In the Studio with Alexi Marshall

Words by

Ben Urban

In the Studio with Alexi Marshall

Ben Urban: Having recently moved back to Hastings on the South Coast of England, from London 18 months ago, can you talk about what it means to you to be working on the periphery of the London-centric inner-city buzz?

Alexi Marshall: It’s been an affirming experience to return to the coast. I always feel this town formed me in a way. I miss London, and still consider it a home of mine, but life feels softer and kinder when breathing in sea air. A connection to nature is important fuel for my sense of being and art practice; here in Hastings I feel that bit closer to the wild. It’s provided connection in many ways actually, a town full of artists with a strong sense of community and support. You & I spoke about being on the London art world periphery in the car the other day and how when you’re on the outside of the city, you sort of have to take it seriously because it's harder to be seen. I think there’s truth to that.

BU: More often than not, when an artist is working with printing processes they work with multiples. I find it fascinating in your work that it has shifted away from producing edition runs of the linocuts you are known for, and by the same process you are now refining them through colour and texture, towards the point where only one or two exist. Can you talk about the process for making these larger linocuts, how they operate as linocut-paintings, and how you get to the point of knowing when they are ready?

AM: I often say that my process makes no sense, the time, the labour, the risk, all to make one print, which can never be reprinted. I’m clumsy too, the opposite of what it requires to be a proper printmaker, yet somehow lino cut printing is the main modus operandi of my practice. I’ve really enjoyed claiming the term ‘linocut painting’ lately. I am a lapsed painter who turned to linocuts after losing faith in my paintings at art school, and now I suppose I am coming back to the idea of being a painter, except my ‘brush’ is a large sheet of linoleum. I don’t aim for perfect registration, it's near impossible for me to achieve when working on such a large scale with so many layers of ink. I also don’t use a printing press, I never found one big enough for the work I wanted to make. Instead use my body to print on the floor of my studio. My press is my weight; my hands and feet stomp on the paper and my fingers feel the grooves of the lino for registration. Sometimes when I am so tired from applying the ink and cutting these giant sheets of lino, I simply lay on the paper like a bed to press it down. After each colour is printed the block is carved to eliminate that colour from being reprinted. This process continues until only the last colour remains and the block is destroyed; there’s no going back, that’s why the method is sometimes known as suicide printing. Once the last layer has been printed, it’s ready. There’s no editing like with painting. When carving the blocks, each decision and cut is final, and despite all the preparation you can do beforehand- when you peel the paper off the block there is always the element of surprise. For me, this way of working has granted me the perfect balance of control and the complete lack of it. My power is always slightly taken away, I am at the mercy of the ink & paper, and once I peel the print, I have to accept the fate of the work.

Installation view - Under the Pomegranate Moon, Flatland Projects (2023) Jim Lineker

BU: You had your first museum show ‘Cursebreakers’ at the De La Warr Pavilion in 2021, and you have a new solo exhibition ‘Under the Pomegranate Moon’ opened at Flatland Projects in Bexhill on Sea, UK; both shows titles seem to connect to the spiritual, and the mythological, can you talk about the titles of these shows, and where they derive from?

AM: Cursebreaker’s title was inspired by the local folklore of Hastings. It refers to occultist Aleister Crowley’s alleged curse, cast upon the town when he died here in 1947. The story goes that those who live here would never be able to free themselves; anyone who left would feel compelled to return. The only way to truly leave is to always carry a pebble from the beach with a hole in it, otherwise known as a hag stone, in your pocket. For me, this was fitting for a show containing work about breaking destructive cycles. Ironically, I moved back here after the run of the show, succumbing to the curse after all. For ‘Under The Pomegranate Moon’, this title came from my incessant research of pomegranate symbolism during the production of the work. I was fascinated by the transcultural bond to fertility and death. As usual with my practice, a connection to the cyclical nature of time was important in the show, so this seemed apt for the ‘moon’ part, in particular its relationship with womanhood. I feel like all the scenes and figures I draw take place in the same world. Another realm, under the same moon, contained together.

BU: I know Artist like Ana Mendieta and Monica Sjöö are artists that you look to. I was thinking about how as a contemporary artist you almost fulfil a duty to follow their rite of passage or continuing the unearthing that artists who inspire you have initiated. Sjöö considered her work to revive hidden histories and would almost give new life to the old goddess religions that she depicted in her work. Alike the way you use your body to press down into the floor onto your prints, I consider how Ana Mendieta in her ‘Silueta’ (1973-1980) series where she would lay in natural landscapes and ‘she would mark the land’. How do you consider your work to contribute to and continue these feminist lineages of resistance?

AM: I can only hope that I can continue this lineage and contribute somehow… I have always been obsessed with stories of women, particularly those who are flawed, strange, dark, or divine in some way, even better if a combination of it all. My favourite artists are women too, not on purpose, it's just always been that way, I connect with the work more. Mendieta and Sjoo as you mentioned, but also Belkis Ayon, Nancy Spero, Frida Kahlo and Emma Talbot. I have postcards of their work pinned to the walls of my studio amongst my sketches, like a cocoon of inspiration holding me in the space. I suppose my practice can be driven by narrative, and subversions of narrative. I like to tell stories, unearthing women trapped in the confines of a narrative or history. I use mythology, folklore and fable to process deeply personal experiences, which allows for inner meditations & societal reflections, internal and external. Making the personal political has always been a feminist lineage of resistance. I attempt to centre womanhood, it's just always how I've lived my life, it’s what genuinely interests me.

Install view of Cursebreaker, De La Warr Pavilion (2021) Rob Harris

BU: The work that you are currently showing at Flatland Projects in the UK seems to be incredibly connected to the earth and spirituality; are these works inspired by a particular landscape or phenomena?

AM: Some of the landscapes were inspired by the description of a dying earth in the Ancient Greek Demeter/Persephone story; as Demeter searches for her daughter the world is plunged into barrenness due to her grief. For these works I was looking at images of cracked, dry earth and desert sunsets. I was also thinking a lot about the Mad Max universe, as well as the visceral earthiness of Ana Mendieta’s work. A connection to the body, the earth and the ancient is what I was trying to go for with the colour palette.

BU: Thinking about that connection to the local, and inspiration of the landscapes that inform your work, can you talk a bit about your new studio in Bexhill-on-Sea, it seems like a hub of emerging practice, something new for the Southeast of England. What does it mean to you being in a building full of other artists and makers?

AM: I’m really enjoying being around other artists and makers, the studios have been slowly growing and evolving and we are making a real community here. It’s not something I’m used to as in London my studio was quite isolated. I’ve always wanted to have studio practice with more people around, that was one of the best bits about art school. Even with others around, the studio is always quite a solitary place, I’m pretty used to that by now and stuck in my ways, but I love the knock on the door and natter.  The atmosphere is supportive and open here; In the same building as the artist studios, we have a ceramics studio, Common Clay - and a bookbindery, Unit 33, who I collaborated with to make a booklet of drawings and editioned risograph print recently. Being on the Flatland Projects Early Career Artist Programme has been particularly special, I feel bonded to the 5 other artists on it with me and I don't want it to end!

BU: I always find references to spirituality and myth in an artist's practice to be fertile ground for opening up the work to audiences new to contemporary art. You run workshops with different community groups, tell me about this?

AM: I run a linocut workshop called Peculiar Arcana. In it, each participant makes their own unique tarot card, a manifestation of their hope and intention for the future; I wanted to marry the stereotypical aspect of tarot being a ‘fortune telling’ device, and the more universal idea of it allowing for meditations on the self. The participants then print these designs using lino onto tarot card templates and eventually leave with their ‘peculiar arcana’ – a deck that is unique to the group, containing a card from each participant.  A bundle of hopes and dreams and manifestations for the future. I am really inspired by the tarot, the symbology in particular. I use it as a tool in life and art and I see these workshops as an expansive collaborative project - I love seeing what people come up with. I have collected a card from each workshop; it's an ever-growing deck.

Detail of Shadowlands (2023) hand printed linocut, ink on banana lokta paper.jpg

BU: In recent years you have really expanded the materials you work with outside of lino. Beading, embroidery, and mosaic tiling, all of these mediums to me feel like things you can sit down with whilst watching tele or something or maybe whilst you are waiting for layers of your lino paintings to dry, tell me more about these works!

AM: No tele in my studio, but I do listen to an incredible amount of podcasts while I work! The mosaics came into my practice during lockdown, after a trip to Rome. The embroidery has been around a bit longer, bits and pieces have appeared since graduating art school. I feel like a novice still, I am playing about in crafts that are so technical and have such a huge history. The embroidery I wish I could do more, it is just so incredibly time consuming so those pieces are few and far between. My mum is amazing at sewing and embroidery, I have learnt so much from her.  

Katabasis (2023) handprinted linocut, ink on Japanese paper

BU: Outside of the influences we have already mentioned: other artists, folk, myth, and your surroundings. Are you influenced by anything else around you at the minute?

AM: At the moment I am obsessed with Ethel Cain and her concept album Preacher’s Daughter, it was on repeat in the studio while making this show. I’m a huge fan of the folk horror genre too, it's been having a moment in cinema and TV for a minute now and I’m loving it.

BU: Finally, what do you think is in the future for your work? Surely something has come up on the tarot cards?

AM: To Rome! I'm going to be expanding the pomegranate moon universe, working towards a solo show with Sara Zanin Gallery for their project space in October. Perhaps adding mosaics into the mix to bring that part of my practice full circle - after all, when in Rome..

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Studio Photography by Ben Urban