An image posted to Alex Gardner’s Instagram page in January rendered three coal-black bodies against rich equatorial tones: deep turquoise gave way to a mellow sea green and a soft white base, which served as the foundation on which the figures were propped. At first glance, the painting—like the majority of Gardner’s work—exuded a meditative calm. Taken in full, the illustration conjured an ambiguous and much larger proposition on intimacy, movement, and space. Were these figures attempting to move through each other? Was the sitting woman reaching for help or offering it? Were the two standing figures in a state of embrace or quarrel? Were all three figures working in unison or against one another? Were they a family? One final thought flickered in my head: given that these decidedly black bodies sat atop a paradisal background, was Gardner offering commentary on the ever-fluctuating position of black Americans caught in the throes of history?
Today, it can often feel like we’re living in a dystopian otherworld—local government failures, a constant flood of police killings, the erasure of marginalized communities—just looking for a place to fit in. Gardner’s paintings, and his elastic figures evoke a similar sentiment for me, though, when I reached him in early February by phone, he rejected my politicization of his work.
“I’m half black; my mom’s Japanese. I pretty much look black. So obviously there are those things; I grew up with those kind of issues you’re talking about,” the 28-year-old Los Angeles-based artist said. “But I’m not really a socio-political artist in any way. I don’t have that kind of agenda. I’m not trying to push the issue across too hard. That being said, I definitely feel like those things, ideas, and thoughts are inherent in my work. I think I’m unconsciously developing those ideas. Just the fact that I painted black figures in the first place was kind of—it was a conscious decision that I made.”
Gardner, who grew up in Southern California, only decided to fully commit to his artistry in 2014. Although he studied illustration in college, being an artist never seemed like it could be a full-time career for him. Now, though, he says “without financial boundaries” he wants to do “more interactive installations.”
His current body of work plays with warm pastels and sun-kissed textures: spectacular blues, hushed greens, doughy pinks, and hints of orange. Fluid black bodies are positioned within Gardner's large-scale Edens, some of which recall the work of Kerry James Marshall, the Chicago-based artist whose inky visual aesthetic so powerfully invokes the folkways of Black America. Gardner said he draws inspiration from everyday interactions (he shuns labels of surrealism in regard to his work), 16th century European art, and movies. “I just like the idea of movies, how a story can romanticize life.”
“Is that what you’re trying to do with your work—romanticize life?” I asked.
“I think so,” he said. “Lots of it is about intimacy. But I’m not trying to communicate this one dimensional story with any of my paintings. For the longest time I didn’t [use] titles because you can give too much information away. Whatever my initial feelings or whatever inspired me to make the painting doesn't need to be directly communicated as its original form.”
I pressed further. “So what do you hope your work achieves? What do you want people to get from it?”
“Umm,” he said, perhaps wondering why I expected his work to symbolize something grander than it already did, “that life’s not that bad.”