In the studio with Alex Foxton.

Words by

Alex Leav

In the studio with Alex Foxton.

The adage “learn the rules so you can break them” (various iterations attributed to the Dalai Lama and Pablo Picasso) comes to mind with artist Alex Foxton. With a graduate degree in fashion design from Central Saint Martins and years of experience working as a menswear designer for luxury brands such as Dior, Bottega, and Louis Vuitton under his belt, Foxton surely learned the rules of form and function.
In his paintings, though, Foxton flips these rules on their head. The artist’s whimsical cast of characters – historical male archetypes like soldiers, kings, and sailors – and their costumes and regalia pay no mind to fashion's coveted proportions; they are enlarged, cinched, elongated. They are successful because they are subversive; because they have broken the rules.

I’d like to begin by talking a bit about your background. You studied fashion at Central Saint Martins and have worked as a designer for powerhouse luxury brands like Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Bottega Veneta. How do you regard your time spent working in the fashion space? 

I worked in fashion for twenty years so it’s hard to come up with a simple answer. It feels like another life, and at the same time it’s the life that led me here.


While fashion is a form of art, of course, I think there is an inherent difference between the two. A fashion designer must create with the consumer in mind. Pieces must be functional, wearable, durable, sellable, etc. A painter doesn’t necessarily have to deal with these pressures or restraints. I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on this, and how your background in design has affected your thought process or creative decision making when it comes to art making.

When I started painting it felt like a totally different practice, but I find a lot of similarities now. You might not have to think about a customer, but everything must have a reason to exist, otherwise why make it? 

Anything can be art, but fashion is more interesting when it isn’t, when something is inexplicably ‘now.’ Painting, for me, is more interesting when it triggers emotions that feel ancient and universal.

The big difference is that when I’m painting a canvas is that I find it disastrous to think of the market, or an audience, or anyone else’s opinion.


When did you start painting? 

About five or six years ago. I was 37 when I painted on canvas for the first time.


Were you still working fashion jobs at that time? Why do you think it was then that you picked up a paintbrush? 

I was still working full time at that point. I was depressed and anxious, disappointed. I realised that the life I wanted had little to do with status and salary and influence. It was a shock when I realised that in painting, I had everything I was losing in design - freedom, expression, risk. I saw myself on the canvas. Then it became urgent to change my life.


Did you ever worry that you began too late? Or have feelings of imposter syndrome? 


It seems like you’ve successfully reckoned with that. What was that time/process like for you?

I reckon with that every single day, I’m not kidding, and any painter who doesn’t needs to go to the Prado. In everyday life, I’m a polite and respectful middle-class man, so to be a painter still seems outrageous. The thrill of painting is in throwing all of that out of the window and seeing a part of yourself that you thought was too deep to resurface. In that way, it’s a bid for freedom.

There’s a quote from Guston where he describes the process of painting as removing everyone that is standing behind you from the room, one by one, until there’s only you. And if it’s really going well, you’re not even there yourself. 


That’s one of my favorite quotes. Guston describes those people standing in the studio with an artist as teachers, friends, painters from history, critics. Can you pinpoint your earliest influences? 

I can remember making a self-portrait in front of the mirror in my parents’ bedroom when I was young, and I still feel like I’m doing that in an oblique way. In terms of art, I remember a poster my parents had, from Tivoli gardens, a carousel horse over a moonlit sky. And a mirror in our bathroom that had an Aubrey Beardsley-style woman drawn at the edge. Later it was the YBAs and then I discovered Braque’s late works at the Royal Academy and was shocked at the discovery that a painting could open up a whole world as you looked at it.


What does your process look like? 

I draw constantly, but almost never plan a painting. It’s more about building up motifs, gestures, faces and figures etc. When I get to the canvas I improvise and use the drawings for reference. I paint very quickly; I usually work on one at a time, but I might put it away and go back to it once or twice. I listen to music constantly. It’s to stop thinking. The goal is to be in a trance. I might listen to the same song on repeat for four hours.


Your paintings explore a unique kind of masculinity – one that is emotional and expressive and quite different from the stereotypical machismo depicted throughout art history. Can you expand upon your subject matter?

I’ve often found masculinity oppressive, and painting is a way of dealing with that. For me, these figures stand at the crossroads between identification, fear, desire, and empathy. I think in painting them I am trying to paint myself within that system of power, and to find peace with the idea that I am not comfortable there, usually by imagining that I am subverting it.


I think the way in which you distort the male figure (enlarge a specific limb, cinch in a waist, elongate a finger) is extremely and successfully subversive... an opposition to or act of defiance against the masculinity you find oppressive.

Thank you. It certainly feels important to me not to be timid in describing a figure. I want them to be expressive, sexualized, to be ‘too much’. Sometimes I can go too far into kitsch. It’s about finding the line between expression and caricature. If there is a subversion to them, it’s probably because masculinity is supposed to be elementary, natural, so the male figure isn’t supposed to be too expressive or artificial. 


It seems like you typically paint on canvas, but I know that sometimes you’ll use cardboard or aluminum as surfaces or employ various materials like glitter and coffee grounds. What informs these decisions?

I love to use materials that are either discarded or seen as childish or kitsch. A bit of an old box or the cover of a sketchbook; neither is precious but there is something touching in rescuing them from the bin. The coffee grounds were more because I wanted some texture and it was midnight so I couldn’t get any plaster or mortar, both materials I’ve used a lot. I think it’s the influence of arte povera. Or Louise Bourgeois using her old nighties. Putting your life into the structure of the object. Using glitter and lipstick is a similar impulse, to use what is looked down upon in fine art, to transgress. And, of course, there is a queer function to that – using decorative materials that are associated with the performance of femininity.


In terms of the “structure of the object,” the texture and grit of the canvas feels important to you. It peeks through the paint in some areas of the composition and, overall, awards a scratchy, unique surface to your work. It’s almost as if you treat the canvas as an equal part of a whole, not just a substrate for an image. Or, like you view a painting as a sculptural object of sorts. Thoughts? 

Definitely. From early on I was interested in each one being more than an image, otherwise why not make a photograph or a digital illustration? Each painting is definitely an object in its own right, which is why they are often very messy and over-worked. I love to scratch the paint into the canvas, I think it’s also a leftover from my days working with fabric. I love fabric. But I’ll also paint over a previous work instead of re-stretching and starting from scratch. It excites me to know there are layers of paint underneath, ghost images that sometimes are vaguely visible at the end. To build the texture up, sand it down, cover it in plaster, this gives me great pleasure.


Are there any specific artists that have made a great impact on you and your work? 

Chaim Soutine, Vincent van Gogh, Alice Neel, Francis Bacon, Alex Katz, Diego Velazquez, René Gruau, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Titian, Irving Penn, Philip Guston, Nan Goldin, Bill Traylor, Henri Matisse, Emile Bernard, Alexey Brodovitch, Hiroshi Sugito... every one of these (and many more) shook me up at some point.


If your work could hang next to the work of any artist at a gallery or a museum, who would you want the artist to be and why? 

I can’t ever compare myself to him, but I’d go for Velazquez, because I love him, and I feel like he wouldn’t mind that much.


What do you have coming up this year, are you working towards anything at the moment? 

A group show at Derouillon in January, a duo show in April at Kapp Kapp in New York, a solo in May at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, and a book of my work, published by Derouillon, hopefully coming out in the spring.


What is it about creating that you love? 

It’s the feeling of seeing, in the physical world, a part of myself that I didn’t quite understand before. That’s why every painting must be improvised. There must be the chance of discovery, and the risk of being exposed. Everything is a self-portrait.

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