Alicia Gibson: Interpreting Memories Through Kitsch, Satire and Paint

Purgatory Emporium, Installation View at CANADA, New York, 2016.

Through her candy-colored canvases with titles like Virgin, My Mom Set Me Up With a Redneck and Determine the Periphery, Crack the Code, Alicia Gibson examines the frequently overlooked art of compulsive teenage doodling as a legitimate and important aesthetic. Employing materials as varied as puff paint, dried pigment, fake money, fake fur, lace, burlap and even, private emails, Gibson’s art recalls the age when stylized renderings of our own names, yin-yangs and heartfelt letters to crushes were essential to our understanding of self and daily occurrences.

On view in her exhibition Purgatory Emporium at Canada until May 1, Gibson’s densely layered paintings and wall-mounted vitrines filled with countless curled drawings act as a visual record of her experiences from her younger years in South Carolina to her current existence as an artist in Brooklyn. With sly nods to Danny McBride’s films, Eminem’s lyrics, Matisse’s patterns and motifs from her older works hidden among the multitude of phrases and imagery culled from her life, Gibson’s works resemble the graffiti-laden walls seen around New York, covered in years–if not decades–of tags. However, rather than revealing the fluctuations of the city and its vandals, Gibson’s artwork deftly captures her own transitions with its frenetic and infectious energy.

Taking us on an in-depth walkthrough of Purgatory Emporium and explaining the stories contained within each painting, Gibson spoke to us about her use of satire, kitsch as an inspiration and how her art is anything but Mute.

Lots of Nirvana, 2016 mixed media on paper

With hilarious and biting titles like Sorry I’m Not a Blond Gallerist, Asshole, you harness humor as a means of critiquing both the art world and society as a whole. Looking at Purgatory Emporium, I immediately remembered a quote from artist and performer Martha Wilson who once told me in an interview that she wanted her work to be “the tipping point between laughter and sobbing.” What is the role of humor in your work?

Yeah! Some people call my work angry or aggro. It comes from a dark place, but when I’m making it, it’s a way for me to process. I’m laughing as I’m making it, but I’m being half-serious too. I think for me, it’s more about anger, venting and satire. I looked up the definition of satire and it’s a way to get through a graver situation. You can probably find a better definition than that, but that’s how I see it. I do find that I’m satirical, pointing out people’s downfalls–especially my own.

Sorry I’m not a Blond Gallerist, Asshole, 2015, oil and fake money on canvas, 37 x 30 in.

Like Sorry, I’m Not a Blond Gallerist, Asshole, your work explores these incredibly personal experiences and yet, it also can universally relate to viewers.

I always say that through the personal, I hope to get to the universal. If I didn’t use the personal, I don’t think I would have such a reaction in the paint handling.

Determine the Periphery, Crack the Code, 2014,
oil and paintings put through the wash and sewn onto canvas, 46 x 34 in.

Speaking of your thick paint application, you also utilize a wide range of materials and techniques from putting canvases through the wash to embedding small trinkets into the paint. Do you have a consistent studio process or do you approach each painting differently?

They don’t seem different to me when I’m making them. When people look at them, it’s obviously going to be different but in my mind, it’s not. It sounds so cheesy, but what I’m going through is always different so the paintings will have a different context. It’s usually all about my experiences.

My Mom Set Me Up With a Redneck, 2016, oil, spray paint, fake fur and various on canvas, 30 x 40 in.

I have these containers of various materials and I find a lot of stuff down South. They just have the weirdest stuff. I sometimes try to get away from the materials and just work with the paint, but the materials are fun. I like using burlap. Alberto Burri is one of my favorite artists and Öyvind Fahlström, who is more unknown. He was one of the first artists I ever loved. He did concrete poetry. He would make images, assign each image a word and then, build a poem.

Virgin, 2016, oil, muslin, drawing and various on canvas, 30 x 40 in.

I’m glad you brought up concrete poetry since you also investigate language in your art with these barely legible, obscured and sometimes overlapping phrases. Do you see your play with language in your paintings and drawings as a form of poetry?

I used to write poetry, but now–this is bad to say–but poetry seems so out the door for me. It sounds horrible because there’s some amazing poetry. I like concrete poetry. I think any painting is poetry because of the arrangement of color and form. If you bring in text, then yes, I do think it’s poetry. I don’t have a problem with poetry, but some of it gets a little flowery. I don’t want to bash poetry because I do use it.

Every Saint Has a Past, Every Sinner Has a Future, 2014,
oil emulsion, dry pigment and mixed media on canvas, 47 x 38 in.

In Every Saint Has a Past, Every Sinner Has a Future, I was in South Carolina and a woman had this phrase tattooed on her arm. I think she was working at Dunkin Donuts and giving us our iced coffees. I googled it and it’s an Oscar Wilde quote. I don’t usually like using other people’s texts but for some reason, this quote stuck with me.

With your unexpected inclusion of knick-knacks or paintings of Coors Light flip-flops and Lee’s press-on nails, your art celebrates kitsch. What inspires you about kitsch?

It’s like my childhood in a way. I feel I’ve never really grown up, to be honest with you. I have a hard time dealing on my own or it’s like a stunted youth thing. I feel like kitsch falls right into that. I like ticky-tacky things and always have. I only grew up in the South for four or five years, but there’s so much kitschy weird stuff there that I think it really affected me. I feel comfortable with kitsch. It’s safety.

Purgatory Emporium, Installation View, 2016

You reference the imagery that teenage girls–or boys–scrawl in their school notebooks like butterflies, notes about friends or your own name in cursive script. When and how did you become interested in these doodles as an aesthetic?

I don’t know–high school? It’s always been there. I get really obsessive about inserting celebrities into paintings. It’s kind of a high school thing to do like, “Oh, I have a crush on this celebrity.” That never left. A lot of what I paint is stuff I like or stuff that pisses me off. It’s either/or. In high school, you’re doing these things but you don’t know what they mean. Now, I know what they mean. Everything comes from a certain place.

Mute, 2015-16, oil and pencil on canvas mounted on canvas, 16 x 20 in.

One of the paintings that struck me was Mute. It’s a paradox–on one hand, a painting can’t speak and yet, your paintings are anything but silent.

A lot of the work is a response to a situation and Mute certainly is. This person compared me to another artist whose work was completely different. He said, “For the sake of time, we’re going to just compare these two people. Their stuff is just white noise. It becomes mute.” That made no sense to me because I don’t think my work is mute. It’s pretty loud if you take the time with it.


(All images courtesy the artist and CANADA, New York)

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