Alex Casso is a painter living and working in New York City. We took a trip to his studio in the Financial District where we had a conversation that spanned the gamut, discussing the raison d'etre behind his use of iconography to explaining how he overcame a slightly uncomfortable, yet illuminating, experience with Vaginal Davis. He recently participated in the "Magic Flute" performance with Ms. Davis and the film will be on view June 7th - August 12th at 80WSE Gallery.
What are you working on right now?
I am doing a mural at Facebook’s HQ right now for Saya Woolfalk. I’ve worked with her a year ago at the Sugar Hill’s Children Museum where we did a seven-wall mural.
I am also designing a mural with my students for The Play Ground For All Children in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. I teach at The Queens Museum, this is through them, and their whole thing is bringing art to children who don’t have access to it. And I’ve taught adults for three years prior to that.
Any difference between adults and children?
Actually the same. Adults and children respond the same way. Adults are more difficult because they have more settled things in their mind. A child will take directions without questioning why and they trust you and adults do not trust you. They are very afraid. I see it as a philosophy course where we are using art to talk about ourselves and this experience that we are having. I think that everything is exactly the same and it just looks different. If you can wash a dish you can make a drawing.
Do you have a preference for painting on canvas or doing murals, or are they totally separate?
The biggest difference is that I get to build the canvases and with the wall I don’t, but really there isn’t that much of a difference. A wall will resist your brush and it will also tear your brush up; a canvas will receive the brush. The circumstance of the surface area dictates what you need to do.
You use a lot of patterns in your work, what do they mean?
For instance I fell in love with a pattern in Kyoto and now it represents my wife for me. Whereas this was a pattern that was in my kitchen when I was a kid. My ex-girlfriend’s bed sheets are underneath this painting so it's me literally wiping away the past. When I first painted these bed sheets I saw myself as the cat in the painting and there were these circular gestural marks that I thought represented me as well and she was the pattern. I lived with it for a long time and then I painted it away for me to move on. Then I painted the wolf on top, which became a symbol of my own progression and my own power. But it’s not the lone wolf, don’t mistake it. The idea of a lone wolf is not a real thing. Wolves are very social and they take care of their families, they are very loyal animals that have hierarchies. They are all about the pack.
You use symbolism as a way to build narratives then?
I have always drawn this way where I would pull images from different places and put them together on the same page. I don't know why and I don’t know if it’s my job to know why either. I believe that everyone's highest calling is to be creative. And if it’s a higher calling, I don’t know if it has anything to do with me personally other than the thing that it is express through.
So what is your role as an artist?
To do what I’m told. For you, these images become associations, they become a word game and you start having your own experience with them and your own reactions. It can be up, down, left, right. For me, I know they come from a source of love and attachment and they mean positive things. Even if I paint them in anger, that’s just the flip side of love. All of them are in spectrums together.
Ah, so destiny comes in! Did you experience catharsis? Is it complete now?
Yes, it is complete now. You asked me about wolves and something inside of me tightens…
Sorry for asking then, but why do you paint wolves?
The easiest reason to respond is that my dad wears a wolf ring and there was a period of time when we were homeless and that was a moment in my life where tomorrow didn’t matter at all. I decided at a young age that I wasn’t going to let that moment stop me. So the wolves became an intuition for me and a shape that told me which directions to paint the brushstrokes in. I see them as abstractions; they add up to a wolf, they are not a wolf. For me painting wolves is a way to reflect on this experience which still informs very much how I exist.
And also, the answer that everyone hates is because I like to paint them. They are excuses for me to paint. They just inform me of what to do so I can remove yourself from the equation.
Do you ever sit back and think this is done?
Yeah and I have found that it is sincere in that moment. One thing that I think a lot of people struggle with is that we hold ourselves to promises that a younger version of ourselves made and we become discontent because we hold on to this thing that no longer reflects reality. Hopefully you continue to grow. Like when people say,“never change”, that’s the worst thing to say to someone.
So time is an important factor in your work?
Whenever I teach my drawing class, I teach that it it is only about three things: time, quality and energy. All we have is time, except when we go to sleep; it’s a difference sense of time. I am talking about both mechanical and subjective time. How do we do time? With energy. Everything is an exchange of energy. And what is the search? What is everything about? The search for quality. Quality can also be described as evolution, as external and internal forces budding up against each other searching for the best expression.
Has teaching affected your work?
Yes, because I have to explain things and when I explain them they became clearer for me. Words and experiences do not necessarily add up to each other. Once you have a language for something and you can articulate it then there is more power - more choice. Language is a dominant way we speak to each other.
You recently did a performance with Vaginal Davis at New York University for the production of “The Magic Flute.” How was that?
I haven’t done performance in a long time. So Ms. Davis and I have been friends for seven years. She asked me to participate in the “Magic Flute” with her, Susanne Sachsse, and their CHEAP Kollectiv. Jonathan Berger, the gallery's director, brought them from Berlin and they did this whole production of it. Jesse Bransford and his students did the sets. The characters were all distorted and most of it had to do with Isis. Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu did the musical score. Michele Auder filmed it and the film is coming out in June. Jackie Shemesh did the lights. I played Prince Tamino. So the audience walks into this room and I’m naked on a table and I only had three lines. I was told that the only thing I needed to do was get in shape. So for six months I was a lean, green machine and then I found out that the magic flute means there is a dildo that is going in my ass.
The weird thing is that I identify as a heterosexual man, but I always thought I was open-minded. It's easy to say that but the moment you have to do things, the moment I had to stick a dildo in my ass, I started thinking about an audience that I didn’t know interpreting me in some way. When you can feel the edges of the invisible box you live in, it is a really thrilling experience. You have a choice to stay in the box or go out of the box. So I decided to do it. The dildo didn’t fit. We tried. I had to go to meetings about how to fit this dildo in my ass. Then they came up with the idea of pulling a wick out of my ass. For three times a night for six nights, not including the rehearsal or the filming, I had to get a bee waxed wick up my ass and then get it pulled out. I felt like it was karma because I objectified so many of my partners. I want to go to the grave haggard, chew me up and spit me out life, I don’t want to go the grave as a person who tiptoed.
Who would you want to collaborate with?
Brancusi. We would probably clash but for my viewing pleasure.
What are you listening to?
“Plain Gold Ring” by Nina Simone. Kurt Vile. “Danny Says” by the Ramones. “Life is Gone Down Low” by the Lijadu Sister.