Artist and musician ALEXANDER DEMARIA’s creative practice incorporates
drawing, sound, sculpture, performance and cut paper. His intricately
detailed two-dimensional works reference folklore and heavy metal
culture, emphasizing an experience of adolescent escapism. In
contradistinction, his recent instruments built from found objects and
collaborative, improvisational performances using the instruments reveal
a mature version of play, wonderment and imagination. Alexander
received his MFA in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art in
2007. He has attended numerous artist residencies including The Wassaic Project in Wassaic, New York (2011), Sumu Artist Residency in Turku, Finland (2010) and Ox-bow School of Art in Saugatuck, Michigan (2009). Currently, he is in residence with his collaborator James Horgan at Raumars in Rauma, Finland until October 2013. Alexander lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Music and sound are central to your art
practice. Do you also have a formal music background or a music life
that is separate from your art practice?
Alexander DeMaria: I have very little formal training in music, but I've played in bands for a long time, often with other visual artists and always—at least initially—as a distinct activity from our art practices.
The first real sound art project I did was Under the Same Shadow, an ongoing sound and installation collaboration with artist Owen Rundquist. The project is rooted in our mutual interest in mythology, cultural research and heavy metal. Our first exhibit was at Fountain Gallery in Brooklyn, and we have since done projects in Boston, Richmond, Virginia and at the Sumu Residency program in Turku, Finland.
We were very clear when we started the project that it was sound art, not a band (though we do now play in a band together). Middle Kingdom,
another collaboration, began as a band. Jamie Horgan and I started
making experimental noise music with some very basic electronics I was
building: guitars, disembodied tape heads, toys, recorders, drums, scrap
metal. . . really anything we could get our hands on. That
project developed slowly into installation and it was only after a
couple of years that we saw it as part of our art practice. Until
October 2013, we’ll be in Rauma, Finland together, building instruments,
constructing temporary performance spaces, organizing music shows and
working with school groups on both instrument construction and musical
Currently, I play in a black metal band with Owen called Anicon (along with Nolan Voss and Lev Weinstein) and record solo under the project name Ypotryll. I have an upcoming release on the Different Lands label. I also run a small cassette label myself called Mineral Tapes, which I use to publish small editions of experimental albums. I have tapes by Sashash Ulz and Invisible Path coming out very soon.
OPP: How do you define the difference between sound art made with musical instruments and music?
AD: I think it's mostly about the intended context and suitability of the actual recording or performance to that context. When Owen and I started making sound together, we knew that we wanted it to be experienced in a gallery or art space, not at a metal show. Even though the form of the sounds bears a very strong resemblance to more traditional musical forms, it was never intended to be experienced in traditional musical venues. By contrast, the kind of sounds that Jamie and I started with were very abstract, often droning, dissonant and noisy, but we initially intended to play them live at music events. In each case, we were looking for something unusual for the chosen context.
OPP: Your instruments made from found objects are beautiful as sculptures. Were they originally created to be played or displayed?
AD: The instruments were definitely always made to be played. Most of the Ypotryll recordings are done with these instruments. Some of them play better than others, but none of them is considered a finished piece until I've recorded some music with it.
OPP: When you perform publicly with these instruments, do you compose for them or is more improvisation? What do they sound like?
AD: Almost all the instruments are electric so I do use a number of effects pedals. This recording, made at a rehearsal for the performance Jamie Horgan and I did at Shoot the Lobster in New York, was made with the Yellow Two Neck, the Nomad, the Reverb Drum and the amplified Kalimba.
I play everything live and use a loop pedal to layer up the sounds in
real time; there’s no over-dubbing or anything. It's a really good
representation of the live sound.
Also, in the photos of this particular performance you can see a group of people standing around me holding hands. The Nomad is a touch sensitive keyboard, so skin contact between the little bolts and the bike spoke at the bottom produces a note. For the performance, wires ran from the instrument to the audience. When the audience members linked hands one by one they built a big droning chord that started the set.
As for composition, I usually have a trajectory in mind for a performance and maybe some sounds that I know I want to hear, but everything is ultimately an improvisation.
OPP: What's it like to play them?
AD: Each instrument is pretty idiosyncratic. Because they're all found objects and kind of scrapped together, learning to play them is really interesting. I always think I know what it will sound like, but I'm almost always wrong. If I'm disappointed by some aspect of the sound I thought I'd find, I'm usually pleasantly surprised by something else I didn't expect.
OPP: The motifs of ritual, folklore and heavy metal permeate
your work, connecting the music and performance to the visual work. Many
of your drawings evoke album cover art. Skulls and burial-related
structures appear repeatedly, representing rituals related to death. It
got me thinking of rituals associated with music. For example, the
ritual of listening to a breakup song on repeat is a way to process
loss. And going to a huge, blockbuster concert is as much about being
connected to the other fans as it is about listening to the music. Is a
jam session a contemporary ritual?
AD: Music is connected to tons of contemporary rituals, both private and public, from listening to it in our homes to playing it on stage. The imagery in some of the drawings and especially in the work from Under the Same Shadow is definitely trying to identify some of those small rituals and relate them to specific, older cultural references like burial poles or saunas, for example. That being said, the word "ritual" has recently been over-used, particularly amongst metal bands. It seems to be used simply for dramatic effect or it is often confused with pagan or new age cliches that rob it of its power.
OPP: I know what you mean about words being over-used—and often mis-used!—but I’m also a believer that things become cliché because they are universal, because as humans we need to experience them over and over again. The cliché is a site of a shared human experience. But that’s my interpretation. I’d love to hear in your words what you love about music and why it is such a big part of your life.
AD: I agree, cliches exist for a reason and often do get at something really universal. And really, although the word gets bandied about too much, all music is a kind of ritual. There's no need to burn sage or wear a mask to make it so. I think that actually gets to your question about music for me personally. I really enjoy making all kinds of things: art, music, furniture, dinner. . . that "ritual" of creation is the most pleasurable part for me. The time that's spent working on something and figuring it out is often much more important than the finished product; sometimes it's really more beautiful. With music, that creative moment can be the entire thing and the recording, (if there is one) is simply a record of the action. Whether improvising or playing something composed, there is something fragile and uncertain about creating music that I really love.
OPP: The Forest in the Basement
(2010), a series of densely-detailed ink drawings, seems to be about
cycles of death and rebirth. The title evokes for me the image of a
fertile, untethered wildness growing in a contained space where it
shouldn't be able to grow. At first it seems awesome; then it seems sad
because maybe the forest will die in the basement where there is no
sunlight. Will you pick your favorite piece from this series and talk
about how it relates to the title and to your overarching intentions in
this body of work?
AD: The Forest in the Basement for me refers to the growth of a young person's imagination in an environment that might not be the most inspiring. The forest is a place of enchantment, magic and endless possibility and the basement refers to the spaces were I would hangout as a kid. My family had a finished room in the basement which was always where the kids would go to play, so that's part of the imagery. But I also used to love digging through attics and basements for lost treasures, which is another part of the reference. Finally, a lot of the music I've been involved with also takes place at basement shows which was a part of my thinking in the title.
Fantasy has been important to me since I was very young. In both art and music, I tend to make things that allow me to escape reality. The drawings in this series are about creating a world that I would have loved as a teenager but can still return to again and again as an adult. In a number of the drawings characters are built of many small things or have rooms hidden in their clothing. Each character's "inner bits" have a mood and feeling that represent for me that more complex network of feelings and ideas that surround the larger theme. In Age Old Hymns, for example, the character represents an adolescent image of a goddess of sex and death in a variety of really obvious ways but also in the endless maze of rooms that make up her structure. She is church-like, baroquely complicated and full of small surprises. So while the nude breasts and corpse paint have their role in setting the theme for the drawing, my hope is that all the tiny details allow the viewer to share in the intricate web of associations—desire, mystery, guilt, wonderment—that go along with that fantasy. I hope in this drawing, as in the whole series, that there is some feeling of the adolescent fantasy, and also of my adult reflections on the psychology of that fantasy and on act of imagination itself. But that feels like a really dry, academic way to put it. . . Really, I just hope people will get lost in this world with me.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.