Interview with Alexandra Zarins

Alexandra Zarins, Last Supper, 2021-2024. Oil on canvas, 55 x 211 cm.

Elizabeth Xi Bauer is delighted to interview Alexandra Zarins on the occasion of her debut solo exhibition, Caught in the act of being ourselves at the Gallery.

Caught in the act of being ourselves, captures the raw vulnerability felt in oneself within human interactions. Zarins’ works reveal an exploration of the nuances of intimacy, social interaction and personal closeness. Navigating the emotional complexities and depths of vulnerability within moments. Her works immerse viewers into her scenes, transcending mere representation and establishing her own distinctive signature style. Her portrayal of social gatherings, use of body language, perspective, colour palette, flesh and hands lay bare the diverse emotions entwined in one’s vulnerability when embracing one’s true self and engaging in closeness with another.

Zarins discusses her exploration into themes of intimacy and closeness within her oeuvre.
A – In my artistic practice, I delve into themes of intimacy and closeness by crafting narratives that revolve around human interactions. My compositions often feature numerous individuals engaged in various social settings; at times it’s the bustling atmosphere of a party. Other times, the nature of the scene is quieter, portraying intimate moments shared between a few individuals. I particularly enjoy when I can construct a moment of intimacy or closeness between a couple of individuals whilst they are amidst the dynamic energy of a crowd. Touch, body language and physical closeness play a pivotal role in my work, as they serve as tangible expressions of the emotional connections between individuals. I find hands to be particularly captivating. Hands possess a unique beauty and honesty, serving as silent narrators. They tell so much of a story and inadvertently what you might be trying to hide. As I focus on these characteristics, I am reflecting on a much broader question of vulnerability and authenticity within moments of intimacy and closeness. Yes – I love hands: hands and body language do just about everything I need!

Q – Your artwork celebrates the richness and complexity of human emotions in isolated moments, often portraying individuals in moments of vulnerability. Can you share what inspires these scenes depicted?
A – The scenes are fictional, loosely based on my memories and experiences; like novels, they are fiction based on reality. Through my artwork, I am exploring how we relate to and interact with one another and how we navigate friendships and relationships, often depicting individuals in moments of vulnerability – where one does, inadvertently or not, expose their authentic self. These scenes are inspired by an appreciation for my times with friends and loved ones. They are scenes born out of my tendency to reminisce–or ruminate–over memories. It’s a terrible habit. I spend a lot of time going over things in my head; reliving conversations, in my head every tiny detail becoming hugely significant. There’s a certain nostalgia embedded within these recollections, particularly reminiscent of youthful love and the innocence that accompanies it. It’s awkward and clumsy but wholly authentic. And there’s a vulnerability that comes out of the struggle to be genuine. So, for me, I might think about my intense love for other people, the sometimes-paralysing anxiety that comes out of that, wanting to feel accepted, my sense of not feeling seen, my worry about not talking enough or of talking too much. These form part of who I am and are the means with which I have to navigate the world. I do feel like a sense of this character is translated onto the canvas. Vulnerability is so raw; there’s so much honesty in it; it is within this vulnerability that I see both kindness and strength.

Q – There is a clear consideration around how you build layers and texture to your work. Can you talk more about how you developed this practice, and what these layers may evoke?
A – During my MFA in New York, my approach to painting was completely taken apart and rebuilt. I had some very influential teachers and mentors with whom I worked closely during my time in New York. The way I have come to deconstruct the form and how I think about flesh is learnt. And then yes, the layers are absolutely critical now. They feel so important to me. They are how I build the painting. It is very deliberate—I love the texture that happens when working this way. I find it makes the experience of the painting so much more- all the ridges, like scars or something, that are visible underneath the actual image seem to tell their own story.

Q – In your work, can you talk more about the choice of colour palette we will see in this show? What inspired the choices, and what, if any emotions these colours evoke for you?
A – Except for Last Supper, I began all the paintings for this show at the same time and deliberately set out to use a consistent colour palette to make the body of work feel whole. And the pink thing – I love Philip Guston and how shamelessly he uses the colour. Someone once commented on the Guston-pink I had started to use, and after that, I really leaned into it. Another reason I like using pink is because of its inextricable links to feminism; the perspectives I portray – at least the way that I experience my paintings – are invariably from a female point of view. I don’t think specifically about who ‘she’ is, but I believe that the gaze is consistently through a female lens.

Alexandra Zarins, Bed Painting, 2024. Oil on canvas, 130 x 120 cm.

Q – Can you talk more on the specific techniques or stylistic choices to evoke a sense of emotional intimacy or vulnerability within your paintings?
A – I am always trying to create the sense of physically being there. I like to crowd the space and fill the canvas. I like it when there is a lot going on. I enjoy that sense of chaos. When I paint skin touching skin, I think about how that touch might have felt like. What kind of relationship will be deduced in that instance? What would it have felt like to have been there – with that person pushed up so close against you – like sardines. What happens, and what do you feel, when the weight of one body is pressed against another? I want to capture that and yet also convey how soft and fleshy we are.

Q – It feels like I am within the scenes you portray. Can you expand on how this is inspired and the use of these unusual perspectives?
A – Just as I’m trying to create the sense of actually being there, I like playing with perspective and disrupting the customary viewpoints in order to help the viewer get inside the scene and bring the viewer into the painting so that they become an active participant. I might do this simply by moving the viewpoint lower than we are used to, or by giving the viewer arms or a whole body from the neck down, or by pushing the viewpoint right up into the viewer’s space – not allowing any exit from the image that I’m presenting. Each of these are techniques I might use to fully realise that sense of being there.

Q – Your work depicts individuals embracing their unique selves, revealing these moments of vulnerability. Could you elaborate on the importance of representing such authenticity in your work and how you believe it resonates with viewers?
A – These unique-looking moments are moments that most people can identify with, even if not the specific situation. Feeling vulnerable is a universal experience, and people identify with that. But I hope each painting will have a kind of unique resonance from individual to individual. Nostalgia opens up a wealth of memories. I think there’s a love or a longing for something in my paintings. Or maybe it’s a feeling that the opportunity has already passed: it’s been and gone, and the sadness is knowing that it won’t come around again. I hope that the humour is appreciated, how a distinct sadness undercuts by, that’s the nostalgia, I guess.

Alexandra Zarins, Wish you were here x, 2024. Oil on canvas, 120 x 110 cm each.

Q – In Wish you were here x, intimacy is explored beyond physical proximity, delving into how technology enables closeness. How does modern technology redefine closeness and their impact on intimacy in an interconnected world for you and in this diptych?
A – Technology enables us to project a curated image of ourselves. It enables us to have a second–or multiple, if we want, entirely separate public personas. With the possibility of being close to anyone in the world at the touch of a button, loneliness feels more acute than ever. Wish you were here x is a piece where, for the first time, I am exploring the implications of technology in our lives and how we engage with it.

The portrayal of a phone serves as a tool to explore this topic within the work. One half serves to immerse viewers within the subject’s inner world. Witnessing the deleted messages on the screen and observing her contemplation as her thumb hovers over the delete key of a drafted text message, Wish you were here x. In the other half, we see the indicators of an ongoing party: wine glasses and beer cans are on the table, and a crowd, talking and dancing, occupies the room before you. This half is the ideal that is being projected in the picture that is sent. But there’s a distinct sense of detachment and isolation from the crowd around you.

It is a work holding us–uncomfortably so–in the intimate act of trying to communicate something personal. We are already exposed to the viewer as we deliberate over whether or not to send the message. And we would be making ourselves vulnerable to the receiver of the message, in this text that possibly exposes too much.

Alexandra Zarins in her studio, 2024.

Alexandra Zarins (born 1993, London) lives and works in London. After studying Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, her passion for portraiture drew her to Florence and the Charles H. Cecil studios. In 2021, the artist completed her MFA in Painting at the New York Academy of Art.

In 2019, Zarins’ works were exhibited as part of The Moncrieff-Bray Summer Show at Moncrieff-Bray Gallery, Egdean, UK. In 2020 and 2021, Zarins’ artwork was displayed and auctioned during The New York Academy of Art’s annual Take Home a Nude event at the Tribeca Ball. This auction, conducted in collaboration with Sotheby’s and The New York Academy of Art, raises funds for public programming and scholarships at the Academy, contributing to the support of the next generation of artists.

In 2023, Elizabeth Xi Bauer exhibited Zarins’ work in the group exhibition Rolling with the Homies. The same year, Elizabeth Xi Bauer presented The moon between my teeth, a duo exhibition of works by Gokula Stoffel and Alexandra Zarins. Zarins’ work is in the collection of The Royal Geographical Society, London, and private collections.


Photographs: Richard Ivey.
Interview by Sinead Maharaj, Researcher, Elizabeth Xi Bauer

Alexandra Zarins in her studio, 2024

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