An interview with artist Alexis Petroff:
Alexis Petroff is one of the most energetic people I know. I have worked alongside him at the Flaxman Library at SAIC for over 2 years, observing his completion of dozens of projects including artist books, animation, collage, video, sculpture, and drawings among others. This past year alone, he gave a lecture at the Joan Flash Artist Book Collection, exhibited at Clutch Gallery for the Society of Smallness, and most recently, had an exhibition at Ads Donna titled “Floating Drawings” of which there will be a review in an upcoming issue of Art in America.
Always eager to talk about the new project he’s working on or recommend artists to look at, Alexis clearly loves his job. After receiving his MFA in the Printmedia department at SAIC in 1987, he chose, not only to stay in Chicago, but to stay close to SAIC itself as a way of remaining actively connected with the students and staff. In fact, Alexis continues to make work on a semester schedule and regularly has friends over to his studio for critiques. Perhaps this is why he is able to preserve such a tireless enthusiasm for making things.
I asked Alexis more specifically about is work, ideal studio, and past jobs, one evening at the Flaxman.
Sarah: Working at an art library, it must be easy to get over-saturated with images. Do you ever try to limit your exposure to images or the contemporary art world in general as a way to limit confusion or influence in the studio?
Alexis: In my teens I was doing lots of free-form work. In college I became more impressionable but as I continued working, I started to find my own small voice. I have always enjoyed discovering new artists while browsing incoming books. Working at the Ryerson was very exciting, book wise, since they acquire so much and the collection is vast! I am interested in a wide variety of works and am a curious cat!
With the advent of the internet, I can see how beginning students could have trouble staying focused while exploring new disciplines. Without commitment, and passion for invention, it may be difficult to weather the ups and downs needed to shape a progressive direction to find one’s voice.
Sarah: Can you describe your work in one sentence?
Alexis: An interchange between painting and sculpture; matter and space.
Sarah: Impressive! How has your work changed since grad school?
Alexis: Progress is slow but hopefully sure! I regularly look at studies from my school days and the approach is the same: relying on Mother Nature and chance, combined with observation. Small pencil drawing and tape collages are still the starting point. Drawings of drawings. The aesthetic has not changed much–working from pure abstraction to abstraction that contains recognizable vignettes.
Sarah: Can you detect any changes in attitude of current grad students here at SAIC since you were a student?
Alexis: Since the 90’s and the advent of the ubiquitous personal computer technology. Students seem to have gained a logical thinking not present in the pre computer era. Interesting departments are surging forward such as AIADO and the wide ranging and open ended Fiber and Material Studies.
Sarah: I know you’ve worked a variety of interesting jobs–were any of these non-art-related experiences especially influential to your practice?
Alexis: Working in an emergency room was very exciting and full of life. I was in awe of the incredible dexterity and skills of plastic surgeons who came in to repair hands/fingers and facial injuries.
Sarah: If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
Alexis: (laughing) An Art Library Assistant! Also, a plastic surgeon specializing in facial or hand reconstruction. An architect, a street sweeper, a carpenter, a gardener, a baker, a father, a musician, a singer, or a cook.
Sarah: It seems like you are always working on a new project–a new book, animation, collage, sculpture… Do you need to work in a variety of mediums to keep your interest? Or is it a more intuitive process?
Alexis: It feels like a natural process since I have always lived with my work since the mid 70s. I look over and see that I need to finish this armature over here and start that one over there. In my bedroom I have a drawing/book printing station that reminds me to work on the next book. I have many ideas I could ever endeavor to realize. I would love to build outdoor platforms and buildings, but I have wanted to do that since the early 80’s. I want to sail across lake michigan! I would love to make interactive voice, sound installations…the list goes on!
Sarah: You’ve described your studio to be before, and it sounds quite magical–particularly with your birds flying about. Describe your ultimate studio environment.
Alexis: The ultimate studio would have lots of worktables, stations, and natural light coming from the south. Music is a must. It would have a garden with a pond where I to jump in the water to refresh myself. But in reality, I am so thankful to be able to do what I do right now! I think I have everything I need and more already!
Sarah: Are there any films or books which have recently influenced your work?
Alexis: They don’t really influence my work directly. Rocks, streams, mountains, plants, animals and birds are essential to my well-being, so the movie Birders: The Central Park Effect comes to mind. I have also been reading The Practice of the Wild by poet Gary Snyder. He writes about the history of how people view wilderness, the wild and nature. What is civilized and what is wild? How people of a traditional society view nature and how we view nature, our current connections to the wild and nature and how do we balance ecology with economy. The world of nature is almost in the shadows. I am so out of touch I do not recognize most plants or trees around me.
Sarah: Can you remember when you first wanted to be an artist? When did you know you were good at making things?
Alexis: When I first moved from France to NYC in ‘68, my uncle was a practicing sculptor and painter, and I would watch him work. In High school I started working with ceramics and drawing my first loves! My father and my Uncle taught me how to work with my hands and how to use tools. I became good at making things through the years with practice.
Sarah: Growing up in NYC, you must have been exposed to more art than the average kid. Were there any specific shows that made a big impact on you?
Alexis: My Uncle would take me to all the galleries in Soho. This was before Chelsea was what it is today. Soho was the place to see art, and it smelled like money. I remember being amazed with a Claes Oldenburg exhibition at Moma. I loved the humor and playfulness of it.
Sarah: As someone who is about about to graduate and deciding where to go next, do you have an opinion on Chicago vs NYC vs LA, or do you try to ignore art world drama?
Alexis: It is a long journey. Ignore the drama and make progress wherever you are!
Sarah: What is the greatest compliment you have received as an artist?
Alexis: I once taught a six-year-old girl how to make tape collages as a way to explain the concept of “abstraction” to her. She immediately got the hang of it and the next day brought me a box full of abstract collages far better than mine. Over 20 years went by, and then, just recently, I got an email from her. Emily Ulrich, the daughter of Carol Terry, who is the director of the library at RISDI, writes
“I have your print up in my home office (between my desk and my daughter’s dresser/ changing table) so you’ve been in the background of my life in that way for some time. And I still have a few of the grey and white boxes that you kept your tiny collages in, always associated them with that day. It did make an impression on me, which is amazing, considering how few concrete memories I have of those years.”
Sarah: What are some of the current projects you’re working on?
Alexis: Sculpture-wise, I am building armatures for smaller floating drawings and as a small interlude I’m designing an outdoor sculpture for the Society of Smallness to commemorate the accidental death of a young American Robin. I’m also working on a couple of books. One is called “Night Workers” which is a collection of images of construction workers and various people working on or in buildings. I take these photo stops as I commute out of the loop riding my bike home at night. Construction sites make beautiful installations!
Sarah: And the dial-up videos?
Alexis: Yes! I’ve been asking people if they remember the sound dial-up internet makes. And I’m recording people’s imitations of it. It’s really funny. I’ll edit them all into a short video.
Sarah: Finally, we had a conversation earlier about a “successful” work of art being its ability to leave the viewer having been somehow transformed, influenced or genuinely touched by a work, and you made a distinction between “artist” and “practicing artist”. Can you articulate what you meant by that?
Alexis: I cannot call myself an artist but rather a maker of things or objects in the field of “visual art”. Whether or not the object is “a successful work of art” is out of my hands. It is up to the viewer and my peers, unless I was an avant-garde or brilliant. Unfortunately my journey is long and any success has come with lots of hard work and mostly failed attempts. The term “artist” is broad and has many steps and levels along an, often, life-long journey–from beginner, intermediate, to the many subtle steps that define reaching mastery or that point of a realized work.
I have a very broad appreciation of artistic endeavors, and am in awe of most people’s creations. I pride myself in being able to see the potential that the most basic works offer. It does not take much to get me going, in terms of getting excited about ideas of invention or inventive interpretations. So, in a broader sense, yes! we are all “practicing artists”, and I celebrate our attempts and work every chance I get!