Kinstler Conversation with Alec Egan

The following is a conversation with Los Angeles based painter Alec Egan. This interview took place in July 2022 and has been edited for length and clarity.

Maddie Klett: What is the story behind Cupcake with bouquet of flowers (dessert), 2022?

Alec Egan: I made it for my exhibition last month, Look Out (May 21–June 25, 2022) at my Los Angeles gallery Anat Ebgi. Look Out is also the name of the central painting in the show, which is an interior. I include an interior as the key piece in all the exhibitions I do, with components from it replicated as separate paintings throughout. For Cupcake with bouquet of flowers (dessert) the cupcake, floral wallpaper, and blue tablecloth also appear as details in Look Out.

For the exhibition, I wanted to measure time in an interior through the different meals of the day. There is a breakfast, a lunch, and a dinner painting. I was interested in painting Cupcake with bouquet of flowers (dessert) mainly because I thought it was funny… I wanted to focus on the flowers and make them beautiful and unique, but then add the cupcake in there to make it clumsy and strange and add to this narrative of “who is in the room?” 

Obviously, painting bouquets of flowers has a legacy and is an integral part of art history, and it's an interesting conversation to pick up from that perspective. The bouquet is something I'm genuinely interested in painting, especially layering different flower patterns. I'm creating a maximalist dialogue by repeating flower-on-flower in the bouquet, over the floral wallpaper, and then that silly little cupcake…

I keep calling it silly, but for me it's also very earnest because we lost a legend this year with Wayne Thibeau.

Maddie: I'm a fan!

Alec: Some of his paintings are just so weird. They're great. I was thinking about him when I was painting the food, it's a nod to him. All the food is a nod to him. He’s a hero of mine for many reasons. Mainly because he never considered himself an artist, he'd only call himself a painter. He had this very blue collar, earnest approach to painting that was singular in the art world.

Maddie: Could you talk more about the food? How the cupcake that appears in the main interior painting, Look Out, and again in Cupcake with bouquet of flowers (dessert)?

Alec: These duplications, they're little crumbs leading to all of the paintings in the show. Each painting only needs one element of the larger interior to make sense to me. It's a bizarre logic that I'm working with. Here, the cupcake is the focal point of the painting to me, but the bouquet is obviously the central image of the work. It’s a way to mask or divert or dress up whatever the clue may be. 

Maddie: How did you create the bouquet? Were you looking at flowers in real life? In photos? 

Alex: I never paint from real life, so I'm not looking at a bouquet of flowers and I'm not looking at a photograph of flowers. I'm usually sourcing it from a bunch of different areas and either piecing it together or mediating the image through vectorsyou know, simplifying it in certain ways. For that bouquet of flowers, I first started looking at all the Dutch masters. That led me all the way to the rudimentary approach of botanical illustrations. I was looking at these very old educational illustrations of each species.

Maddie: It's a scientific source.

Alec: Yes. The flowers are all kind of flat. The reason why I love those illustrations is because they achieve the integrity of the flower without overly animating it. The one goal of those drawings is to depict exactly what something is and how it is different from other things. And there's a whole process of editing involved in that too. Painting a room that has interior design makes the painter an interior designer. So I've become a bouquet guy all of a sudden. A florist. 

Maddie: Did you start with the bouquet or did you start with the background?

Alec: I started with the bouquet. I always start with the bouquet and the reason why is because, often, plants are the only organic or living things in the rooms. So I always feel like they are the closest things to a figure. 

Maddie: It does make sense! That leads to my next question, because with Look Out and the series of paintings that emerged from it, the house appears lived in. There are no bodies but there is a human presence in your work, of who is outside the frame. The scene in Look Out is a home waiting for its person. The boots are untied on the floor. There's a chair. There’s food to eat. 

Alec: That's right. 

Maddie: Everything is where it should be. The shoes aren't hanging from the ceiling, the spaghetti and cupcake aren’t on the floor….

Alec: That's a good point. But if shoes were hanging over the chair and there's spaghetti on the floor and a stain on the wall, you’d think there's definitely a figure there. That there was definitely action involved in this room. 

Maddie: Right. That leads me to another question, why is everything so tidy?

Alec: Even when I'm painting messy stuff, it's kind of tidy, organized. It's painterly, you know? It's a planned composition. But with my work, and as you said about there being a human presence, I also want there to be this confluence of, is this a scene missing a figure? Or is this a set? What is going on? Is this reality? 

Maddie: Right. One component of Look Out is, what appears to be, a view of a sunset behind a floral window shade. But in the full realization of that view, in the painting Night Ride, the pink-and-orange gradient sky is accompanied by palm trees and a convertible. It looks more like a dramatized movie poster than a residential view. 

Alec: I want the viewer to know that these are constructed spaces. I'm not looking at real life. I'm mining the nostalgia of multiple interiors and patterns from history, and from today, and trying to put them together in one space. I want there to be this surreal undertone, especially when it's dealing with the LA gradient sunsets. That this might be a movie set. 

I'm trying to pull out this seductive quality in the way that I'm using color and paint. At the same time, there is also this sense of repulsion. Like, why am I so interested in this oversaturated, over-patterned environment that will eventually drive me crazy?

Maddie: It's interesting that the repulsion thing comes up because, the idea of taste, of what's good taste and what's bad taste, is subjective. And today, maximalism is something that almost needs to be defended as good taste. You go to LA or Brooklyn and everyone has one ceramic bowl on the table and that's it. 

Alec: My most formative memories are from my grandparents' farmhouse in Iowa whereI don't even know how they got their hands on some of their wallpaperbut it kind of looked like my paintings. It is this mish-mash of everything. The home became this antique store for their life. And the house developed its own life as a character in their lives. People wanted to visit to see the house. It was one of those rare living spaces where it's unique and strange, and without saying anything it's saying so much. 

Maddie: That sounds like a magical place, and the impact of those memories certainly comes through in your paintings. One last question that we always ask: what is puzzling you today?

Alec: What is puzzling me today? I had a conversation with an artist last night and it blew my mind. She was talking about how selfish the act of viewing is. That we are selfishly viewing each other and thinking about ourselves while we're viewing artwork while we're viewing each other. So how do we know how anything's assimilated? Or makes its way in? 

I find it puzzling how we negotiate that and how we work outside of that to be generous. That said, I think there are great points of contact, especially visually, that we can all rally around. Achieving that is something I am always puzzled by as I make my work.