The illuminated dust particles in the air are intertwining with streams of cigarette smoke in Alex Schaefer’s backyard-studio in Eagle Rock, California. As he dives his paintbrush into a glistening mess of oil paint and he recites his favorite quotes from Matisse and Van Gogh, one begins to comprehend his love and understanding of painting. These days, it is a rarity to be faced with an artist who is as knowledgeable, as he is excited, about his medium. Like most painters, he is expressive and articulate, which explains why he is so beloved by his students at Art Center. He appreciates the true skill of the Old Masters, which is obvious, not only in his teaching, but also in his own work. Schaefer’s artistic process is traditional with a refreshingly unique and violent style. His paintbrushes, always thick with rich blobs of oil color, attack his canvases with aggressive conviction. His technique produces textured, opaque surfaces which somewhat resemble heavy frosting on an elaborate cake.
The variety of subject matter in the work ranges from landscapes to figurative and pretty much everything in between; however, the pieces that demand the most attention are his large-scale paintings of ads and photographs from vintage pornographic magazines such as Penthouse and Playboy. The contrast between the provocative yet humorously absurd imagery and his intense painterly style is captivating. The Mid 80’s, 2008, is a playful and seductive piece depicting a woman with a rather large behind roller-skating on the beach. This painting invokes such a strong presence of light that one can almost feel the sun shining on their face. But it’s not just the feeling of light in the painting that is heating things up; it’s the combined sensuality of the figure and the paint itself. In fact, everything Alex Schaefer paints is sensually alluring, such as Nude in Poppies, 2009. There are so many mysteries in the textures and layers of paint, which evoke a curious desire to touch the surface. The action and the movement of the paint are so emotionally expressive that the medium becomes the message. During an interview, Alex Schaefer explains his ideas on art making:
“…Where does the artist draw inspiration: our senses or our thoughts… I think there is a long sensual tradition to art making in California, which is considered passe, yet I still find it rich and exciting and vital and to which I feel an artistic kinship. I am more a sensualist and less a conceptualist when it comes to what makes me excited to make art.”
Although Schaefer describes himself as being “less conceptual”, there is certainly an element to his work that stirs an allusive mixture of thought and emotion. For example, in the painting, Black Velvet: Playboy 1985, 2009, he creates a painterly rendition of a familiar advertisement for Black Velvet whiskey from the 1980’s. This painting proves itself to be clever and ironic. It conveys the rather sexist rhetoric used in advertising that was targeting the men of the decade. Although many gentleman magazines still contain many images that objectify women, there is something haunting and a bit absurd about this particular image. The woman is smiling with this sleazy look in her eyes, with the words “Touchin’ Velvet” written in big letters across her body, which is an obvious sexual reference. To be quite frank, this advertisement is comparing the taste and feeling of the whiskey with a woman’s vagina. It’s something that many women may find offensive. On the contrary, men would perhaps find this image quite titillating . Objectively, this concept is actually hilarious. The romantic and expressive use of paint seems to challenge the original garish nature of the ad. Perhaps his subconscious mind is a hidden realm of conceptualism. The beauty that exits the artist’s hands without complete awareness is often the most profound because it lacks pretension. It is something that takes years of making art to be able to create with both conceptual and technical fluidity, which brings to mind a familiar quote by Henri Matisse:
“Undoubtedly it is necessary to paint as one sings, without constraint. The acrobat performs their number with ease and apparent facility. Let’s not lose sight of the long preparatory work that permitted them to attain this result. It is the same with painting. The possession of the means [of painting] should pass from the conscious to the unconscious through the work [practice], and it is then that one is able to give the impression of spontaneity.”
It is a wonderful experience to watch Schaefer in action. His students at Art Center are very lucky to have him as an influence. The way in which he paints is interesting because he does so with ease and will talk about his process and technique as he works. Often times, he will be found digitally recording himself painting en plein air landscapes around Los Angeles. Videos of him painting can be seen on his channel on Youtube.com. These videos offer a lot of information in regards to painting and would be great place to young painters to learn.
Currently, Schaefer maintains an artist residency at the Hive Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles, where his paintings can be viewed Wednesday thru Saturday between 1pm and 6pm. The paintings he currently has on display at the Hive are mostly plein air landscapes. Of course, the urban landscapes emote the same old magic of his figurative work. This work conveys the true passion he has for the act of painting, which explains a lot about the fact that he considers himself a sensualist painter. Inspiration, for the talented Mr. Schaefer, is all around him in his physical reality making his eyes sore and hands quiver with desire to paint.