You might know George Alexis from his show on WRIR, The Horsehead Nebula, but he’s also a visual artist whose work mixes a dark sensibility with odd humor. George Wethington spoke to Alexis to get a closer look at the unique mind that produces his intriguing, unusual art.
Context is everything. What does it mean to observe an artist? I’ll forgo the sanctified condescension of asking what an artist is. But I can’t forgo the need to contextualize the person I am speaking with. That thought was beneficial to me as I spoke with George Alexis, a visual artist in Richmond who has a refreshing and comedic style that is realist and often dark. Alexis may also be known around Richmond for a late-night black metal program he did for WRIR called The Horsehead Nebula, named for a dark nebula in the constellation of Orion.
The image of an artist is always removed from the original source of creation and inspiration. In the same way I must reduce an artist into words so you can have at least a fuzzy inclination of what they might be like, a smoothed residual image must be created by astronomers in order to study the vastness of a galaxy. That image is created by placing a two-dimensional window around pixels of light, and then averaging differences into a single pixel. With that in mind, I will put on my space suit to collect the images, provide a two-dimensional framework through which to perceive him, and together, we’ll figure out if these few pixels are enough to understand George Alexis.
George Wethington: You are a visual artist and there are intrinsic things about your approach. One of those things is the balance between morbidity and humor, darkness and light. With that in mind, what were your formative cartoons?
George Alexis: Wow, that’s a good question. I watched Ren and Stimpy for sure, plenty others that were relevant for a kid born in the early 90s. As far as formative cartoons go, we talked briefly before about things being residual. So, for me there was never like a one thing where I was like, “Ahh, that’s the one!” Instead, you look at everything years later, and say, “Oh, there’s a little bit of this, and this. There’s that, and that, and this.” And then you go back and look at something and say, “That’s cool.” But I didn’t see anything like that back then.
GA: I think when I was younger, I really wanted Ren and Stimpy to be a formative experience for me. Not, like, when I was a kid watching, but when I was in my early 20s and late teens. But it wasn’t. [Laughs] You know, you want to make something like Ren and Stimpy, because for the time it was cutting edge, and edgy. You can’t force that stuff.
GW: Also, keeping in mind that it was hilarious.
GA: Aw, it was so funny dude.
GW: For me, seeing something like Ren and Stimpy when I was a kid, there was an aspect to the scenes that would be particularly grotesque, or just a little bit more over the top: there was this sense that I couldn’t pull away from it. Did you feel the same way as a child?
GA: I didn’t see anything wrong with it. Because when you’re a kid, there’s nobody to tell you that this was wrong or bad.
GW: Oh, your parents didn’t tell you that you couldn’t watch stuff like Ren and Stimpy?
GA: No. I guess that’s something to mention, that I was very uncensored as a kid. My dad gave me Alien and Predator to watch when I was under ten years old. I was always exposed to that stuff. I remember my mom made me watch the scene in Jurassic Park where the guy gets eaten on the toilet. I was old enough to comprehend and be scared by it.
GW: So your parents were like, “Let the boy watch and understand.”
GA: Not even that. I just don’t think they cared. [Laughs] Both of my parents had to work, I had no one to watch me, other than babysitters and stuff like that. But their vested interest was simply getting bread on the table and making sure I didn’t burn the house down. I was unsupervised a lot. I got to go play outside a lot. I was also a pretty behaved kid. I didn’t do anything that necessarily warranted strict supervision.
GW: You were given this access to what could be somewhat jarring videos, movies, or cartoons and you internalized a little piece of each one that inspired you at the time, that you thought was cool. That’s pretty cool.
GA: I found some stuff scary, but it was tapping into the primal fear that little kids just have. There was an episode of a cartoon where they are afraid of a blanket under the bed because they think it’s a monster, and to me that was really scary. And it genuinely scared me, like I was legitimately afraid to watch it, but you look back on it now and it’s the least scary thing in the world.
GW: But at the time…
GA: Yeah. That’s what every kid feels, you know? Watching something like Ren and Stimpy… oddly enough, there wasn’t any fear there. It also didn’t occur to me that it was supposed to be ironically funny. To me, it was just a funny cartoon.
GW: Oh yeah, as a kid I did not catch the irony at all.
GA: I liked the “Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!” song because I like the crocodile-looking guys who sang it. That stuff appealed to me, but at no point did I look at it and think, “This is disturbing and I must know more.” It just wasn’t disturbing to me. Honestly, what is kind of funny is I still have that now. I don’t think the art I make is that disturbing. I don’t think it is that weird.
GW: The thing that I have noticed about your art, which is good that we are touching on a cartoon like Ren and Stimpy so heavily, is there is a darkness and a silliness there that exists right next to each other. I know there are plenty of cartoons that we would be able to reference that have this exact thing, but it drives me to the question: when did you feel comfortable imbuing darkness into your own art? Or was that always just a natural product, because you did not believe that there was anything wrong with it?
GA: I don’t think I ever had a moment where I was uncomfortable sharing my art, except for when I was in San Diego. I was working with a lot of artists at an art supply store, and I was very nervous to show them the art that I was making, because I wanted to make a good impression. That’s when I made the realization that maybe people didn’t see it the way that I saw it. Before that, I never really felt uncomfortable making weird shit because I didn’t care what people thought of me. I was incredibly self-conscious — you know, wondering if people liked me and all that. But it didn’t click to me that people would think my art was weird. I was like, “Nah, they’ll think I’m cool and edgy.” [Laughs] At no point until then was I worried if someone was going to be disturbed by it.
It was like, “I’m really worried about how unlikable I am. But this drawing of a piece of shit coming out of an asshole and talking and smiling and saying stuff, this is what’s gonna get people to like me!” It never occurred to me that that would be why people wouldn’t like me. It was always like: “This is my saving grace.” Not being a normal, social being, no; it’s going to be this gross weird shit, and people are gonna see it and go, “Oh wow, you make really cool art.”
GW: [Dying laughing] Get the guy who’s drawing poop coming out of a butthole over here now, let’s party!
That is so interesting and a bit of a surprise to me. I guess when I was looking over the images I started to romanticize this tortured spirit who wanted to work his through adversities.
GA: There is definitely anxiety there, and dark thoughts there, and all sorts of shit that is really harrowing. And really, just stuff where I’m glad I’m in a different place now. But it’s residual. I’m not necessarily conscious of those things as I create. Those things are there as I formulate ideas, but it is never until I’m more lucid that I harness anything like that in a focused way.
GW: Right. Like I said, there is a desire to romanticize that process. I guess it is easier from my perspective to say that A+B happens, and C comes along. It is interesting to hear you say and articulate something that is definitively true of life, art, any other thing; it is never just one factor. There is no formula to it, you just make dark art that is also funny.
GA: I think of my darker pieces kind of like clowns, in a way. I’m not big on clowns. I don’t draw clowns. They are funny, and friendly-seeming, but there is an implied deception.
GW: That is very interesting, and I see what you are saying. Clowns get a bad rap though. After Stephen King, things got tough.
GA: And let’s not forget John Wayne Gacy.
GW: Ah yes, lest we forget.
GA: A lot of my darker images, the characters are all smiling. They’re maniacs. They are here with malevolent intentions. There is an implied invader aspect to all of them that creates this trepidation to see them. They are planning. They are conniving.
I showed them to my therapist, and he said, “Well, they are all smiling, so it’s not too bad.” And I understand what he meant. On a primal level, I can’t create when I’m in that place with those characters. I have to have some level of warmth, or levity, or mirth to get going. A lot of people will romanticize the artistic process and say, “Oh, well you make the best work when you’re depressed.”
GW: I think there is a line out there that says, “If everything was going well, who would want to write a song?”
GA: Exactly, but at the same time, when everything is going well, that’s when you produce the song. You can write a song whenever you want; you can make an image whenever you want. I think there is a difference between simply expressing, and expressing in a more focused and structured way, and that’s hard to do when you’re depressed. When you get in a depressive episode, and you are that depressed, it’s hard to make shit. It’s hard to do anything. It’s hard to function.
GW: Yeah. If I’m depressed enough, you can call it a fucking day.
GA: Exactly. You don’t use those times to harness those things. Instead, you tend to sit there, or lie there, or not do anything and be completely unproductive. All my art is produced in a time of good mental health.
GW: It sounds like the ideas are formulated for you at times in a time of darkness, but they are not able to be articulated until you have found your way out and into the light.
GA: Right. We’re always going to carry our baggage with us, so if you think of something dark, and you observe it, allow it to pass, you can harness it for later. There is a weird creature that I draw that kind of manifested as a symbol for this exact thing, my depressive episodes and their modes and stages. It’s this blobby guy that kind of looks like a hammerhead shark, which I think came along because hammerheads look dangerous but are inherently peaceful. I can’t say that’s for sure why they look alike though.
GW: That is awesome. We talked about darkness and light. We mentioned silliness and the characters that you make. We spoke that some inspiration has come from a negative place, but the characters are produced in a non-threatening place in your mind. Is that from a darkness you feel the need to get a grip on, or was that something you were only made self-conscious of once you had to present it to San Diegans?
GA: Probably the latter. At the time I don’t think anything that I make is weird, because it is just self-expression. It just makes sense to me. And some of it, of course it’s weird, but why would anyone be weirded out by it? We consume all sorts of weird media. People love horror movies. Any of this stuff is common in horror movies.
GW: In terms of weird media, the news.
GA: [Laughs] Yeah, the news is not as smiley, it tends to be a little more doom and gloom.
GW: To drive the point though, darkness is a part of life. It has been so interesting talking to you. At first, I thought you would be coming from a point of almost working your way out of a jail cell, using humor to do so. Instead, it has been this wellspring of intelligent human comedy that just has this dark aspect to it. It is cool to see how the human spirit can manifest itself in so many different ways and still find itself relatable. Some of the more out-there images you have are still something that can bring a smile to my face.
GA: When I make these drawings, all I want to do is make a good drawing. I don’t think too much about the unpacking part. That comes much later. I start with forms and shapes, and develop those, and anything else is just the process of making the drawing more interesting from a compositional standpoint, if there is not enough there. You create a scene. If it is particularly dark, you create a character that is afraid, or a protagonist to have someone to relate to. You create contrast, and thus the story is told.
GW: The smiles are really what makes it all so funny to me. Even if it is scarier, it doesn’t necessarily make you afraid.
GA: Making it too scary wouldn’t make sense because once again, that’s what gets people to like me. [Laughs] Cognitively, I’m a likable enough guy, I have friends, and a healthy relationship. But deep down, I source some of my self-worth in these drawings. When the art is an extension of yourself, you never set out to make anything in one particular way. You just make something. It’s like speaking. We have our own vocal intonations.
GW: You just talk.
GA: Exactly! I just talk. How do you pick your nose? I don’t know, I just pick my nose. That’s how it is with this stuff. I just make it. Now that I’m older and more developed, I understand how it can come off, but I just make it at this point.
GW: You’re not imprisoned by darkness; weird things are cool. I think it’s the folly of anyone with a preconceived notion, to set out with a presupposed idea. It’s interesting to see how far off I was. You can’t put anyone inside of a box.
GA: For me, it is the constant pursuit of making a drawing visually interesting.
GW: You kill it when you do it.
Images courtesy George Alexis