing problem". I also got really into most of the output from the Prava Kollektiv, which is like 5 bands that all share members and release some truly insane black metal projects. HWWAUOCH's Protest Against Sanity stands out as particularly batshit, but I love Pharmakeia, and Mahr as well. Such gross sounding music, really cool stuff.

I had the pleasure of doing the art for Seputus' new album Phantom Indigo, which I happen to think absolutely rules. (You may also notice that the work I did for this album inspired some of the pieces in this show.) 

The new Spectral Wound album is super fun and really satisfying, as is Suffering Hour's latest. Those sound like actual music and less like a shoe trapped in a washing machine. Other metal stuff in regular rotation: Black Curse, Undeath, Necrot, Hyperdontia, Wake, so many others...

I love Moses Sumney's Græ from last year. So many lush, beautiful melodies. Just a very generous album on all fronts. Gard Nilssen's Supersonic Orchestra's "If you listen carefully the music is yours" really clicked with me as well. It's this kind of wild bombastic big band jazz album, but it feels like a snake with 8 heads or something. Perfume Genius put out some songs last year that felt so effortlessly perfect that I'm almost mad about it.

Oh, and two EPs I really loved in the last few months were Black Button - I Want To Be In Control, and Black Ends - Stay Evil. Black Button is pretty much straight ahead punk that makes me wish I was 22 again, and Black Ends is self described "gunk pop" that sounds like if The Meat Puppets melted.

Sorry, I know that's a lot, so I'll stop there before I remember 20 other bands I want to talk about.

Has COVID been a tough time to keep the creativity flowing? What are some practices you have implemented in order to keep your creativity up?

Unsurprisingly, COVID has really fucked with my head this year. I'm already a hypochondriac on a good day so this shit sent me spiralling more than once. One thing that has absolutely helped me to stay sane is taking long walks, especially in the woods if I can manage it. That's lead to some really inspiring moments for me, as well as some actual quiet in my brain for once. Beyond that I'm just trying to surround myself with things that I love and make as many pictures as I can. I've had to confront some scary stuff in myself and in the world this year. That's never easy but I think it's invaluable when it comes to making honest art.

What are you most looking forward to in the future?

Being able to actually spend time with the people I love again! Fuck man, what a year. I'm also really excited about a bunch of art and music stuff on the horizon and I'm constantly finding new stuff that makes me want to get to work. I'm trying this new thing where I force myself to be optimistic about the future. We'll see how that turns out.

Alex, thank you for taking the time to speak to us.