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The Body Electric: Alexis Amann on Bearded Ladies, Narwhals, and Riot Grrls

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Girl Loves Narwhal, 2008 (acrylic gouache on paper)

Alexis Amann, a San Francisco based artist, creates art that reimagines the familiar in the world of myth. In the sprawling, inventive landscape of her work, women find soulmates in Narwhals, bearded ladies pal around with kindly demons, and harpies look a lot like Riot Grrls. She has adapted, reappropriated, and reclaimed some of the most intriguing and universal symbols of humanity with exciting results. Alexis' work is captivating--at once of this world and transcendent of it, like the very best kind of folktale.

I was very grateful for the opportunity to speak to Alexis recently. What follows are her thoughts on hybrid love stories, water imagery, and the very badass Donkeyskin.

How do you approach creating your work?

I work very intuitively. I see or feel stuff in my head and make it--it's a combination of a feeling and seeing something a lot of the time--sort of being haunted by images or ideas or characters or colors and patterns that won't go away. So much of it is about reaching out to that feeling or thing hovering on the edge of my mind, or hanging out being ignored. Sometimes combinations of things I see or read or hear about will strike something up.

My work is very influenced by my personal life and quirks and interests, what I find touching or funny or worthwhile, but I hope there is something in that which is a shared experience that strikes a chord for some other people too.

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Azazel and the Bearded Ladies, 2008 (acrylic gouache on paper)

With Azazel and the Bearded Ladies I had a picture of some friends of mine wearing fake beards and I just knew they needed to be combined with this femme demon that was all lips and eyeballs named Azazel. That's a quote from Neil Gaiman's version of the Hebrew demon Azazel in his Sandman comics, something about being a big black mass of eyes and lips. I guess he was floating in my mind for the past decade or so and somewhere along the line, he became a she--you know how that can happen!

Azazel was originally the scapegoat demon, but in my work I see her as more benevolent, just hanging around, like maybe that part of things that you forgot about but aren't sure how you could've forgotten about her. She ends up being very different from the original Azazel. She is sort of on the edge of both safety and danger, like she could either sit around with you and trade Lisa Frank stickers or show you the horrors of life and death, but with her those things would somehow not be so different.

She seems very protective to me. I think she's a lot about femme survival and humor and friendship and creating a dynamic femme identity. So of course she hangs out with the Bearded Ladies.

Many of your paintings involve bearded ladies, mermaids, and harpies. What interests you about these hybrid bodies? What about the relationship between hybrid beings and non-hybrid beings?

Oh hybrid ladies! They are magical and scary and part animal--well at least the mermaids and the harpies are part animal. They exist in both the animal and human world, and also in neither world. The bearded ladies are just true in themselves, in being ladies in beards. One is sort of more femme and one more masculine, but the beards aren't really about butch or femme or male or female identities--they are masculine-ish and costumey and point to something more strange and theatrical.

I think they are soft and sinister at the same time. They remind me of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes because they create a kind of dark magic with their beards that has to do with being both things at once. It's not that they are in drag, really, although they are a little bit, it's that they are somehow touching something else that is magical and otherworldly to me. Drag is pretty magical to begin with, but they seem to have a bit of the sideshow old-timey air about them too. The beards seem to attract nasturtiums as well.

What does gender have to do with myth or folktales? What does it have to do with language?

I'm not sure I can even say all that gender has to do with myth or folktales. I think I tend to take the parts I'm interested in to tell my own story as it relates to my own gender and identity. I tend to be drawn to stories where the girl characters have to be tough in the face of hardship, undergo some suffering, be clever, and rely on their own wits to save them.

I feel like there's a myth that most fairytales and stories like that have helpless princesses needing to be saved, but that's really a Disney thing. Actual fairytales, folktales, and myths have women dealing with stuff. Sure Cinderella is very French-court-pretty and happily-ever-after, but before Cinderella there was Donkeyskin, where she had to save her life by disguising her self in the skin of a dead donkey to avoid marrying her father, before she eventually got to wear the pretty dresses that look like the sun and the night sky to the fancy balls.

I don't stick very closely to the original story of the characters I am drawn to, though (such as Azazel), but instead draw on traits or parts of characters that interest me and develop them in a direction that suits my purposes. Take the harpies for example - I love the fact that they used to fly over Odysseus and his guys and eat their food and vomit, that's what drew me to them, but when I draw them I depict them as a hybrid between the black ravens and the black-bobbed riot girls of my home the Pacific Northwest.

I like the idea of using all these old stories to make new stories and worlds in my own work. I think that language can partly describe gender--what pronoun or identifiers one chooses can go some of the distance or even very nearly all the distance, but there is emotional content too which is where real understanding takes place. Sometimes this is communicated in the way things look or feel. It's why so much of how gender is communicated is through presenting externally.

Language can do this too--like with art--when it works to be less of an explaining and defining and more of a showing and letting the viewer or reader connect to it themselves. In my own work, for example, the difference in definition between female and femme, as words, is less important to me than someone recognizing the feeling of femme within the work, understanding the emotional energetic level of Azazel or one of my girl characters grimacing and crossing her eyes while trying to communicate with a flounder.

Your statement on your website notes, "...we are full of water and need to keep replenishing that supply. Both a flood and a drought can be devastating for us." What is the symbolic value of water in your work? Many of your images involve the ocean and the relationship between land and sea beings. Would you mind elaborating on what meaning you find there?

I love the ocean deeply, but it's not just emotional or symbolic in my work. Water is life. We take water for granted and it's so much of what we are, what the world is, and what our future is going to be. We are in a drought and yet also worried about sea-level rise with climate change. I think people are finally starting to realize that environmentalism isn't about being a good person or doing the right thing or keeping species from going extinct, but it's about saving our quality of life and our own species too.

Rivers in California are without salmon and the season has been closed for the second year in a row. Polar bears are most likely going to be gone in the next 100 years. It's unthinkable. When we turn on the tap and water comes out it's easy to forget what a luxury it is and what a necessity. We all know now that there's an enormous soup island of plastic garbage in the ocean that is very, very, deep and very, very, wide.

Our emotional connection and physical connection to water is completely entwined. Water is associated with spiritual calm, rejuvenation, flow, and peace, and those associations are completely based in reality because we need water to survive. We all evolved from fish and although we live on land we need water just as much as they do.

I like working with girls in love with fish or whales or girls trying to communicate with fish. It's such a good metaphor both for human relationships (as in having a girl cross her eyes to see things the way her flatfish lover does) where people can be so different from each other and for our relationship to the sea. I like to play with interspecies love in my work because it points at the connectedness of species, the fondness the water has for the land and vice versa. Sea creatures and land creatures can meet on the seashore where they can both be comfortable. I also grew up on the Oregon Coast and just really love and identify with the ocean and marine life. I can see a lot of us humans in fish faces, yet they live in a world that is so deep and wide and mysterious to me.

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Center Cannot Hold Chinook, 2008 (acrylic gouache on paper)

What can we learn from mermaids and harpies and norwhals? From the humans in your pieces?

Well, most narwhals with the tooth/horn are males, generally. But, there a few female individuals who also grown the tooth/horn. I can't help but think of the narwhals in my work as genderqueer, but I have found it's awfully difficult to effectively play with gender presentation when it comes to marine life and have your viewers get it.

Thanks so much for your time. Before you go, what's next for you? Where can people find your work?

My collaborative installation piece of an imagined underwater Market Street in San Francisco (mermaids and loan sharks and kewpie faced kelp!) I just did with my friend Jonathan Burstein as part of the San Francisco Art in Storefronts on Market and 6th street just opened and is up until the end of January (check out images below).

Next up is a drawing show at Naomi Arin Contemporary Art in Laguna Beach with some really great artists that looks like it's going to be in January.

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