Alex Paik is a Brooklyn-based artist using cut and folded hand-colored paper to explore reflected color, visual counterpoint, ephemerality, and repetition as a tool for development. His work is influenced by his childhood training as a classical musician and his interest in polyphonic musical structures. Paik’s work has been exhibited in galleries and art fairs nationally and internationally. He is represented by Gallery Joe in Philadelphia and is the director of Tiger Strikes Asteroid, a network of artist-run spaces with locations in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles.
My first serious introduction to art was through classical music, and the qualities and architecture of music stayed with me as I made the transition to visual art. I’ve always been attracted to the way that music can simultaneously be cerebral and personal, physical and immaterial, structured and organic, especially in the contrapuntal music of Bach.
My work resembles the way that the voices of a fugue are continuously repeated, transposed, inverted, and folded into themselves. Each piece focuses on one unit as its subject which is then repeated in different configurations as the piece grows. I use repetition not so much as a compositional device, but more as a way to explore and develop the possibilities of the unit. Or, to borrow Glenn Gould’s description of Bach’s late fugues, to “give the impression of an infinitely expanding universe.”
I’m also interested in the idea of variability between each hanging of an artwork. The Modular Wall Installations are improvised onsite each time they are shown according to the size of the wall. Each exhibition becomes a different performance of the same piece, further adding to the ephemeral and temporal quality of my work.
Ultimately, the musical quality that I’m attracted to most is grace - the way that the labor behind a work is hidden behind an appearance of effortlessness and elegance. My work is constructed and “composed” in such a way as to feel like it just appeared, almost out of thin air, and could just as quickly disappear.
Q&A with Alex Paik
by Emily Burns
Hi Alex! Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin and how do you create your compositions? Does drawing play a part in your work?
All of my current work starts out as a simple shape/form that then repeats. With the smaller, static works (Improvisations and Rearrangeable Drawings) I am usually just practicing/experimenting with how that unit will tesselate, what it will look like as it stacks, and what kind of negative spaces will be created. I also use those smaller works to play with more reduced color palettes.
The Modular Wall Installations are improvised onsite and I do not go in with a preconceived plan. Having played around with the shapes beforehand through the smaller works I am able to improvise and riff off of those ideas as I go. What’s especially interesting to me is how these installations change over each performance, since each time I install one I am usually thinking about something that I found interesting in the previous one and continuing that thought process.
The effects of color, reflection, and shadow are so subtle in your installations, is this something that is difficult to capture in photos? Can you talk about the nuances of exhibiting your pieces?
Yes, the works are very difficult to photograph well. I honestly haven’t figured out a way to translate the reflected color into the photographs although I suspect that it is probably impossible. The way the eye perceives the color reflecting off of the wall vs. the color on actual paper is very physical and I don’t think that it can be captured in a flat photo.
As you can imagine the installations are very responsive to, even dependent upon, the lighting situation in the gallery. I don’t fuss too much about the lighting when these are shown. When the gallery is flooded with light the reflected colors are more pronounced, and if there are spots or harsher lighting the installations become more linear since there are harsher shadows.
Have you always worked in this way? How has your work progressed over time?
I started out as a painter and slowly transitioned into making assemblages. From the assemblages I decided to work exclusively with paper. I think the work has always been at least loosely concerned with structure and geometry.
Can you talk about your relationship with color?
Color is interesting because it begs for systematization while at the same time is impossible to actually systematize/understand. There’s also this kind of primal, staring-into-a-fire magic about how color can change depending on what’s next to it, the way that light is hitting it, etc. Since color is just reflected light it is, like light, simultaneously matter (a particle) and anti-matter (a wave). I find that these self-contradicting ideas dovetail nicely with the way I am thinking about repetitive, generative “compositions” as well as the ethereal/temporal quality of the installations. The colors I use are typically highly saturated or mixed with a little bit of white in order for there to be a clarity between the different colors, like notes on a scale.
You were trained as a classical musician—how does this influence your current work? What instrument(s) do you play? Is music still a part of your life?
It influences me greatly. Since my first introduction to thinking seriously about art was through classical music I’ve always favored using musical terms to describe my work and am also attracted to “musical” qualities.
My best instruments were violin and guitar. I can play bass and piano and, more recently because of my daughter, ukulele. I don’t really play seriously anymore but I still listen to a lot of music and am constantly searching for new music as well as filling in gaps in my musical knowledge.
What are polyphonic musical structures? Can you talk about the relationship between sound structures and the geometric shapes in your work?
Polyphonic music is music that has multiple voices/melodies playing at the same time. The opposite of this would be a single melody with, say, some chords backing it. Fugues are the most common form (made famous by Bach), but they can be found in a lot of other music or at least in parts of other music as well like in early jazz music where all the musicians would improvise simultaneously.
The relationship between music and my work is metaphorical. I think that I try to embody many musical qualities that I find attractive: the idea that each “performance” of an installation is the same piece but also different, the immaterial and ephemeral quality of the work, and the way that these geometric shapes combine, rhyme, and layer on top of each other mimic the way that the subject of a fugue is constantly flipped, transposed, and layered.
What do you enjoy most about working with cut paper? What is the importance of paper as a material for you?
What I like the most about the paper is that it has it’s own life and kind of does the work for you. The slight warping and variations in each hand-cut and folded shape gives my work a softness that I think would be lost if it were made out of a sturdier material. I also love the intimacy and directness of paper and how it relates to drawing. I think my work is closer to drawing than painting.
What is a typical day like for you?
Take daughter to school (if it’s a school day) then go to the studio for a few hours. Pick daughter up, walk dog, go grocery shopping, cook dinner for the family. After dinner I will either train martial arts, go back to the studio, visit someone else’s studio, or do admin work on the computer. If it’s not a school day (she doesn’t go every weekday) then it’s a similar schedule except obviously there’s no studio time in there, just daddy-daughter time all day.
Do you feel like it is important to get into a particular headspace when in the studio? If so how do you get there?
Since my time is fairly limited in the studio I generally have a goal that I am trying to reach that day (prepare x number of units, glue x number of pieces, do x number of drawings, etc). I try very hard not to get distracted by other things while I am in the studio and avoid bringing my computer there. Since I wear many hats (artist, dad, curator, arts administrator) I am always being pulled in many directions at the same time so it’s important to me to try and separate these different roles. If I remember something that I need to do for one of my other roles I will put it on one of my To Do lists so that I don’t forget it later.
After a year of feeling like I had a lot of pressure to produce, I’ve been trying to allow myself to daydream/get bored a bit more in my studio. I think that it is important to spend time with your work. Not really “thinking” about it necessarily but just looking and letting your mind wander off a bit. Sometimes, of course, you have a looming deadline and need to go into frantic production mode but I think there needs to be a balance.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?
I listen to music or to podcasts about music. It’s not an “important” part of my practice but frankly much of the labor in my work is very boring and monotonous so I need something to pass the time :)
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you?
Hearing Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach for the first time really opened up the world of Bach to me in a way that hadn’t before. They are somehow mathematical, direct, clear but still intensely emotional at the same time. His playing has a great sense of precision, architecture, and grace but still feels almost improvised.
What are you reading right now?
I recently finished a book about running non-profit arts organizations, "Creativity to Community: Arts Nonprofit Success One Coffee at a Time" by Matthew Hinsley and just started a book about the history of color systems in art and science, called "Color Systems in Art And Science," Images by Narciso Silvestrini text by Ernst Peter Fischer, sponsored by Caran d'Ache Switzerland. I also just started “The Making of Asian America,” by Erika Lee.
What are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Matisse (especially the cutouts), Richard Tuttle, Thomas Nozkowski, Paul Klee
What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
The recent Guston show at Hauser & Wirth was pretty amazing. His drawings make me want to quit art.
What is your relationship with social media? Do you have a favorite or least-favorite platform?
I use Facebook and Instagram quite a bit. I have a twitter account that just reposts my Instagram and Facebook posts, but I’m not really sure how to use it.
Any advice to recent grads who are interested in getting their work out there and exhibiting?
Just start showing up, literally and figuratively. If you want to be a part of “The Art World,” then you need to be a part of the art world in some way. Either by writing a blog, showing up to openings, running an exhibition space, running a magazine, etc etc.
Can you tell us more about your professional development work with artists? Where can artists find out more?
This was mostly the idea of TSA NY Co-Director, Vincent Como. We have done a few workshops where basically Vincent and I go through a lot of practical knowledge that we’ve acquired over the years. Things like how to approach galleries, practical advice on your web presence, etc. Basically all the things that I wish I learned in grad school! We are hoping to expand this into more content-specific workshops like artist statements, websites, even tax advice. We are currently trying to book an artist-accountant for a workshop on taxes this fall. Artists that are interested should check our website periodically to see when the next workshop is and/or sign up for our mailing list.
How did you become interested in curating? Any advice to young artists or curators who are interested in getting started? Do you feel that there is some kind of 'qualification' needed or can anyone with an interest take it on?
I hesitate to call myself a curator — I just like to put together shows that I’d like to see. I think that my real skills are in running the administrative/backend stuff for TSA. I’ve acquired a lot of administrative skills over the years (mostly through figuring things out on the fly) and am good at keeping the bigger picture in mind while managing all the small moving parts.
My advice to young artists/curators would be to start a space for a year or two! It’s really not that hard and, since artists are born problem-solvers, you can figure things out as you go along. If you find you need help with something, just ask around. For me, the biggest thing I was looking for after grad school was a community. By working together with other artists and using each other’s knowledge, you’ll simultaneously insert yourself into the art world and create a small community for yourself.
Can you tell us a bit about Tiger Strikes Asteroid and what was the impetus to create it?
Tiger Strikes Asteroid is a platform for artist-initiated exhibitions and projects. We started in Philadelphia in 2009 and have since opened spaces in New York (2012) and LA (2014). We will be opening up a space in Chicago soon!
We started TSA in Philadelphia with basically no real long-term plans. The impetus was somewhat selfish in the early days: we didn’t see enough opportunities to show the kind of work that we were interested in and we also wanted to create a way to expand our networks by working with artists from other cities. Since starting spaces in NY and LA I’ve seen the organization grow into something much bigger and have also seen what does and doesn’t feel “right” for our organization. The organization is structured in such a way that it allows for expansion and welcomes new voices and ideas. We are always trying to work with new artists and give the reigns over to as many artists as we can. The vision is that we can continue to empower artists to produce their own exhibitions and projects as an alternative to the more commercial gallery world. TSA didn’t start out as overtly political but as we grow it has become political almost by default.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of running one (or three!) spaces?
The biggest challenge is keeping track of everything that’s going on at all of the sites! As Director, my role is to know what’s going on at each site, providing help/input (without taking away from the autonomy of each site’s programming), and taking care of the administrative backbone for the organization. The organizational/administrative aspects of a sprawling beast like TSA has to be really, really tight in order for each site to feel free in their programming. It’s a strange balance — like trying to put two opposite ends of a magnet together. Most of this stuff we are just figuring out as we go along!
What keeps you motivated?
Since starting TSA several years ago I’ve seen how much good we can do in the art world. We’ve been able to show the work of almost 500 artists, many of whom hadn’t been showing very much when we worked with them. It’s empowering to myself as well as to our members to be able to have carte-blanche with our exhibition slots and as we all grow together as curators we’ve been getting more and more ambitious with our exhibitions.
Being a part of a community of artists working together toward a common goal is a huge part of what keeps me motivated, too. We’ve all become good friends because of TSA and have continued to support each other’s art careers outside of the gallery. I think that a key part of being an artist is the social aspect and since I am not great in huge social situations like openings, being a part of TSA allows me to be a part of the community at large. On a more selfish note, I think that almost every opportunity I’ve had in my artistic career has either been directly or indirectly because of my work with TSA.
I remember running into an old professor at an opening last year. He asked how things were going and I told him how stressed I was trying to make work, run TSA, be a stay-at-home dad, and also organize “Artist-Run” in Miami. He looked at me for a second and then asked, “Well, what the fuck else would you be doing?” I am busy, yes, but I feel like I’ve found a way to make a life in the arts that works for me and that balances time in the studio and being an active member of the art world.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I’m curating a show at TSA New York in September and am also curating this year’s Satellite Show, an art fair in Miami.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Alex and his work, check out his website.