James Alexander

The Constructor

by Brett Levine     Photo by Jerry Siegel

“I don’t cast, and I don’t carve, I construct,” says sculptor James Alexander as he talks about his approach to making works. Alexander, a professor of sculpture and ceramic sculpture at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is best known for his large, multi-element pieces,  which often challenge our expectations of space, balance, engineering and physics.

“I started out as an architect, urban designer and sculptor,” he says.  “I then studied ceramics, and worked in the medium as one of my main focuses until I began to feel restricted by the materials.  I simply couldn’t work on the wheel and achieve works of the scale I had conceived.  You see, having completed degrees in architecture and urban design, I was always focusing on how objects worked with a space rather than how they looked as unique works of art.”

This led him to focus on large-scale, site-specific sculptures, which he does to this day.  “I’ve always said that we all go through our lives sculpturally, we just don’t think about it,” Alexander says. “Every day we negotiate space, so what I do in my work is try to focus on those decisions.  When I work, I begin with an understanding of where a work will be, and I work to create a meaning that functions within that space by how it engages with it.

Works such as his recent “Equipoise Amacord,” an enormous, carefully balanced, counterweighted beam, date back to his childhood.  “I could say that the piece was simply about physics, about counterweights, and about fulcrums, but I was really interested in balance at an early age,” Alexander says. “We all recall sitting on a teeter-totter in a playground as a child, wondering where we had to sit so our feet never touched the ground.”  This combination of childlike curiosity, combined with a rigorous intellect and training in sculpture, ceramics and architecture, means that Alexander brings both a focus and a playfulness to the works he creates — although the humor can often be subtle.

He is also not concerned by the ongoing questions of art versus craft, a conundrum he addresses in a very straightforward way.  “When people ask how I reconcile ceramics or wood, often craft materials, with my fine arts practice, I simply tell them that art is what you think, craft is how you make it.”

This capacity to blur the boundaries that others construct means that Alexander is free to move within and between materials, searching for the right media for the specific work.  “One of the reasons I’ve always been interested in sculpture is that it is the one creative practice that isn’t restricted by materials,” he says. “Painting obviously requires paint, ceramics requires clay, but as we have seen from Duchamp to Carl Andre to the present day, sculpture doesn’t restrict your media.  As a result, it creates challenges, but doesn’t set defined parameters.”

Now, as Alexander moves into a new studio, he is taking the time to consider how his new works will develop.  “I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older that the ease with which I negotiate space is more complicated,” he says, laughing, “so as I move forward one of my biggest challenges will be to identify first what my work needs — does it need mass, does it need scale — and as I understand these answers, to think about how these decisions will affect how I work.  I’ve been very lucky throughout my career, because I have always known what I wanted to make before I started to work.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t refine as I went, but it helped to have a plan.”

Obviously, the underlying plan will remain. He will continue to focus on space, on scale, on pattern and on materials. “I always remark to my students that sculpture is a lot like music,’ he says. “It is about pattern and repetition, notes and spaces, solids and voids.  I just adapt these ideas to what I am interested in, and use it as a map to negotiate every one of my artistic challenges. “

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