A Conversation with Alexandra Penney

The Curator Gallery
Sep 29, 2015 10:13PM

The Curator Gallery’s latest exhibition, Fractured Botanicals, is a solo show featuring photographs by Alexandra Penney. The gallery’s photography curator, Bill Shapiro, recently sat down with the artist to talk more about her captivating work on view from September 10th through October 21st, 2015.

Bill Shapiro: Your new exhibit at The Curator Gallery features your photographs
of explosively bright flowers as well as your photos of haunting,
primeval swamps. That seems an unexpected pairing...

Alexandra Penney: I had two objectives in making these pictures. The first was to convey the mysterious and fascinating quality of the ephemeral. Flowers bloom bright and beautiful for only a few days, and the swamps I photographed are all in danger of disappearing through climate change. Who knows how long they’ll be around? The second challenge was to see if, in each image, I could visually meld nature and technology -- which people generally think of as opposites.

BS: When I look at these pictures, it almost looks like the images are breaking up in front of us, like we’re seeing them at the atomic level. It looks like digital impressionism.

AP: These pictures are the result of a process I’ve been digging into for several years. In 2001, I started experimenting with a $25 early-generation digital camera – the images are a half a megapixel compared to 16-megapixel photos that a Samsung phone takes – and I loved the look they produced.

Recently I began to digitally manipulate those simple, early works, modifying them many times. I work on each image for a week or more until it finally breaks down or “fractures.” The image resembles a photograph of a flower or a swamp but upon closer inspection, consists only of a complex pattern of digital dots, lines, and odd ziggurats. In other words, nature and tech come together in - I hope - interesting new ways within each picture.

BS: Historically, flowers are among the world’s most-photographed subjects. Why did you decide to focus your attention there?

AP: I focused on flowers precisely because they’re one of the most photographed subjects. Botanicals are a historical art form; they’ve been painted and photographed every way you can imagine. The same is true of landscapes. I wanted to bring something new to them. That’s the major challenge for me: to discover an aspect that hasn’t been seen before. These pictures deconstruct flowers and landscapes through lines and dots, and disrupt our ideas of what a photograph of a tulip, or trees in a swamp, should look like.

BS: How do you choose your flowers?

AP: You can often find me in the early morning at the flower market on 27th street in New York City, just a few blocks from The Curator Gallery, actually. I look for the rare and unusual, like spotted orchids or thistles or poppies in unexpected colors or unusual shapes. Mostly, I’m drawn to contrasts and opposites. I like to juxtapose common shapes and colors with those that are unexpected.

BS: And swamps?

AP: People dismiss swamps but they can be magnificent. The best are haunting yet elegant. They’re primeval but also have a noble character. For me,
the quiet chaos is beautiful.

BS: Where did you find the swamps pictured in the exhibit?

AP: I drove all over the South! Stephen Foster State Park in Fargo, Georgia; Atchafalaya swamp near Lafayette, Louisiana; Okefenokee swamp near Folkston, Georgia; Corkscrew swamp near Naples, Florida; Big Cypress
in Ochopee, Florida, and several other spots in South Carolina and Louisiana that were full of ancient cypress trees and impenetrable mangroves.

BS: Where has your work shown?

AP: I've had solo shows in New York, Berlin, Boston, Palm Beach, East Hampton, and Charleston. My work has also appeared in many group shows. I've been represented at Art Basel Miami many times.

BS: You’ve had an amazing career. In your twenties, you worked with Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. You wrote several best-selling books. You were the editor-in-chief of SELF magazine, where you created the Pink Ribbon now famously associated with Breast Cancer Awareness Month. How did you find your way to fine art?

AP: My roots are in fine art so it’s actually a return to where I started. When I graduated from college, I was a painter. I needed to earn a living so I worked at fashion magazines like Vogue. But after a few years, art called me back and I got my Masters degree in studio art and art criticism at Hunter College. I wrote my thesis under the great critic Harold Rosenberg at the University of
 Chicago. Although I had been working in photography, water color, and gouache throughout my years in journalism, it was the events of September 11th, 2001 that influenced my decision to return to art full-time and I’ve been at my New York studio almost seven days a week ever since.

Fractured Botanicals will be on view at The Curator Gallery, 520 West 23rd Street, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 – 6. For more information, please contact Kris Connell at 212-243-1806.

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