An Interview With Alex Garant, Canada's Pop Surrealist

Courtesy of Alex Garant
Courtesy of Alex Garant

Time is the currency of which everybody is running out. This was the sudden realization Alex Garant had come to after suffering from a heart attack in 2012, which she took as a wake-up call to fully pursue and embrace the greatest passion of her life: art. Hailing from French Canada, Garant made Toronto her home in 2001 after graduation from her alma mater, Notre-Dame-De-Foy College just outside of Quebec City.

Garant’s works are perfect conversation pieces – and it’s easy to see why. The mysterious women inhabiting her surreal portraits look at the world with two, three, sometimes even four sets of eyes – enchanting and confusing the viewer with their direct yet ambiguous gaze. Garant’s signature double-eyed portraiture gracefully equilibrates stillness and constant motion, revealing the multidimensional nature of even the most trivial reality. Undertaking to decipher the enigma of these superposed faces, we bombarded Alex Garant with questions about her life, her art, her technique and, of course, her duplicated eyes.

Courtesy of Alex Garant

When I was a kid, I liked to lock my eyes onto an object and look at it until it doubled. It’s a sort of trick of overfocusing and unfocusing your eyes. Really cool. So, when I first saw your multi-eyed portraits, my immediate reaction was, this is exactly how I would see a regular portrait if I did that double vision trick. Naturally, my first question to you – the Queen of Double Eyes – is, how did the idea of multiple eye sets came into being?

I always loved playing with symmetry and patterns. Even in my early works, I would create symmetrical images. One day I was sketching and drawing and exploring other ways to create symmetry and duplicate my sketches. One day it all came together as the vision I was searching for. To me, the vibrancy created by the double exposure is more than just an optical illusion, it represents life emerging from a structural setting.

Your mom was an artist, and you’ve been drawing since early childhood. What did you like to draw as a kid?

My mother used to draw those beautiful feminine faces, and I used to colour them in. From a very young age, I was most attracted to portraiture.

The overarching theme of your art is exorcism of the soul, the idea of self-escape, being possessed by one’s own individuality. How do we come to terms with this inherent duality of our human nature, if at all? Or, is life a constant struggle between the different facets of who we are?

I believe it is. We all have multiple versions of ourselves we chose to expose or hide. The social self, the anxious self, even if we are able to manipulate the world to see only one of these chosen personalities, our mind is constantly struggling. Trying to perfect itself, trying to adjust, and sometimes just giving up. [I] believe emotional questioning is actually a very healthy way to find balance.

Courtesy of Alex Garant

Contrary to current visual art tendency of using technology to manipulate the image, your work process is very traditional – sketching a portrait, then duplicating the eyes, then transferring the sketch onto canvas. Have you ever thought of letting technology into your studio?

I like the practical manual process. The lack of ‘Ctrl+Z’ pushes me to be careful while working on a piece, to calculate and plan by project, and that’s my favourite part of the process. I also love mixing paint, playing with texture, the subtle sound of the brush against the canvas; it is all part of the experience.

You are a dedicated oil painter. Is there a particular reason for such preference?

I love oil paint because I feel like you can ‘sculpt’ the paint for a while after it has been applied onto the canvas; you can blur the strokes, make them sharper, change the tone, etc. I work exclusively alla prima, so oil is my medium of choice.

What do you like about portraiture in particular?

Portraiture is a way to immortalize humans in space and time. If you look at portraits from 500 years ago, 100 years ago or five years ago, it will give you significant clues on the potential story of the subject. Portraiture is a visual thesis on the human condition.

One of your signature paintings that stands out for me is The Forbidden Fruit. What’s the story behind it? (and, why eggplant?)

This piece was done for an emoji-themed exhibit at Arch Enemy Gallery in Philadelphia. The concept for this show focuses on emoji – not so much as just the symbols themselves, but more the evolving role of the symbols in modern language and as an increasingly universal method to communicate human emotions. I was given the eggplant. I created a modern day version of the ‘Immaculate Heart of Mary’ meets emoji in a mix of references and hints. I believe it was perceived as a little bit blasphemous. Haha. Guess that again depends on one’s interpretation…

Courtesy of Alex Garant

Your other work Enlightenment just struck me. A classical portrait of a woman with duplicated eyes against Munkian blood-red skies with what seems to be the Eye of Providence on her chest… Just wow! What’s going on here?

This piece was created for the exhibit Transfigure at Last Rites Gallery in New York City. This gallery is known for its gothic darker curating, so I wanted to create a more mysterious series based on baroque portrait style. Once again, it is all about letting people create a story for the character with subtle hints…

Courtesy of Alex Garant

Which one is a favourite painting of yours?

I was very happy when I started working with more colours again. My solo show at Spoke Art Gallery entitled Wakefulness was such a breath of freshness for me. I really wanted to reinvent my use of colours and be more aware of my moods and how they influence the final imagery. I was really happy with the piece Neptune on my mind, and I created it.

Your portraits are definitely conversation pieces. What do you think about the dialogue between the artist and her art – and the society? Is it there? Is it important?

I believe art is often a language on its own. It is often hard to communicate with words; by creating images, it lets me silently speak to my audience. And the beautiful thing about this sharing process is the message will always be different and personal depending on our own experience.

Courtesy of Alex Garant

Now that you’re settled in Toronto, how would you say you are influenced by the metropolitan dynamics of the biggest city in Canada?

I love the city; I love its energy and vibrancy. I just feel free in this city.

Going back to my double vision trick, I’d say there is always more than one dimension to life and reality than how we see it. Which dimension are you interested in the most? What do you want to uncover?

I just wanted people to view my art and access a different part of their mind while looking at it. I want people to enter a process of analyzing and visual questioning. I do not want to just paint ‘something pretty’; it needs to be more than that.

Courtesy of Alex Garant

Any particular creative plans for the future?

I am always working, always trying to get better, always learning. I have a lot of art shows booked for the next year, so I am looking forward to keep creating.

Have you ever thought of straying away from portraiture?

This is what I’m passionate about, this is what I enjoy doing, without the enjoyment, there is no point in creating. I follow my heart; if one day my heart tells me to paint a landscape, well, I shall become a portrait artist, but for now, immortalizing muses on canvas is my true love.

You once said that time is the currency everybody is running out of, and there will never be a right time or perfect time to do anything. How can we stop spreading ourselves too thin and start living our dreams and passions? How can we affect change from within instead of waiting for an external wake-up call?

It’s not easy; I think once you commit to your true passion, you will find time to do what you love. Eliminating fear and doubt is essential. Just follow what your heart is telling you.

Interview conducted by Dasha Bosaya-Lazareva

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