Influenced by Quodlibet painting, Alastair Gordon’s recent focus shifts from hyper-realistic portrayals of historical objects to a looser, more expressive interpretation of landscapes. By embracing both controlled and improvised techniques, his works encapsulate complex emotions, explore themes of grief and loss, and capture transient yet significant moments in life.
Kelly Foster – I spent some time today revisiting your book, which essentially serves as a retrospective of your work over the past decade. As I was reflecting on your work, I found myself intrigued by the ongoing evolution in your art.
Alastair Gordon – My work draws heavily from the tradition of “Quodlibet painting,” a form of painting that originated in 17th to 19th-century Northern Europe, which employs an illusionistic approach. My recent works have focused on the landscape, something that’s new to me. They represent an intersection between the controlled, illusionistic style I’ve developed and the uncontrollable aspects of nature. They’re still paintings about painting but the focus has moved more to aspects of landscape.
KF – It’s fascinating to observe the evolution of your work leading up to now. One theme that stood out to me is the idea of axis mundi, where the spiritual meets the everyday. Would you say that your time spent in nature is like a spiritual experience, almost akin to a form of enlightenment?
AG – Absolutely, I often think about people from diverse traditions, faith backgrounds, and religious beliefs—or lack thereof—who experience something indefinable in nature. It’s a sense that something transcendent is occurring, beyond the self. This idea is closely tied to the concept of axis mundi, a point on Earth that connects the individual to something greater.
In landscape painting, this could manifest as a horizon, which serves as a metaphor for life beyond this world. Artists like Caspar David Friedrich, the great Romantic painter, and those from the Hudson River School in the US, have depicted the horizon line as a sort of passage to the beyond—even to death. The axis mundi could also be a mountain peak, an island, or in some traditions, a tree. It’s a place where the celestial meets the terrestrial. I’m drawn to this concept, perhaps because living in a city makes me crave the natural world.
KF – Your newest works present a fascinating contrast between your traditionally realistic, controlled style and a more expressionistic take on landscapes.
AG – Over the last decade, my work has been very controlled and hyper-realistic. However, my sketchbooks reveal a looser, rougher style. So, I’ve been trying to marry these two approaches. My studio is a controlled environment, almost like a laboratory. Everything is in its place. Yet, I grew up in northern Scotland where I learned to draw in the open landscape, creating messy, loose sketches. I feel like they are the strongest works I’ve produced in a while. It’s as if these two sides of my personality have found a way to coexist on canvas.
KF – Your earlier works carried a sense of nostalgia, using ephemeral objects like postcards and letters. You’re still capturing ephemeral moments in your landscape sketches. It’s the same iterative process, but the subject has shifted to nature, a reflection of where you are in your life now.
In your previous works, you focused on the history and environment you were in at the time, like your residencies or specific historic locations. Now, it seems like your work creates itself through your exploration of your current environment. Would you agree?
AG – Yes, it’s as if the work is creating itself. I adapt to my surroundings. For instance, during an Italian residency, my work was influenced by Cézanne. Later, while working in Los Angeles, I painted from a postcard collection. Recently, due to travel limitations during the lockdown, I’ve been painting landscapes from my own sketches.
This felt like a natural progression. It was almost as if I gave myself permission to focus on my own interests, exploring themes of grief, loss, and wildness through landscape.
These paintings started to look like the boards I take out to paint in the landscape, only this time, I was painting my own sketches. Gradually, they became less about painting from paintings and more about painting directly in the landscape itself, while retaining illusory elements. They’re these odd hybrid works that I’m still trying to fully comprehend, but they seem to work.
KF – Absolutely, they work well together. What’s fascinating is the multiple psychological layers involved. It’s not merely a simple illusion; it’s more complex. In your recent works from 2020, you’ve created paintings that appear to be on a wooden easel board but are actually on paper. This creates another layer of illusion.
Your work often explores these “leftovers,” these traces of things. Where does this fascination stem from? Is it the discarded tape, the neglected objects—what drives this focus?
AG – I think it stems from an interest in the overlooked aspects of life that have significant value. In an artist’s studio, the sketches, postcards on the wall, and other ephemera are critical to the creative process. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard mentioned that the act of creation can never be replicated, which resonates with me. The circumstances—the weather, my mood, the materials—create a unique piece of art that can’t be duplicated. What I find ironic is that I try to replicate these irreplicable moments in my studio.
KF – You seem to capture time through objects, like the matchstick, for instance. It’s a mundane item, but it represents life, fragility, and spirituality.
AG – Exactly. It’s those seemingly insignificant moments that can be incredibly meaningful. Take, for instance, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Mahalia Jackson whispered to him, “Tell him about the dream,” and that changed the course of the speech. These minor, often overlooked, instances can have a profound impact.
When I light a match to say a prayer, it’s the act of lighting the match which initiates the prayer. It’s these small but pivotal moments that I aim to capture through painting. Painting itself is an act that occurs in a moment in time and, once made, that moment is immortalised.
KF – You capture ideas, moments in the landscape, or experiences at residences. By painting them in a controlled way, it feels like you’re amplifying their importance, giving them the attention and detail they deserve.
AG – As a recovering addict, I find solace in the recovery mantra, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It teaches us to accept what can’t be controlled in life, and to find beauty in simply observing these uncontrollable moments.
My paintings often deal with grief. So, painting for me is a way to express these complex emotions. It articulates moments in life when we feel everything is completely out of control, yet, it captures the beauty that also exists simultaneously.