Pierogi: First, I was wondering about the material process for making these works. They’re mostly done in pen and graphite, right?
Alex Yudzon: Yeah, they’re mostly pen and ink, and then there’s graphite, there’s some collaging in one of them, where there’s actually paper cut out. I also use this substance that I’ve mixed up myself, it’s a sort of ink made with red wine and a Brillo pad, which sits in the wine and over time rusts and oxidizes. It’s actually one of the ways ink was made in the past, and these are based on the idea of maps and mapmaking. One of the ways they are able to date old maps as being real is by looking at the ink, which would have iron filings in it, and over time they literally etch themselves into the paper to create a kind of burn mark, and that oxidization only happens over hundreds of years. Creating this substance was a way for me to reference that history, and maybe 300 years from now some of that ink will be etched in to the works! [laughs]
P: Yes, in the future! So, what are these works maps of? Where are they mapping? Are they freeform, or do you know what they’re going to look like before you start making them?
AY: These two are aerial views of the earth, of mining sites, in particular. I love mining sites because from up above, they look abstract and they’re so interesting, the way the roads lead into them and sluices are built. But that’s just true for these two maps in particular, the project that these are a part of [Impossible Landscape series] has other drawings of clouds, or mountains, or these kind of aerial views. I also love the idea that these places are always in a state of change.
P: Right, so that kind of complements the idea behind the ink making, having a set lifespan giving another kind of temporality aspect. So, what’s your process in making these: where do you start, and when do you know when they’re finished?
AY: To start, it’s just very simple, working from the very basic image with outlines, and literally mapping it out on the paper. As the drawing progresses, I start introducing more elaborate elements that start to deviate from the original source image, and I also introduce my own vocabulary of symbols and patterns as a way of sort of plotting courses, so then it becomes a map of not just the space but also of my own experience of the space, and my experience of making art—I think all art is a form of map-making, both as an aggregate and as individual pieces, I look at is all as a series of maps, and to that end, some of the symbols that are in here are self-created and others are borrowed from really varied sources, some like my own personal heritage as being a Russian immigrant. So some are from Russian culture or Russian prison tattoos and Russian folklore, and then just things that are a part of my life. They also become maps of consciousness and my experience.
P: How much would you say your heritage or place of origin influences you in your art practice?
AY: I think it’s huge, I mean, for me, it’s funny, it’s only a connection I’ve been able to make in the last year or two. I mean I moved here when I was eight years old and it was a huge change because Russia was this communist country at that time and then we came to Washington D.C., which was like, the center of the capitalist world! It was really disorienting because suddenly I was a member of this “evil empire,” and the Russians were really not as obsessed with America as an enemy in the same way that Americans were back in the 80s. We didn’t have a whole industry of movies and popular culture of fear, in Russia it was like, “oh yeah, America’s capitalist and we don’t like capitalists,” but there was none of this fixation. So coming here it was like living in a Bizarro World, like, but then there was this added content to my origin that I wasn’t even aware of prior to coming here. And then, of course, Russia kind of collapses, so the Soviet Union is no more and it becomes another thing where this place that I’m from disappears. It’s interesting that I’ve grown up to become obsessed with maps, because maps are your way of placing yourself, it’s your home, and the maps try to fix real location in a way to ultimately allow you to get back. That’s why we make maps, so we can return. But then I’m also obsessed with maps of things that are always in a state of change, things that are never actually fixed. For me, the idea of return is impossible, so in a funny way, all of that permeates this work.
P: But you don’t exclusively work in this kind of map style, right? How do those other modes relate to this style of work?
AY: I’m still working in this style, but the idea of change and impermanence is the one unifying feature in all of my work. And the idea of repetition also has become really important for me, whether its repetition of pattern or repetition of a particular material, like I have this whole series of pieces made out of sunflower seed shells.
P: Yes, I saw those on your website. They seem visually different, clearly, but maybe conceptually related, no?
AY: Yeah, and again, it harkens back to this idea of Russia as this country from which I’m sort of exiled from, and sunflower seeds were this really important snack food in Russia, so it’s like it’s a vestige of my experience. Everywhere you went growing up, there were always these shells around, so using these empty, spit out shells to represent images that are synonymous with power, but images that are now pointing to something that no longer exists that themselves are vestiges of a past era, the seeds are kind of thrown out, it just seemed appropriate. But actually, physically laying down the shells is very repetitive, but also kind of… it’s like knitting, you know, there’s something kind of nice, and for some reason that’s been an important element in the work.
P: Are you attracted to the same themes now as when you began making art? Have different things caught your interest now?
AY: I think it’s changed. I think content when I was younger was not very important, it was more about style and aesthetic and now content is sort of what drives a lot of my decision making. I really mold my projects out of a concept that I begin with out of an idea of what sort of content I’m interested in working with. So it’s funny thinking about these works in a personal way, because you start making these really interesting connections to your own biography, and sometimes it’s very unexpected, like with these maps, for example.
P: Would you say it was unintentional, or subconscious?
AY: It was more like “Oh, maps, I really like maps, I want to work with them” but just recently I realized the logic behind my obsession. Or like this symbol here, this occurs a lot in my work and I’ve actually started using it on my business cards.
P: So it’s like a signature kind of thing now?
AY: Right, and it’s been a signature for like 3 or 4 years, I just really love this symbol. It’s from Russian folk stories about this witch named Baba Yaga, who is this really interesting character because she is either the personification of pure evil or she is a kind of interesting sage-like character that the main character has to find in the forest to get some kind of essential knowledge from her in order to complete his quest. She lives in this house that sits on chicken legs and is always moving around, so she’s very hard to find, and in some stories she’ll go at night to a village and plop itself down, and she’ll steal the children from that village and eat them. And then when the villagers realize what’s up, before they can get to her the house gets up and runs away to another village.
P: Literally a home that is always moving that can’t be located.
AY: Right! And it’s like 2 months ago that I make this connection. Sometimes its so hard to see what’s right in front of you.
P: What have you been working on recently? Do you have any shows coming up?
AY: I do, I’m showing in Miami for the art fair, I’m showing at the Miami Projects in early December. Right now, I’ve sort of taken the ideas in these drawings and I’ve wanted to focus on some of the symbols very individually and repeat some of them over and over again, instead of making these really elaborate things. A lot of the symbols I’m drawn to are nice because they’re very elemental and can connote a lot of different things. I look at these drawings as also having a lot to do with language, with the different symbols starting to interact and signify different meanings as units.
Pierogi’s flat files contain several works from Yudzon’s Impossible Landscape series.
Miami Projects Art Fair, Claudia Stone Gallery booth (#715), Miami, Florida, December 3 – December 8, 2013