Alex Ebstein is a polymath whose artistic and critical prowess extends from her studio practice and production of mixed-media painting and sculptures to her writing and curatorial projects. Her recent body of work has focused on the body as a subject in both an abstract and literal sense. Focusing primarily on the material of a yoga mat, Ebstein is critically engaged with ideas of a body’s absence and presence, and how a material can both evoke and figuratively represent a form and weight. Her practice is heavily grounded in experimentation - not just in terms of incorporating a variety of mixed media, but also through how she pushes and develops her own ways of representing vision, movement, and form.
Based in Baltimore, MD, Ebstein is the co-founder the artist-run gallery spaces Nudashank (2009-2013) and Phoebe (2016), which she ran and operated with her partner Seth Adelsberger. Receiving her BA in studio art from Goucher College and her MFA from Towson University, Ebstein balances her studio practice alongside curatorial endeavors and community-based projects. Ebstein has shown work in solo and group exhibitions across the United States and internationally in Europe, and looks forward to an upcoming solo exhibition at Victori + Mo gallery in Brooklyn, NY later this year.
How did you start making art and first get interested in creating work?
I ended up having an interest in art as a sort of collective experience. I went to college in 2003, which was around the time that these collective art groups Fort Thunder and The Royal Art Lodge were experiencing popularity or just becoming more well known. I was really interested in the intersection of art and media and journalism, and I imagined myself at some point being in the position of an art editor. I went to a liberal arts school and I was majoring in studio art, but I was also taking a ton of communications classes like film and visual theory, journalism, and American culture through popular media. In my extracurricular life at school, I founded a magazine with a bunch of my friends and was commissioning works by other people and designing covers and photographing and illustrating the publication myself with friends. In college I really began working with this collaborative practice of meeting deadlines and approaching my studio practice as a group, so I think after college I really had to take a step back. After my undergrad I was left with a portfolio of magazines that I had made, so my first jobs after I graduated were in publishing. I was a photo intern at TV Guide and I was an art intern at Condé Nast, and that was sort of where I saw myself getting stuck if I stayed in New York because those were the jobs that I was getting. I moved to New York because I thought that’s what you did if you were an artist. After a little more than half a year, I realized I hadn’t made any work at all. I had been working on magazine deadlines and hadn’t really been developing my creative voice. I moved back to Baltimore where I had a creative community and the space was more affordable, and I sort of just picked up where I left off. I was always multidisciplinary. I initially got into arts through photography, but then having it be applied as part of a job turned me off of it as a fine art medium, for myself. I went back to drawing and making sculptures and illustrating, sort of trying to find what materials felt right to me.
I began participating in Baltimore’s art culture scenes as an artist, rather than student, and continued to write. When I moved back to Baltimore I started an art blog in order to gain access into the spaces that I was interested in. It was 2008, people were switching from applying for art opportunities with slides and CD’s of images to online forms and needing digital copies of their work. Blogs and early social media platforms were the main way people were seeing work. I had a camera and I was doing a studio visit / rogue art critic blog called There Were Ten Tigers, and made myself as comfortable as possible visiting every type of space and meeting all the artists that I hadn’t had the chance to meet while in my undergrad campus bubble. This naturally spidered out into many things at once, and I started writing as an art critic for City Paper, the alternative weekly paper, while also starting to make a lot of drawings during this time as well.
How did you arrive at your most recent body of work?
I had started making a lot of drawings and over all of this time I had this ongoing eye condition that was continuing to worsen. It was one of those things that I had always known about - I had known about it since fifth grade - but it wasn’t really a reality until all of a sudden it started to get in the way. But my insurance wouldn’t really fix it until it was really bad, so I basically was waiting for my independence to wane enough so that they had to do something. That was where a lot of my drawings were coming from. I was going to the eye doctor all the time, so I started drawing these little symmetrical eye charts obsessively in my sketchbook, and then redrafting the best ones into a little series of ink and gouache pieces. This eventually was my first body of work that I was happy enough to show on my own. I had participated in exhibitions where I’d been working with other people or working on group projects, and that was sort of the nature of the Baltimore art scene. There were a lot of things that I was participating in that weren’t mine, but were a part of the way the scene was naturally producing projects - as a group. This is nice, but also a little self-defeating when trying to make a living or seek individuality through your creative outlet.
I met Seth Adelsberger, who is my partner, and we came up with this plan to convert his live/work studio into a gallery, while at the same time developing our own practices. We converted a 1,000 square-foot studio space into a gallery and we made the hilarious and risky decision to move in with each other after only three months, putting all our money into drywall and track lights. And it worked; it was something that was really excited and through showing and living with a lot of the work that I was interested in and inspired by, I eventually became more multidisciplinary and further developed my own practice.
At some point I started having a lot of eye surgeries that were really changing my sense of perception. I had cataracts and glaucoma that both had to be dealt with, so I went from being someone who couldn’t drive myself around at night and being extremely near-sighted and then having a very comfortable middle-range view. I wear bifocals now. I can’t focus further than 15 feet without glasses, so I really wanted to work with more materials and tools that filled that wider sense of space. The gallery was going really well, but because it was also our studio space, I didn’t really have the opportunity to fully delve into my practice. I made the decision that if I was really going to be an artist and put everything into my work, then I needed to go back to grad school and grab that momentum for myself.
When i was in grad school, everything was going great, and then all of a sudden I developed a hole in my retina. One day, all of a sudden, no lines were straight anymore and I had to have another eye surgery to fix that. That’s when the yoga mats and the grid pieces came in. I was experiencing this optical illusion that was a real experience for me, but other people couldn’t see it. I looked fine, but I couldn’t use power tools or tools that jostled me in any way for a while. I was making these grids where on paper and I was using a ruler that was creating straight lines, but the appearance of them to me was always wavering and slightly off, not fixed in the way that vision should be fixed. After I healed, I became interested in trying to describe visually what the effect of that was to people. The woven paintings with the grids are an example of this. The thread and string on them were only fixed at the very ends of the works; the strings are stapled on the back of the canvases so they can wobble and move. They’re not fixed so they can have more life, and they sort of breath and can change appearance slightly. That really came out of that wavering experience.
It’s like an illusion of security.
Exactly, it’s a structure that isn’t actually sound like it should be. And the yoga mats were sort of the proxy for the body and had this imperfect grid and structure to it. I started by making pieces that were white yoga mats that were performance artifacts and I was almost cutting myself away. I couldn’t do yoga anymore because it was putting pressure on my eyes, so I was sort of away from that practice and using that material as a way to talk about the body and the act of making something, while continuing to heal and have a practice. Honestly, I think if I hadn’t been in grad school and needed to keep making work and meeting critique deadlines, I don’t know if I would have picked up yoga mats. It was just that I had to work with something that made sense and where I wasn’t drilling or hammering into a material. I needed a softer way of expressing things. So that’s how I started working that way. And then, like other materials I’d used it was natural to wrangle them back into the language of painting and presenting alternative materials as paintings or in conversation with painting.
Can you talk more about how you conceptualize your works as both paintings and sculptures?
For me painting has always been the work that I’m inspired by, but I think that there is also this reliance on something that I’ve had a less of a sense of security in. Vision in general is the most valuable part of a painting in many ways, just being able to see it, so having this tactile material stand in for paint and something that would otherwise require mixing or just a different sensitivity is something that allowed me to approach it much more naturally. My vision is fine now, but there was such a weird time where it was in transition. I don’t remember it as scary now, because it is so removed from my current experience, but I know that it was a stressful time. It was a really nice way to deal with those changes and fears, and be able make something from it. To focus on art let me forget it was happening and to channel it into something that was productive instead of something that would hold me back. But I think a lot of painters, or people who are thinking in a painterly way that I’m interested in, also have a sculptural approach or have a painterly quality with their materials. I’m thinking of someone like Fabienne Lasserre or Samantha Bittman; people who apply textiles to either a canvas or a wall and use other materials to create a mix of colors and a composition that relates to painting. I think also that painting as a definition is blended into almost every other medium at this point, and it continues to expand into a sensibility and an interest into how something is framed and presented.
Your works navigate abstraction and figuration. Can you talk about your interest in this and how you approach it within the works?
The yoga mat is a really loaded material. There are people who have these very specific notions associated with yoga as a lifestyle, and there are also these classist views about it. There is something about it where maybe it’s not always offered to every income bracket of the community and it’s not marketed towards people who do not have a lot of money for classes or instruction. Initially I was trying to strip it from having any meaning from itself and turning it back into a material. It changed to standing in for the body and the body’s absence presence complex. Everything is sort of designed with the body in mind and every piece of art is made for a body to look at and react to it, so that was a nice tension for me to explore for a while. But for the next body of work I want to address more of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently, which relate to the commercialization and stratification of how health and beauty are marketed to certain people. These are things that shouldn’t be bought or sold, but it’s this huge industry and it presents the body as maleable, and something that has to be worked upon to become perfect. I’m interested in combining that with these ideas about abstraction and how it takes a lot of its cues from figuration.
Can you talk about your material choices?
I think what’s nice about the yoga mat is that it has an implied weight and solidity even though it is 2D and has only a quarter-inch of depth to it. The grid that is imprinted on it gives a sense of grounding, a movement and bend to the shape, which is something I try to play up through the way I piece them back together. I was researching critical theory and feminist experiences concerning the gym and spaces about the body where the body is being presented or on display, and a lot of the materials that I was drawn to and ended up with are those that play off the actual materials you see in those environments. I’m also actually starting to think about clay and using that in my work as well. I have this guilt complex about using plastic and non-recyclable material, and have been thinking about the waste my practice has been creating. I do want the plastic and ceramic materials to sit at odds with each other, and I think there is a way to be thoughtful and still participate in these non-environmentally friendly materials. There is a nice tension that comes about from the natural and synthetic, even with the unfinished maple frames that I use. I’m still in the process of figuring it out and doing a lot of tests.
Can you talk about your work process and how you plan out and develop these pieces?
All my works start by drawing. I have shelves of sketchbooks that sort of run through all my different ideas. Sometimes it’s even just drawings of materials, thinking about the way I could change the material or how those materials work against each other. There are also a lot of thumbnail drawings of compositions that I then reinterpret and make into paintings.
When I first started using the mats, I really stressed them as much as I could -- I swiss-cheesed them, I let them sag and hang, I did tests where I painted them or glued them flat. I was doing as much as I could to teach myself about the material, and then bringing it all back to a more polished and complete piece. I like to have a lot of material tests happening all the time. Right now I’m taking an intermediate wheel class in ceramics because I want to learn as much about the proper techniques and practical uses of the material before I strap it into some yoga mat composition. I like to keep learning things and I like to use my hands to find what makes the most sense for my ideas, pushing the materials as much as I can.
How do you address and approach color within your work?
At first I started really minimal. I was using white and grey because I was sort of representing these minimal depleted ghosts and I wanted them to have a more somber feel. I realized in order for them to make sense with the rest of my work they needed a flip and I began looking for the brightest colors I could find and putting them into the compositions. I then sort of just worked intuitively, and it was nice to work with this chance, set pallette that someone else was creating and to then find surprising combinations when I could. I would use other materials to accent those colors and have them change slightly. I had a bunch of mat pieces that I was using as palettes for painting other works on paper. I was then saving these scraps that had paint on them and finding ways to add them into my compositions. I was trying to find ways to challenge myself and make those colors work and to also say as much about flatness and illusionistic space.
What is the most challenging part of painting?
I think painting is so vast in its possibilities, but it can be intimidating as well. Having things like planes of color or large pieces of material that fill space moves the process along and eliminates some of the questions for me. I do make paintings on paper as well, which I do feel less confident showing even though whenever I have I’ve been happy with them. But painting is definitely something that I still struggle with, or finding a voice in paint that is completely my own...which is silly because they are my own. It’s funny also then to go into clay and try that because clay is also something that you can do anything with. It’s just a block that can be turned into anything. Maybe I’m just trying to throw myself curveballs right now because I’ve been working with the same materials and so I’m trying to make it a little more interesting or challenging in the studio. I want to continue to be surprised and excited by my own work.
Is there anything right now in particular that is informing your work?
I’m thinking about the spaces where the materials that I’m using have other meanings, and then trying to create installations that acknowledge that. I’m working on that for an upcoming show at Victori + Mo. I am going ahead and making sculptures and things that accent and create an environment for the larger ideas that I want to address. I don’t want the wall pieces to get glossed over as designy or predictable because I’ve made a lot of works in the same vein, and I don’t want the content to get missed. Seeing them too cleanly and penned in by their frames has made me wonder how they can activate a space a little more, so I think having them be a part of a larger installation is where I’m headed.
The show is called Fad Bodies. It’s examining that space between perfection and performance. I envision the space being some part gym, some part jewelry store, some part juice bar. That’s where it is in my head. I’m just nervous about how that all comes across.
As a practicing artist, what is your relationship between curating and writing and balancing your studio practice?
I find it really refreshing to work with other artists and to see how they problem solve and approach a space. I love being a part of that process and it always ends up informing my work or helping my work in some way. I find it really exciting. I also love to write, so writing about other people’s work or writing press releases for other artists helps me bring that same attention to my own work.