Artist, Alex Cutler’s Gritty American Dream
Artist, Alex Cutler’s Gritty American Dream
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY : JENNA PUTNAM
Alex Cutler’s paintings explore the gritty, less promising side of the American dream. Whether it’s a crushed can of PBR, a man with no face, or a plastic carton filled with urine, what we’re confronted with are objects and characters with strong sentimental value that are both familiar and enigmatic at the same time.
The effect is a lucid, nostalgic, perhaps even adventurous and trouble-seeking desire in its viewer. The American West is depicted in a simple, less glorified fashion. Cutler highlights the things and people that are so often overlooked and forgotten, yet in hindsight are the very things that sparkle in our memory.
I really enjoyed your show! You said a lot of your paintings were done within a 6 month period. What provoked the Continental Breakfast series?
I went through a spell of experimenting with paint prior to getting this studio in Chinatown. I was working out of a garage doing abstract work. I strayed away from a certain theme that I’d been working on for a while to kind of re-approach painting in a different way and learn something. By the time I wrapped up that phase and did what I wanted, I was moving into the new studio and I realized I had this opportunity to pick up where I left off. I’d also recently quit my day job completely and I was unemployed, so I had all the time in the world and I had some unfinished business with that series…saying what I wanted to say about that particular subject. So with my new bag of tricks so to speak, I went back into it, and because I went through that phase, I’d learned so much and I think it just simplified my process and made it easier to be productive and churn paintings out a little bit quicker. It also taught me to let things go and be more forgiving with myself. So I could finish a painting faster because I wouldn’t go, “Fuck that’s not done” or “Fuck I wanna work on that again”, I’d just be like, “Well, it is what it is.”
A little more light hearted.
A little more light hearted, yeah. A little more of a relaxed and carefree approach. I was completely driven, I knew what I wanted to say, I had just come out of a different kind of painting spell so the path was already paved for me, all I had to do was do the work. I knew what I needed to do, I just had to do it. I’m so lucky that it was like that because who knows, it might not ever be like that again. Painting is a really strange endeavor.
I find that so interesting. So your life had probably changed a bit and you had the opportunity to just let it out.
Totally. Huge life change. And circumstances had it so that it was very difficult to paint that series in the situation that I was previously in. So I chose instead to tackle something different, to work with the environment that I was in, which allowed me to explore a whole new way of painting. I walked away with some really valuable lessons in the medium itself and how you can approach it from these different angles. I did a bunch of things I’ll probably never do again. I’m taking this weird journey back into just playing with paint and playing with the medium and seeing what comes out of not doing what I already know how to do. Which is something I don’t normally do.
I was just so impressed from when we shot those photos 7 or 8 months prior to your show, it just seemed like you’d come so far in such a short amount of time. I was so impressed by everything; it was really cool.
Oh yeah I forgot you saw that studio. I still have a lot of those paintings, I learned a lot from those. I couldn’t have made the show as fast as I did if I didn’t go through that. There was no way.
To someone who grew up in America, there is an overwhelming sense of familiarity in your work. You highlight objects and characters that might otherwise be overlooked or seem ordinary to the naked eye- what is the sentimentality behind these things? Do you see yourself in any of the characters you paint?
I mean they’re all sentimental in some strange way, because it is through my eye and I chose to do it, it’s a combination of the thing that I’m painting and a lot of myself. You could even argue that they’re all self-portraits in some weird way because you said it, highlighting certain aspects of certain things is your mark of like, “this is where you should be looking.” But yeah, I choose the things that I choose because they do strike me. Whether it’s the color or the content itself. I think I just wait for a feeling to strike and if it’s good I know that I have to do it. The truck painting was something that came to me when I was sleeping, and I went the next day and I bought the canvas, I bought the stretcher bars. I knew it had to be big. It was about as big as I could make it given my studio. It would have been bigger if it could have been. I knew exactly what that painting had to be and I painted it relatively quick. I did labor the background because I didn’t know where the space was that it had to live in yet, that painting has seen a lot of different stages but the truck itself, I painted in like 2 days. I knew exactly what that had to be, what kind of truck it had to be, what it would look like on the canvas. It sounds so cheesy but it came to me in a dream, and I just went and did it. All I had to do was do the work.
Writing comes to me in my dreams too. And in the morning, it’s so immediate once it hits you because you kind of just wake up and know exactly what to do. You don’t have to contemplate over it because it was fed to you.
Totally. Have you heard of those people who sleep deprive themselves so that those ideas come to them in waking hallucinations — like they’re brain is so sleep-deprived that it starts moving into dream state and those ideas start to come? There’s also people who take sleeping medications and then wait it out so that they can have those lucid revelations about things. It’s a double-edged sword though. I swear to God I’ve like written entire songs in my sleep, and I’m not even a musician. I’m just singing in my sleep and I’m writing piano songs and I’m painting pictures…and sometimes I’m smart enough to write it down, and I wake up and it makes absolutely no fucking sense at all. It’s actually really stupid. One time I wrote an idea for a movie it said, “Movie idea…the ocean stops producing waves”.
That’s really poetic.
Is that poetic? In my dream I pictured a placid ocean, no longer has any currents or any pull or anything like that and it just went flat…but how is that a movie? That’s just a visual thing.
I mean, anything can be a movie. I think with films people always think that there should be some big problem or plot or something, but my favorite films are always just literally about like a man’s day at work or something and the little shitty problems of humanity that make no sense.
Well, they’re not blockbusters but they have artistic integrity.
Yeah, B movies. That’s more important to artists or film buffs but probably nobody else. So, speaking of characters…you said you were influenced by Robin Hood, Napoleon, skate rats, and outlaws…can you tell us more about that?
I was actually going to say Jesse James, but really there’s no actual evidence that Jesse James stole from the rich and gave to the poor. I’ve just always been attracted to the underbelly of society. There’s a grittiness that I aspire to, or at least am influenced by because I hate conformity. I don’t find it that interesting doing things the way that everybody does things. And even to do things the way that everybody does things, in the right context, could be rebellion. We’re all still working it out. I don’t like being told that a certain way is the way that it’s been figured out. This is a hard question to answer because there are so many different characters in that. Napoleon’s interesting because I like his rise to power. He’s portrayed in kind of a negative light in this country, he’s done some terrible tings but, I Mean, you got to respect the guy. He came from a small island in Corsica and rose up, and then he was exiled and he came back. He fucking broke out of an island prison and came back and France greeted him and then he was exiled again and died on a fucking island. He just had balls. Crazy little guy.
Small man, big balls.
And he was a great appreciator of art. It’s rumored that he had the Mona Lisa in his toilet room. He would shit and stare at the Mona Lisa. That’s the most ballin’ thing ever if you’re gonna put it into modern context. And Robin Hood…you know, a bunch of misfits living in the woods, stealing things from rich people and distributing it amongst their gang.
Beating the system.
Yeah. And he had an affinity, or a guilty pleasure for the rich girls too. He always went for the Princesses and the Duchesses. He was all about that, which is weird for as rugged as he seemed. I don’t know if Jesse James was like that or not. Or in this country those old Woody Guthrie songs kind of tie into that bank robber mentality, Pretty Boy Floyd and all that, especially at a time when America was post-depression and people were poor but the government had a lot of money. I just like that idea. Maybe it’s just the anarchist skateboarder in me. I’m inspired by grittiness. I’m inspired by a good goddamn story. I think that’s what it comes down to. I like a really good story, I like a really good song, I like a really good fucking painting.
Yeah totally. Which leads me to my next question. So as a writer and photographer I immediately find similarities between your paintings and books I’ve read or images I’ve seen. I think of Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, William Eggleston or Todd Hido photographs, Gus Van Sant films. Aside from your immediate surroundings, are there other mediums that influence your painting style such as music, writings, films, et cetera?
I love all those guys. Jim Jarmusch. Wes Anderson is amazing. I appreciate all of that art, it’s not like it escapes me, it’s in there somewhere but I’m not directly referencing anything. But I absorb, it’s my job. Sometimes I see something and I won’t even know who the fuck made it, but I’ll just see it and I’ll take a photo of it on my phone and might not ever look at it again, but just photographing it is like, “oh that meant something to me”…and films stick around, books stick around. I can’t tell you how often I’ll be hanging out and then suddenly I’ll feel like I’m in a Hemmingway. Or someone will walk into the bar and I’m like, “that’s Henry Chinaski over there”, or some Bukowski character walking in. And sometimes you become those people and you don’t even realize it, and that’s the beauty of literature, of film, of art. That stuff has a way of resonating in your life because somebody lived it, somebody invented it, it has relevant context. And it resurfaced and the only thing that changes is the style, the brushwork. You’re cutting down the fat and getting down to the bone of something. I’m definitely a very avid absorber of culture.
There is some beautiful thing that happens while being on the road, a sense of belonging and being at home while constantly moving. It’s as though we become a part of our surroundings. Are there any moments that have stuck with you in times of transition?
I mean they all tend to resurface at different times when I need ‘em. I went on a recent trip and in between New Mexico and Colorado the car that we were in broke down in probably the most inconvenient place for a tow truck, but the most scenic place for two people to ever break down. We hardly had service, we went to try and find a signal and we were calling people and it was going to cost like $500 for the tow truck to come out and tow us to a city that was 100 miles away. So we sat there for 3 or 4 hours waiting for this tow truck and it was the easiest time. I’ve had terrible breakdowns, that was the easiest breakdown that I’ve ever had because it was these rolling grassy hills and it was Autumn and I had a slingshot and a bb gun. An old farm was out in the distance, the wiring had fallen and all that was left was the fence beams and there were empty beer bottles and stuff like that all over the farm. So we shot beer bottles and cans with bb guns, ate lunch, and hung out. By the time the tow truck driver showed up I wasn’t ready to leave. I was ready to nail some more cans. And the whole ride I was thinking, that’s one thing that’s weird about the road–and probably weird about me and how much I’ve moved around growing up—is that everywhere could potentially be home. I could put my roots down. If I like somewhere and I’m clicking with it, I’m looking at real estate prices. I’m so vivid about the way that I picture things. When I went to Paris for the first time I wasn’t ready to leave. That’s why I moved to LA, I came here and stayed here for a week and I almost didn’t go back home. And I had a girlfriend, and a job, and I was just like “I don’t wanna leave”. Then the next time around I actually moved here. I think it’s good to be like that. I think that someday I’ll find someplace where I can really make those roots extend but at the same time it’s not in my nature. I don’t really know what that means. I call Colorado home, and it always will be, but even the meaning of that word has changed as circumstances have changed. Home is anywhere. You can make it work.
Well there’s just something so inspiring and invigorating about living in a new place where every corner you turn there’s hope…there’s hope everywhere you go for some reason.
Yeah like, this could be that thing or that feeling that I’ve always wanted or that moment I’ve always reached for, this is where the fairy tale becomes real. We’re brainwashed that way. Films wrap up in two hours and they don’t show the marriage failing…at the end of the show they get the girl and they’re in love and then there’s no like, “6 months later…they can’t have sex anymore…”
I heard some quote that 77% of marriages are sexless, and I was like that sounds horrible.
But at the same time you know what, the weirdest thing about quitting my job and choosing to do what I do and going on all these weird trips is, I get it. You know what’s great in this world is having a real partner in crime. Sex is extremely powerful but it’s only as powerful as you give it. At some point there’s got to be something more. And it’s because I’m a young man that this has been such a force to be reckoned with in my life, but all these trips and being in a good relationship with a partner is great and makes you feel fulfilled in ways that I’ve never experienced before so that’s really cool. Everything doesn’t have to boil down to sex. If it did, and it seems like a lot of things these days do, it can be extremely reactive. There’s no stability in that. Sex is an extremely instant…
And especially if you are with that certain partner and you have sex with them it’s just …it’s like another level.
Yeah there’s so many levels that you can get to sexually with the same person. Totally, but I guess what we were saying is that these sexless marriages…they just might be fucking lovely. It sounds terrible to us, being young people that wanna fuck everything that moves. But you come to this point in your life where certain things come to be more important and your sexuality takes a huge change, both mentally and biologically, and you’re just like…I have kids, I don’t even really have that desire, there’s so many things that I want to do and who knows? It’s not like I want that necessarily but I don’t judge it.