Alexandra Grant is a Los Angeles–based artist who uses words and intertextuality in her cross-disciplinary practice. In her collaborations with writers, actors, and other creatives, Grant crafts landscapes of language, in painting, drawings, and even in three-dimensional structures, tracing words across languages and space.
A set of these word-mirror paintings based on the writings of Michael Joyce and Hélène Cixous, The Ladder Quartet, was featured at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007 as part of their Focus series.
Grant’s oeuvre pulls at words and meaning, pushing language into space, treating is as a substance to be shaped — revealing language’s inherent malleability by breaking apart and translating, mirroring, creating visual and epistemological connections.
Here, she explores the evolving role of mirroring through nearly a decade of her work.
— Katrina Mohn
In early works such as conspirar, I collaborated with Michael Joyce, the pioneer of hypertext fiction. The way Michael and I worked together was to discuss a theme and then he’d write a series of texts about those ideas. In the case of the Ladder Quartet, a series of large-scale works on paper including conspirar, we examined the image of the ladder in literature from the bible to James Joyce’s Ulysses to Hélène Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. conspirar, the Spanish for to conspire, is the way that Michael speaks of our collaboration.
Conspire comes from the Latin “to breathe together,” rather than collaborate, which means “to labor together.” His poem conspire is about Hélène, a friend of both of ours, whom he addresses as “the last subjunctive.” I received his poem and translated it to Spanish, the language of my childhood, and then began looking for patterns in it: alliteration, repetition, finding the poetic elements and pondering how they would translate to a visual mapping. I chose purple as the main color for the painting, because when I thought of Hélène the words that came to mind were regal and catholic (in the sense of her interests, which are wide-ranging), and both masculine and feminine at the same time.
The multiple series I’ve done to date with Michael’s writings use a system of word bubbles that are interconnected. This shows the thinking behind the texts — interconnected, non-linear, and intertextual. The other feature of the images inspired by his words is that, in them all, the writing is backwards.
What the mirror-writing allows is for the viewer to both read and perceive the paintings. Once the desire for a literal reading is abandoned, the mind begins to look for the larger patterns in composition and color, and a system. Backwards, the words become signifiers of language itself, as though the viewer is illiterate in that particular idiom but still making sense of the words by their context and shape.
During graduate school — I attended the California College of the Arts in San Francisco — Vito Acconci did a studio visit with me. He remarked, looking at one of my large drawings, that he felt he was inside of a looking glass, looking out. I couldn’t help but think of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
For the series the Six Portals I asked Michael Joyce to compose a series of texts based on the conceit that I wanted to paint six doors through the gallery walls, each one leading the viewer to a discrete language system. Michael’s response was thrilling: he told me that in the history of Chinese Buddhism, the Six Portals was one of the earliest sutras to be written down, reflecting on each one of the senses plus the sixth sense of consciousness. He wondered if I would be open to him writing a new series of sutras. I had imagined the portals leading out into imaginary spaces, but his response surprised me because it would mean, in reflecting on the portals, our senses are to go inwards to our selves.
In the First Portal (mind), the mind is the portal to thinking and consciousness. From a compositional point of view, I used light gray to reflect the color of the brain itself. Out of this gray matter came bursting rainbow spectrums of words, exploding like thoughts often do. At the center of many of the bursts lay words, like alpha or omega, symbolizing the beginning and end of an idea or phrase.
The First Portal (mind) was also written in mirror-writing. It was in the creation of this painting that I showed myself one of the key subjects of my work: that I seek to represent thinking itself.
The Fifth Portal (body) is the penultimate of the Six Portals series. The body is represented here as the portal for the sense of touch. I struggled with how to show that sense, as it is somewhat ineffable in painting, yet alone in writing. I decided to use a color palette that came from the body: red for blood, yellow for piss, white for bone, green for bile, etc. I made a decision that would set me on a new direction in my work: to draw a mirror line down the center of the painting and reflect the words (and forms) symmetrically across it.
What I strove for in this work — symmetrical, Rorschached, doubled, reflected, whatever you may call it — was to represent the body in a formal sense. As humans, we too are split and doubled down the center, however imperfectly. The words in their bubbles and doubles then began to represent the shape of organs: kidneys and ovaries and eyes. I added the hatch marks to complete the design, and those suggest Tibetan prayer rugs or even the sign boards of Las Vegas, the sacred and profane of physical life.
I had become so accustomed to painting words backwards that I did that side of the work first. To create words the “right way around” I reversed the mirror-writing.
body (13) is one of the earliest paintings I made in the bodies series. Based on Michael Joyce’s poem cycle Lost Hills Hokku, I experimented with oil on canvas and linen in order to give the paintings a textured, three-dimensional and meatier surface. Michael’s texts touch on things physical and sensual, from the creation myth of the Chumash in Santa Barbara to falling in love. The arched form comes from the Chumash myth of the rainbow bridge, but also represents the moon or open legs.
thigh [body 13] – by Michael Joyce
we have come to this
hollow where the mist lingers
along the narrows
body (11) is the final painting of the bodies series. Dominant in scale, this work on two large pieces of paper overwhelms the viewer and invites them into a tunnel of words. In its separateness I’ve wondered if it is not really two works, twins, about to say goodbye to each other. Completed when they look into the mirror. The text from Michael Joyce’s symmetry is about twilight, and the growing of shadows.
symmetry [body 9, 10 and 11]
snow cherry blossom
your kiss clings upon my cheek
finger seals your lips
long after the spring
his echo haunts the valley
fawn running before
first the sun grows then
the shadow on the bluffs of
These small black and white drawings were created as a break in my work and style. In 2010 I began playing in the studio with the idea of the Self as a subject, moving on from the body to the consciousness within it. I kept aspects of the bodies paintings: the doubling and the language.
I took as inspiration Adam Curtis’s great film The Century of the Self, which analyzed the impact of Freud’s ideas on the creation and perpetuation of psychoanalytic methodologies in marketing and public relations. In these works I abandoned the word bubbles, as those were the style developed in my exchanges with Michael Joyce. Instead the words remain free, uncaged, and allowed to grow to ALL CAPS, mirroring new shapes around the center line. The form supporting and surrounding the language was the ink blot, the Rorschach, the symbol of psychoanalytic approaches and treatments.
Where did I find the language? I looked in the mirror, of course. I wanted, like the color palette, to use the most black and white of phrases that pop into one’s mind, but are rarely uttered or represented. How we see ourselves and others at the most basic: I love my self. I hate my self. I hate you. I love you. The response from the public was immediate and strong, from concern about my mental health to finding the dark humor in the pieces.
What I realized is that it was not just the Rorschach that acts as a diagnostic, but that the matrix of words did, too: love and hate, you and me. Each viewer expressed what they saw in the pieces, and it acted fairly accurately as a mirror of their world-view rather than a presentation of mine.
In Self (I was born to love not to hate), there are at least three texts, one layered upon another in rich oil paint. The bottom text reads “I hate myself” topped by a second at the middle ground that asks, “Who am I?” As in response, the top text pronounces “I was born to love not to hate,” a line from Sophocles’ Antigone as she stands in defiance to her uncle, King Creon. It is no surprise that many, including me, have been drawn to the psychological and mythological worlds of the character Antigone. A young woman who looks at the rules of her society, she decides to stand up for something that is deeply authentic within her self, disobeying the law in the name of love. Her decision to bury her brother, against Creon’s orders, earns her the penalty of death, but gives us, as readers of her story, a moral mirror in which to see ourselves. It is no wonder Feminists and psychoanalysts, playwrights and actors, philosophers and poets have gazed at her as a source for reflection from ancient Greece to today.
My Self Is An Other is a painting based on a quote by Arthur Rimbaud, “Je suis an autre.” The quote captures the sensation that we are alien to ourselves, that the I that we speak is different from our essential natures. This painting, also from the Century of the Self series, layers Rorschachs and texts in thick paint, emanating out of a central point in the canvas. The words have become almost illegible, but can be decoded to read “I love my self,” “I see my self in you,” and finally “My self is an other.”
I have the sensation that my Self is indeed an Other on most days when I return to the studio and look at the previous day or week’s work. I wonder, “Who made this?” Often followed by: “What was she thinking about?” In the act of returning to the same place, to continue work on a single piece over a long duration, I’ve begun to see my Self as a series of selves who show up, often in different moods and mental states.
In this way, my work is very much a mirror of who I am as an artist, but even more as a person. As I am always evolving my Self through my experiences, so the work evolves. I look back at my earlier paintings and think: “I could never make that now because I am no longer that person.” My work is like the light of a star: we are seeing something made by someone who no longer exists.
I see my self in you is a sculpture in three parts. First, the site. It must be installed in a corner. On one wall is a large mirror, bigger than the body and just beyond the field of human vision. On the other wall is the neon sculpture, half of a doubled-text that reads “I see my self in you.” The viewer can walk up to the sculpture at first not understanding the illusion: that the neon is made whole because of the mirror. As the viewer gets closer, their body is reflected in the mirror, too.
Much like in the painting My Self Is An Other, the words become intertwined with the form of the viewer. The body, in the mirror, becomes the Rorschach.