First Portal (mind), 2008, Mixed media on paper, 114 3/8 x 80 inches

Collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LACMA)


Second Portal (eye), 2008, Mixed media on paper, 115 7/8 x 80 inches

Private collection


Third Portal (ear), 2008, Mixed media on paper, 115 x 80 inches

Private collection


Fourth Portal (tongue), 2008, Mixed media on paper, 117 1/4 x 80 inches

Private collection


Fifth Portal (body), 2008, Mixed media on paper, 115 7/8 x 80 inches

Private collection


Sixth Portal (nose), 2008, Mixed media on paper, 114 1/2 x 80 inches

Private collection


THE SIX PORTALS (Alexandra Grant notes from 2008)

For this body of work, I conceived of making six large-scale portals or doors into spaces beyond the gallery walls.  Smaller paintings often function as windows; I wanted these to be doors through which the whole body could enter into a distinct language space.

I proposed the idea of “Six Portals” to my collaborator Michael Joyce, an early pioneer of hypertext fiction, and the chair of the English department at Vassar College.  He immediately responded that the “Six Portals” referred to a famous but obscure series of sutras written centuries ago by one of the first Chinese Buddhist monks (The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra).  The “Six Portals” referred to the five senses and the mind.

And so Michael wrote for me six contemporary sutras, each addressing the portal for each sense.  For the sense of touch, the body; for the sense of smell, the nose; and so on.

I thought is was a great idea.  I’d seen the portals as metaphoric doors outwards through the walls.  A painter’s perspective.

The idea of the portals as doors to perception inward, into subjectivity, changed the nature of the project.   The works became meditations on the use of metaphor, both visual and linguistic, in how we describe how we perceive things.

It has always interested me in how we describe music in visual terms, and art in terms of sound.  It is as though in language we are forced into a kind of synaesthesia, describing our experience of one sense in terms of another.  But always in words, words, words.

So my take on the five senses (and the mind) is based on words expressing our experience, as well as form.  Each painting is made up of word-based and image-based metaphors.

The following descriptions are about my approach to each Portal, followed by Michael Joyce’s original text.  I include the text not because you’ll find the words in the paintings – I often riff off them, ad-lib, move away from, erase, layer, scratch, respond to them, like jazz, like reading out loud – but because I believe there is an emotional content that is still there in my copies, in my translations.

Portal mind detail

The First Portal (mind), 2008

To represent mind I wanted to create a soft, grey massing of word-forms out of pencil and a paint color slightly lighter than lead.  The clouds of words would of course reference “grey matter,” but also the vagaries of thinking and thought.   Flashing out of the grey are spectrums of words — metaphors for inspiration or ideas.  At the center of each spectrum lies an alpha or omega (as word or symbol) as a meditation on how thoughts or thinking work – when do they begin or end?

First Portal (mind) – by Michael Joyce

Prajna Samadhi pervades all places, the sutra says, it is just like empty space. The Lufthansa flight attendant moves through the dim first class cabin propping the pillows of sleepers, smiles to the waking, offering juice or a perfumed towel, her own scent customized for her in Zurich by a man she has been going to for years, fragrance of the Maji the chemist says, lingering in her half-slip and stockings when she slips them off by the chair at the hotel, the pillowcase cool beneath her ear. A world slips away both by instants and by hours, it’s our days defeat us how they linger. The eyes view forms outside, the sutra says, inside there is nothing; the ears hear sounds outside but the mind does not know. Twenty seven stories below in the service courtyard a mongrel dog is frightened by the groaning of a garbage truck, her pulse precise beneath the pale translucent flesh of inner wrist, lover awaiting, in the breakfast room smells of coffee, mango, cinnamon.

Grant detail 2AG150dpi

The Second Portal (eye), 2008

The rules or parameters that generated this piece were as follows: a color palate of high contrast black and white with color seeping through, to mimic how a baby learns to see.  Building blocks in two and three dimensions that nod to Op Art, one the most highly visual and optical periods of recent art history (Sol Lewitt, Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley).  And the use of big black and white wordbubbles spread across the composition that lead the viewer’s eye bouncing across the surface, creating an awareness of “seeing.”

Second Portal (eye) – by Michael Joyce

Should be first in the present circumstance of course but what we see is less easy to mark than what we know (or at least that’s the current premise). Do you see me here? I’m lost and yet appear to spy both self and surround alike as if a stick man upon a delicate watercolor map. What is the difficulty then? “Far from friends and home” the mariner who called himself no one observed strange fruit and beguiling, monstrous creatures, neither nature morte nor the naturalist’s engraving, the winds lingering at the margins of his consciousness, dolphins leaping earnestly in the fringe of white along the swell where the waves form before breaking toward the beach. Just try to grasp their damp tourmaline flanks, wrap your thighs around one’s slippery belly and wrestle him down into the damp carnelian sand.  Lie afterward in amethystine shadows half asleep, the day’s a diadem it seems, though you are made of glass.

Grant detail 5AG150dpi

The Third Portal (ear), 2008

The original approach to representing sound was to think of musical notation.  I drew lines across the surface of the paper, and mapped the words according to a pattern devised when I spoke them out loud.  The next step was to “play” a rhythm on the painting itself:  using a bucket of black paint, I tapped out a rhythm with my fingers (black finger prints are still visible) across the surface of the paper, turning the painting/drawing into a large drum.  (Once John Cage composed a piece based on the pattern of drips beneath a Rauschenberg canvas.)  Then I blackened out every other line of the composition.  The next decisions were to set the text at angles to the original score, and greatly increase their size (in relation to a large papier mache sculpture hanging in my studio which will also be in the show at Honor Fraser).  Color was of interest.  I settled on green for two reasons – one, the image of a building on Avinguda Diagonal in Barcelona came to mind that has long fascinated me.  The building has balconies all around it, like striations of concrete, out of which grow hanging plants that have taken over.  This contrast between the rigid structure of architecture and the organic overgrowth of the ‘organic’ seemed to be relevant to music and its notation: musical scoring is rigid and architectural, but what sounds original is what deviates from the score.   It also made me think of the “ruin.”  Green seemed the logical color for this piece, especially because it is a color I’ve never used before on such a large scale.

When I look at the image of the work in progress, the large scale of the words does suggest that the words get louder.  The angles are reminiscent of the montages used in films to suggest the city – a filmic device of signs cut together at angles to suggest, say, Broadway in New York.

In Spanish.

Third Portal (ear) – by Michael Joyce

What’s all this talk of comings and goings of a sort that penetrate without obstruction? Melis, honey, to the Greeks was the ear’s natural medium, whisper of bees for instance, or Sappho discerning her own death overhearing the servant girl’s song. Honeyed wine as well evokes music, the pink translucence of Rosado de Sevilla, the rose complexion of El Greco’s Virgen de la Buena Leche’s proffered breast.  I keep writing her but she never calls. Lists these ghostly scenes for you (List, O, list! If thou didst ever love): Salmon light along Calle Ocho, Carnaval Miami, shadow of Domenikos against a wall, a gaunt, triumphal priest, Poldy descending carefully through scum-slick stones to promenade upon Dollymount Strand, unbearable sunset on Adonis Beach in Crete, all our music private finally. But O those girls! their rosy cheeks and glancing eyes and voices sweet as honey, the rouge and puffs slip down the cuffs of those girls, those girls, those pretty little seaside girls, their consumptive eyes and pallid cheeks and grim, frightening smiles.

Grant detail 8AG150dpi

The Fourth Portal (tongue), 2008

How to represent taste?  First, to translate it into French.  Second, to create an image that was bounded in form.  The circle seemed appropriate – the tongue and mouth being central to our heads and selves.  Each of the other portals seems almost to be a detail of a larger, infinite image.  In this one I wanted to circumscribe the area of the image.  Of course, the “negative space” in grey is invested with a pink metallic background over which float the grey words.  Like taste buds?  The color was a problem – grey like pencil lead for the background, but what color for the sphere?

Orange and it would be a fruit or sun, green or blue becomes planet earth.  But fuchsia and shades of pink (at least for background color)?  At worst, bubble gum and raspberries, which do intimate the tongue.

Fourth Portal (tongue) – by Michael Joyce

Numb inevitable rhyme, citric astringency, feeling it in your hollows you wish it to end never. Like salt and sugar in thin porcelain sake cups. Only in recent years have the golden beets appeared in the mercado, like a pale kiss she says, the unami, or why one detests the texture of okra. As she bent to coo to the Manx cat that he was slowly stroking on his lap the thing struck lazily toward her, licking across her eyelid. When she began to weep uncontrollably he tossed the creature down skidding on the hardwood floor before righting itself and solemnly walking away. They made it up later over tea sweetened with grapefruit marmalade, before, as they say, falling into bed.  Like many of her boyfriends he had a fondness for varieties of roe: sturgeon of course and weakfish,

kitamurashiuni, murasakiuni, beluga, and carp, both the normal tarama and the soft white milt. Her own tastes ran to peanut butter and salsa. They are unable to talk of anything substantive beyond their wants. She does her vocal warm-ups in the dark, lip trill, tongue trill, phonation followed by messa di voce working into staccato on arpeggios. Moonlight spills into the kitchen and it is clear to her there is no one here at all.

Grant detail 6AG150dpi

The Fifth Portal (body), 2008

Body is the portal for the sense of touch, a twist I appreciated greatly when strategizing this work.  First, the color palette: the red of blood and green of veins and brown of scatology and ochre-yellows of urine and putrid greens of pus and bile.  Symmetry of the image to suggest the symmetry of the body itself.  The candy and signage aspects seem to refer to Los Vegas and carnality, but I did not set out with this in mind.

I drew a grid to be able to map out the mirrored writing of this work.  I found quickly that it was easier for me to paint the right hand side first, and then reverse the backwards text to make it the “right” way round on the left.  This is the first two-dimensional work I’ve made where the words are the “right” way around.

In Spanish.

Fifth Portal (body) – by Michael Joyce

You didn’t think so? It’s become almost commonplace, the whole sack of skin itself thought to be a lung containing, recursively among other organs, those inferior bellows given that name, but also gills, heart and intestine, spleen and liver, and atavistic appendix with the shape and smooth skin of a cashew pod. What of womb and testes, breast and bicep, thin wand and ocean depths?  What comes and goes is permeation and wherever its opposite, the corporeal, is present, the sutra says, defilement and mixing follow. To let it all go freely is an urge we recognize though cannot claim we know. She for instance lay for hours by the turquoise pool, her body laved with sunscreen and yet afterward still like ivory. Here is another famous test. Think of garlic or the homeopath’s solvents–

or rain she adds, the lingering ozone scent that follows a fine misty rain on a humid August afternoon. Now say where is the tide. Muscles battered, the sleeper seeks to escape dreams as incandescent bones throb as if parallel lines inked repeatedly with a steel rule. O to fly!

Grant detail 7AG150dpi

The Sixth Portal (nose), 2008

How to show smell?  This piece became about metaphor: mixing metaphor, primary versus secondary versus tertiary levels of metaphor.  First, I thought about bats.  As a college student I worked in Costa Rica on a tropical biology program.  One project we did was to mist-net bats in the evening.  There are flowers that are pollinated by bats – they open at twilight and have no color information (ie they are white).  Bats are lead to them by their heavy fragrance.  So, the color palette I devised was “twilight” with the compositional device of a visual “flower.”  The second thought was about melons – when I go to the store to buy a cantaloupe I first look at it, and then feel its surface, and then lastly smell its navel.  So smell, it seems, is not the first sense leaned upon, unless the situation involves a skunk or smoke or some other type of emergency.  How to show this “third” level of sensation?  I chose to demonstrate this by making the words even less readable – to create an image that had to be interpreted by something other than sight, than reading.  One strategy to do this was to introduce the strong, masculine capital letters – words that immediately overtook the image.

While seemingly unrelated to “smell,” the exercise in visual power dynamics is one that had interested me for many years – that the font I normally use  is hand-written, an un-font that doesn’t suggest my gender or age or nationality.  It is not the font of Lawrence Weiner or John Baldessari or Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer.  So introducing it to the image created a power dynamic that I wanted to resolve by integrating the blocky capitals into the web of words.

Sixth Portal (nose) – by Michael Joyce

She has seen the soul more than once escape via this route and– eyes-crossed and intent upon that shifting point where stereographic vision blurs into pure presence– retrieved land and sea within her, all of it a matter of breath. A prodigious mother, she knew myrrh long before they arrived, its nose similar to the local retsina. As with any creature of prey the lover depends upon picking up the trail by scent: here the flank, the wound, a smooth forearm, some sulfurous carnality as yet unnamed. Blindfolded you will not know apples. Which gate is this? Taking in and letting out the tasks of tailor and jailer alike, the redolence of oats and clover, whiff of woodsmoke, or what the dictionary calls the “fetor of decay.” It is all one to her; she knows a thousand names for things, aroma, bouquet, stench and stink, shit and roses interdependently. In too close proximity for a feast or milk she ties together a rosemary sprig and two stalks of lavender tucking this sachet within her blouse. Down past the eucalyptus a gravel path leads through lime trees to the bay.

From the Honor Fraser Press Release (2008)

Alexandra Grant is known for large-scale works that explore and blur the boundaries between images and words. Inspired by philosophic, literary and visual sources, Grant’s drawing/paintings, sculpture, and video present large, rhizomesque text-scapes. In her works on paper, words are handwritten in reverse to remove any sense of font or style, resulting in a playful conflation of sign and signifier. By slowing an easy “read” or apprehension of meaning, Grant translates words into images of language itself. Grant’s texts are inter-connected by bubbles and strings, and aggregrate and accrete in the space of her large frames like cities or organisms. They present what she terms “an image of a system” rather than any known system of communication: the literal read of language is frustrated, leaving instead a narrative open-endedness. This raises questions on the arbitrary nature of language and meaning, and how both influence our seeing and perception. Complementing Grant’s conceptual approach is her equal interest in the formal aspects of composition – in color, texture, and space – and in creating images of striking complexity.

Grant’s approach to her work is informed by her interest in translation and in (mis)communication – raised in various multicultural environments, she speaks Spanish, French and English and has worked as a translator. The interconnection she sees between her sources (from writer Michael Joyce to philosopher Hélène Cixous to artists such as R.B. Kitaj and Gego) is echoed formally in the work itself. She sees each work as a trace of her engagement in an ideal conversation. The movement from text to painting was inspired in part by Cixous’s idea, from The Last Painting or The Portrait of God: “I would like to write like a painter. I would like to write like painting” – leading Grant to ask, how does one “paint a writing or write a painting?”

The series of drawing/paintings in A.D.D.G. (aux dehors des guillemets) takes as their point of departure six “Portals,” or sutras – meditations on the five senses and the mind. Written for her purposes by writer and collaborator Michael Joyce, the texts inform Grant’s painting in unpredictable ways. She works through a series using an unusual methodology whereby she creates visual rules about color and motifs and then breaks them, moving seamlessly between reasoned and intuitive decisions.

The six large works on paper on show are complemented by a mobile sculpture and a series of videos. Grant’s videos juxtapose images of her two-dimensional work and sculpture with readings of the texts that inspired them, introducing time and montage to her exploration of language as image. Grant crosses boundaries between disciplines as easily as between theory and practice, embracing equally what is gained as well as lost in the translation. Her approach undermines the idea of clear beginnings and ends: the works on paper can be considered not only finished pieces of art, but subjects for experimental video. The sculpture, “A love that should have lasted,” is based on a phrase within the First Portal (sight) and is linked to the scale of words in the Third Portal (touch). By re-presenting textual themes, Grant links the relationships between seeing and reading, word and objects, and art and theory.


Interview with Ed Schad, ArtSlant

Ed Schad, I call it ORANGES blog
Alexandra Grant and Synesthesia
September 26, 2008

Edward Goldman, on KCRW’s Art Talk
Spooky, Unsettling, Mad
September 16, 2008

Sharon Mizota, Los Angeles Times
Around the Galleries; “Communication can be so abstract”
September 12, 2008,0,4064558.story

Christopher Miles, LA Weekly
Opening Week at L.A. Galleries; The fall art season begins
September 11, 2008