Alex Losett: Urban Panels and Minimal Landscapes

by Jennifer Zarro Ph.D.

For artist Alex Losett, an urban sidewalk is a chronicle of humanity.  Losett focuses her connoisseur handling of paint and non-traditional materials to re-create sidewalk vignettes such as gas company access signs, slate pavers, or manhole covers. In her Urban Panels, Losett reveals how our sidewalks and streets evince human needs and interventions and serve as the ever-present backdrop to the vast, shuffling, ambling life of a city.    

Just as ardently, the artist fashions a complementary body of work—the Minimal Landscapes—which zeroes in on rural or natural areas also mediated by humans. Like the scarred and tattooed urban trees Losett photographs for use in future projects, her work investigates just how much of the world retains evidence of being shaped by humans, and how humanity, in turn, may be shaped by urbanity or precarious natural areas.

Losett is based in Philadelphia, PA, and has been a lifelong resident of large cities in three different countries on two continents.  She also counts six architects in her immediate family—thus it's no wonder that she has turned to the city streets as inspiration for her Urban Panels series.  These works are associates in an historic and notable story of urban images which celebrate or question, idealize or investigate, recreate or construct an urban geography and all of its attendant activities.  The many maps for the grid-planned places of the new world and Renaissance panoramas of city ports highlighting an abundant crush of commerce and transatlantic ships are examples of initial imagery which underscores the mutability and drama of the urban location.  Other historic images show liminal zones and places in and around the city in which people fished, swam, boated, and recreated.  Nineteenth century painters such as Thomas Eakins may resonate with this mode of imagery.  The metropolitan condition is central in these works, and in many ways Losett appropriates much of the focus, subject, and investigative stance found in these examples.  But Losett’s urban imagery offers a new, zeroed in viewpoint that allows for an unbridled consideration of the skin and surfaces that cover our cities.  The highly detailed yet abstracted vignettes in the Urban Panels re-create the unnoticed, often mundane infrastructures found in the city-- there are no grand vistas, no lofty ideals.  Such a reduced perspective and minimal narrative leaves open the possibility for viewer interaction and completion. 

With a highly trained and practiced visual acumen, Alex Losett notices almost everything:  a footprint in wet pavement, the texture of a rust on a metal grate, the ephemeral prints of long departed leaves. One of her Urban Panels features  a concrete sidewalk in which a human finger has graffitied, “Save Yourself.”  Extracting a detail such as this from vast possible subjects suggested by the city evinces Losett’s ability to illuminate how reductive works can still maintain possibilities for interpretation and evocation.  Another mixed media panel presents a New York City manhole cover that is clearly “Made in India.”  This panel blatantly conflates the sewage and infrastructures of two global cultures:  it highlights disparities and difference, but also forges links between urban locations from around the globe.  Each of these works suggests that the skin of the city streets under our own feet can be both site-specific and conceptually vast.  Another panel, Drops, is a highly detailed painting of a worn slate sidewalk paver with asymmetrical splatters of black paint spread abstractly across the surface.  These drops of paint are what remain of people going about their everyday lives, dripping paint on their way to make home improvements or participate in community projects.  Here and elsewhere, Losett’s virtuoso specificity conveys striking, universal associations. 

Drops is a masterful stroke of realism (that is, realism with a small ‘r’),  but despite a notable verité, Drops is at the same time extreme, minimal abstraction.   It is in dialogue with trope l’oeil traditions but also references the impact and stylistic vocabulary of a work such as Carl Andre’s 16 Pieces of Slate, 1967. Drops resonates with Andre’s grid in its materiality and presentation, for both works examine extreme aesthetic reduction and viewers’ interactive responses.  Losett’s works balance between two worlds in this regard.  She builds her foundations on and even appropriates the vocabulary and techniques of virtuoso realist painting in order to show us just how exciting, transformative, and conceptual this approach can be.

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Minimalism reconfigures sculpture’s relationship to the floor and to the viewer, and engages the physicality of the viewing public–we walk around these works—or on them—and reconsider ourselves in relation to their often massive, silent, and Zen-like suggestions.  Losett’s panels and installations similarly offer new ways to consider the world.  They can be exhibited singly and horizontally on low supports above floor level or hung vertically on the wall.  In some presentations, the Urban Panels are arranged in panneaux, creating larger grids and varied associations.  Her panels are indeed like plucked-out bits of sidewalk, but in their re-presentation in a gallery they allow the viewer to conjure new associations and responses to the previously unnoticed elements of the everyday. 

Rock Face, a painting from Losett’s Minimal Landscape series, is a partner for many of the Urban Panels . It shows slate in its natural setting:  on a rock face in the woods, covered with spring-green moss.  Together, these works explicate the natural origins and resulting urban usage of slate.  Shown in concert, they allude to the mining, dressing, and transportation of this ubiquitous natural material, its beginning and end, and, finally, its wear and use in supporting urban pedestrians.    

It is not insignificant that these connections reveal and reference contemporary conversations about the environment, ecology, and natural resources.  In Pennsylvania alone, debates about fracking in sensitive slate and shale deposits continue apace.  Much of Losett’s work celebrates either human activities made possible by urban locations or the child-like abandonment in discovering small, exceptional locations in nature.  But both the Urban Panels and the Minimal Landscapes raise questions about whether these images can be taken at face value.  When these two bodies of work are installed together, they create possibilities for examining the tensions between individual, intellectual meaning-making and emotional response to cultural and human history encompassed by and expressed in the city and its surrounding natural areas.

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Other readings of the Minimal Landscapes and the Urban Panels may focus on Losett’s materials and techniques, and rightly so.  The Minimal Landscapes are unapologetically sensual.  They feature rich, textured surfaces achieved by a masterful working up and layering on of paint.   The slate surfaces are the earth’s fabric; the mosses are a lush topography and texture that hugs the rock.   Intricately layered and viscerally associative, these works are neither mimetic nor didactic.  Rather, Losett reinterprets sites of human discovery in nature in ways reminiscent of uninhibited, child-like joy.  The techniques used in these paintings enliven the surfaces and subjects like the skin that covers a body, a topography in its own right and a subject which Losett has been painting and exploring for her entire career. 

Earlier Works

Earlier in her career, the artist painted bodies and settings which were deeply informed by and yet challenged classical nude traditions. Her work of this period insists that contemporary painting discourse has room for narrative moments between male and female figures, inscribes politics onto the human form, and renders frank portrayals of the male nude body.   In all, it’s the male body which is central to Losett's early works, a natural point of focus for the artist but rare in the western, modern and contemporary history of nudes.  Thus, these early figurative works suggest a radicality not typically associated with the genre.

One image from this period, a drawing titled Head and Body, engages the viewer as interloper caught in the act of looking.  We come across Losett and a male partner post-morning shower.  A surprising cropping of the figures underscores the interruption here.  The male body is further fragmented by a towel which hides his head and shoulders.  Meanwhile, Losett appears in self-portrait in the lower left of the canvas, powerfully grimacing at the viewer.  Everyday interactions and events—such as drying after a shower, dressing, or simply sitting—feature prominently in these works.  Not unlike the Urban Panels, these figurative works suggest something plentiful in small, everyday moments. 

These images share a kinship with subjects and paintings by Eric Fischl, for both artists present human bodies in all of their attendant and possible interactions.  Bodies become sites of multiplicity: boredom, tension, banality, eroticism, class, gender roles.  These works mine the traditions of figurative painting for their hidden and glowing psychological gems.

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In yet other canvases, the viewer becomes a voyeur looking at people captivated by their own thoughtful repose or seen in reflection or through a window.  Losett’s bodies are often rendered with a thick impasto, cropped unexpectedly, or seen from unexpected angles.  In Evening, a bright light reveals two figures in a shadowy, darkened background.  Again, the everyday unfolds as a male/female couple appears to be getting undressed.  Extreme tenebrism creates cinematic drama not unlike the similar lighting or psychological stance in Fischl’s beach scene.  In each, a mysterious narrative is uncovered.  Losett’s figurative paintings investigate how bodies and relationships can communicate stillness despite clear gestures towards movement, or restraint despite psychological presence.  Here, the human body is as much subject matter as it is terrain on which to map the complicated relationships and emotions found on the surfaces of the everyday.

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Naked Truth shows us how the bodies in Losett’s early paintings are also locations for exploring political and theoretical control.  This work may well be the grand history painting of the 20th century, for it investigates post-Soviet melancholy after the crumbling of the ideological frameworks promised by the Soviet era.   Behind the male figure is a painted collage of Pravda (truth) newspapers, their headlines announcing change, the adoption of privatization, new passports, and western ideologies.  As if cast out from Eden, the male figure assumes the pale body and surprised expression of Adams from Northern European depictions by artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder.  The traditional fig-leaf is replaced with the red Soviet passport, an object which the Soviet political system vested with such high regard but which lost its validity post-communism.    The import of the Soviet passport can be appreciated when reading translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s The Poem of the Soviet Passport, a work mandatory for Soviet schoolchildren that is satirized in this painting.

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As an art student at the Repin Institute in St. Petersburg, Losett experienced no shortage of the world’s finest examples of European painting spanning all eras from the 14th to the early 20th century.   She brings this to bear in Naked Truth in ways that both transmit and transform her technical facility and world-class education.  With this work Losett suggests new possibilities for understanding the powerful connotations found in the figure, most notably how the body itself may be inscribed by political and social ideals.  The passport-fig leaf covers the traditional site of ‘shame’ after expulsion from the Garden, but here it indicates how ideology and politics may affect and even control the body, sexuality, and gender.

In so much of Losett’s work, replicating and looking closely at surfaces is a way to reveal and revel in a rich, associative terrain: physical and actual, emotional and narrative.  The artist is impenitent in this regard, for she interjects into a contemporary discourse so often focused on the abject something of the timelessness of bodies, skins, textures, human experiences, psychology, and indeed, delights.