Interview with Alex de Leon by Frances Colpitt
FC: You were a printmaker when you went to the Kansas City Art Institute, but you started working as a ceramist when you came back to San Antonio.
AdL: I’m never going to be a ceramist like Ken Ferguson or Peter Voulkos, and the guys who are really using the clay. I’m just painting on the clay. When I started doing it, the galleries picked up on it and it became commodified, so I just kept doing it. My skill and knowledge about clay are very limited; I only know what I know, which is very little.
FC: So you don’t think of yourself as a ceramist?
AdL: No, I am really using those vessels as if they are canvses to work on. The form is very insignificant in my clay work. In fact, I try to just make the form as simple as possible so itdoesn’t detract from the images on the vessels.
FC: Critics have written about the influence of Mexican folk art on your work.
AdL: I realize that my work is somewhat primitive-looking, but it is also sophisticated. It isn’t really cool or perfect, as if it were made at a factory. It just comes out the way it comes out. The influence is there because I was raised in that culture, and bring it to the work, but I am not trying to make folk art. The folk art galleries and the people who first started to buy my work – the ceramic pieces especially – kind of pushed me into that niche more than I care to be. Later, the people at Milagros and ArtPace starting picking up on my work as art and not as folk art. I am essentially self-trained. Even when I went to art school, my professors never really helped me. After I graduated from art school, I started hanging around a print shop where I would work everyday without being paid. They couldn’t believe that I would just come and work on art. Finally, they gave me a job because they could see that I was pretty well-skilled. I was constantly pushing myself to learn more and more. I learned by having jobs rather than by going to graduate school. The people who have influenced my the most are artists like Howard Finster – self-taught maniacs who are just crazy and possessed by their work, I guess, in a way I am too, because I don’t know where my life ends and my work begins. It is all woven together.
FC: What other projects do you have going right now?
AdL: With one friend, I’m planning to start printing bulk fabric with repeated images. Another friend of mine has a tile factory and we are going to use his company to facilitate public projects. I’d like to work with a clothing designer – Manuel, the guy who made Porter Wagner’s jackets and is now doing Dwight Yoakum and the Mavericks – to take my images and put them on his stuff, because his work is technically incredible.
FC: You talk about putting images on the surface of materials. Is that one way of thinking about your installation at ArtPace, which includes images that you have applied to the surfaces of the walls?
AdL: What I have been trying to do is to break the elements out of my paintings into cut-outs. Then I arrange the cut-outs in the space of the room to make the whole room into the painting. I’m into this idea of pattern. Something will get in my mind and roll around in my head. I kind of have fun with it, you know? Often, I will make a piece about something in the news that I just can’t believe. But, it’s always based on this idea of pattern.
FC: You have developed a signature style based on the applied pattern and the slick, flat surface, but there is also a kind of signature imagery that you use.
AdL: They are images that I have seen all of my life, all around me in this city, and I just pick up on them. They seem to come forward and present themselves and I just reflect them. I don’t necessarily try to think through them.
FC: Well, there are certain images that you pick up on and other images that you don’t. Do you see a lot of beer and cigarettes, for example?
AdL: Those images are about the idea of addiction. We all have addictions. I know I do. It’s a constant struggle and a battle to deal with them, to not be controlled by them. That is what I’ve been focusing on lately. I have seen the problems that addiction has caused. I’ve put a little distance between myself and those problems. Now, I can look back and be a little more objective and less controlled by those things.
FC: Are you taking a position? Are you critical of addictions or people who are addicted?
AdL: I think everybody has to deal with that on their own terms. I’m not going to make judgments. I am just using it as subject matter. I’m not trying to preach to anybody; I am making a statement. It’s out there, it’s everywhere.
FC: So you are just reporting it?
AdL: That is it exactly. I am kind of like a reporter. At the same time, I use other elements like love and hate, which are also addictions. You can be addicted to someone or you can be addicted to some thing. If you’re going to do it, I’m not going to tell you not to.
FC: Why not?
AdL: Because I don’t think that’s my job. I mean, if I wanted to do that I would either become a law officer or a preacher. I’m not going to tell you what to think. I’m just saying, here is the image. We all have free will; it’s when you give up free will that you set yourself up to be controlled by a substance, a person, a society, a culture, or a cult.
FC: At the same time, there is playful quality in your work.
AdL: I think that is just me. People who know me say that I think more like a child than an adult. I guess that the way I think is kind of naïve. At least, I’ve been told that a number of times.
FC: Do you agree with that?
AdL: I don’t know. I think that if I try to be really grown-up I would probably be a lot more boring, in my work especially! So I just do what I do, and I don’t try to let myself be influenced by the work I see around me. I stay in the studio and think about what I’m doing, instead of trying to be influenced by the New York scene or the L.A. scene, or whatever. I think that people who have no art training can look at my work and get something out of it. You don’t need all that baggage to understand what is going on in the piece. My work is like reading the newspaper.
FC: Can you talk about what you have planned for the opening night of your show?
AdL: Usually at my openings, I give away lots of beer, cigarettes and tequila, because that’s what everybody wants, right? It’s just a big party. Live it up, and have a good time. Now, if anybody begins to get out of hand, we are going to cut them off! We’ll hire a security guard. But, I just want everybody to have fun and enjoy the work. I want my parents to enjoy this as much as an art professor. My parents don’t know anything about art, but I want them to be able to come and look at it and just enjoy the colors, the patterns, and the fun and the festivities. Even though the work is about pretty heavy stuff, if you try to hit people over the head with big statements, they aren’t going to want to listen to you. If you can make them laugh first, then as the joke gets older it’s not funny anymore and they will start to absorb what the work means. And, I think that the tequila and the beer just attract more people! It’s salesmanship. You know, it’s free hot dogs and Big Red, like the car salesmen use.
FC: It seems a little manipulative. Even though you maintain that you are simply putting this work about addiction out there, you’re the pusher!
AdL: Well, I’m not going to force it on you. I mean, if you want some beer or tequila, drink up. It’s not like I’m telling you to drink it. I am giving you the opportunity to make the judgment for yourself.
FC: Sounds like fun.
AdL: I want it to be fun.
FC: Do you have any parting words?
AdL: I just want to say THANK YOU to ArtPace. It’s really meant a lot. This residency and the London Studio Program have done so much to help my career. Both have been very important in my life. The recognition has validated all of the work that I did for so long by finally bringing it full circle to show that there might be something to it, after all. A lot of people used to meet me and say, oh, that guy is crazy, and that would be it. The value of my work has increased from what it was before I got the grant, which, I think, reflects Linda’s idea of trying to jumpstart people’s careers. There’s a lot more interest in my work, which I really appreciate.