Alexandra Grant ’95: Word and Image

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last Thursday, Alexandra Grant ’95 gave the final lecture in a series hosted by the Art Department, focusing on the post-Swarthmore careers of studio art majors.

Grant was a double major in History and Art, and received a MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 2000. Since then, she has been based in LA where, according to Professor Randall Exon, who introduced her, she “has been extremely successful as an artist.” Some highlights of her career include a recent solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, an exhibition with the group Fluxus, as well as numerous group shows across the country.

Let’s, detail. Image from, photo by Brian Forrest

Grant’s work is knowingly conceptual, and her talk reflected this, fusing commentary on her life, her goals, and her artwork. Being able to incorporate her ideas and research into her work has always been an important goal. Her Swarthmore training prepared her to think, but did not directly provide her with a style she could call her own. Upon graduating, she found that, despite having many ideas in her “mental backpack”, it was difficult to express them in a way that did them justice. “I realized how difficult it was to put ideas into the world.”

The avenue that has ultimately proved most rewarding to Grant, and which forms the basis of most of her work now, is the written word and the possibilities it provides. She is interested in the “weird scene where the image of the word becomes a word, and vice versa.” It took her eight years, she says, to find something that she felt really worked, but now all of her art involves language. She is currently involved in an ongoing collaboration with author Michael Joyce, the inventor of hypertext fiction. His poems and stories appear in her works, mapped onto paper or another medium through a system of rules that Grant devises and then eventually breaks.

The process of creating each painting is a long one. Working from Joyce’s original text, she copies it onto paper, sometimes as many as 20 times. Sometimes she translates words into other languages, and she often writes backwards. As she moves through the text, she changes color, style, or materials according to a system, and deviates from that system according to whim and chance. Her goal, she says, is “at each step to change the rules just enough so it’s difficult for me as an artist” and to create “a sense of risk-taking, never a sense of ease.” The end result is a painting that shows the process of its own creation as well as the artist’s reaction to it.

Grant’s large paintings (some are ten feet tall and more) explore her interest in the relation of the body to text, and are “monumental but intimate in production and scale”. Because there is more text than a viewed could possibly take in at once, it is not written in a linear fashion, and everything is written backwards, the viewer is forced to confront the words as images, rather than as meaning.

Although the effect can be jarring, Grant thinks that everyone can relate to her work because it is based on language, and everyone has an interpretation that they draw from their own experience.

Grant’s most recent work draws on a wide range of interests and ideas, resulting in multi-media projects with multivalent interpretations. For her MOCA show, she worked with Pig Iron theatre to develop an audio tour that would provide museumgoers with a non-literal alternative to a traditional audio guide. This project fed into Motion, a short film that focuses on Nimbus, another work from the MOCA show, to try and give a sense of the different levels at which a viewer perceives an object.


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