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Toronto – sweet digital dreams of Alex McLeod


We got an email from an artist in Toronto recently. Alex McLeod, 25, was alerting us to his website and wanted some feedback. We both took a look at the digitally-rendered landscapes and were wowed by the super seductive colors, textures and spaces in what looked to be a dystopic Second Life world with weird architecture and even weirder nature (clouds that hang heavy as cow’s udders and air that seems to rise like bubbles in a fish tank, etc.).   These pretty, fragile worlds are a puzzle.  Is this an eco-disaster fueled art; is it post-apocalpytic; sheer fantasy?  The weaving together of  building and nature reminds me of Jonathan Monaghan‘s animation a little, seen in the Vox V show last summer.  But it’s not the same really as McLeod’s landscapes don’t imply mad science, religion and something ominous as much as they imply fairy tales and the possibility of happiness.

Alex McLeod
Alex McLeod, stone henge candy mountain

McLeod has a BFA from Ontario College of Art and Design (2007) and his works have been lauded all over the place — Juxtapoz, Beautiful Decay, Toronto Star–and by Kanye West on his blog.  There’s a list of links as long as your arm on his website showing all the love he’s gotten for his work.   You can see his works in the real world at the Toronto Internatonal Art Fair (Oct. 22-26) at Angell Gallery’s booth 906 and in a group show opening November 12 at Lonsdale Gallery.

Here’s my email Q&A with the artist.

Your images are like Second Life dystopia.  The antithesis of clean, sleek and calm.  I found myself wanting to see humans and animals in there somewhere.  Do you ever insert them into the scenes?
I have thought about inserting people and more animals (a couple images have animals, but they are subtle).  Ultimately whatever I added would probably look like a plastic child’s toy or train set.

Can you say a little about your influences etc.  (I see you were an assistant for Kent Monkman…our Montreal correspondent Stefan just wrote about him recently).
I went to school for painting, and soon began to employ digital technology to augment my practice.  As the years went on I came to realize that my digital practice was valid enough to pursue, so I stopped painting entirely early last year.

Influences eh?  Here are some in point form:
taber hill in scarborough,
chiho aoshima,
rama (pc game),
forbidden planet (film),

That’s is very coincidental regarding Kent, although not surprising.  I worked with him for a brief time on the crystal tipi’s and really admired his work ethic, he is unstoppable 😀

I actually use a number of programs, but I wouldn’t want to give them any free advertising by saying what they are.  In short almost every 3D modelling suite is compatible with a photo realistic renderer, it’s just about finding the time to learn how to get the best results.

Alex McLeod. lumbermill CGI

Can you give me a little biographical info?  Where were you born?  How old are you?  Any siblings?  Religious upbringing?  Catholic schools, etc?
I was born in Toronto only 25 years ago.  I have a step brother and cousins all around the world.  I didn’t have a religious upbringing and I attended public schools.

Did any seminal childhood experience (or place or person) help frame you–either in your art or otherwise?  …falling out of a tree, death of a pet, changing schools, a teacher, mentor, something you hated…???
I have no idea really, I suppose any number of those could have shaped me.  I have always had support at home and school and without that I wouldn’t have considered pursuing this seriously.

What were early art influences?  Comic books?  Nintendo?  tv?  All or none of those?  Did you spend your time rooting around in the woods…collect arrowheads…did you build things?  Did you make comic books or cartoons as a kid?  Have any collections….Magic cards?  Dungeons and Dragons?  etc…
Ha Ha Ha, You really pegged me.  I play(ed) a lot of Nintendo growing up. PC games like ‘Rama’, ‘Myst’, ‘Diablo’ and ‘Warcraft’, were all staples and have been more or less an initial inspiration to pursue digital art. ‘Magic the Gathering’ is a funny one, my guilty secret (although I only played once, I did collect).  I was given a head start on comic collecting from my step brother, and I started reading them at a time where there was an introduction of obvious computer colouring, especially on the covers.  That and the foil variants have probably given me the tendency to make things glossy and reflective in my art.

I did enjoy rooting through woods for sure!  I still do but never seem to be able to find the time, perhaps that’s why I draw them.

Alex McLeod. skull mountain blood falls

Did your parents encourage your art or did you come to it independently?
I have been incredibly lucky that they encouraged me and still are very, very supportive of my art.  My grandma, aunt and father have all painted, and one of my cousins is a photographer.  It would have been strange if I turned out to be a jock.

Your images have a concreteness to them that is part of their charm.  They feel like they might be set ups in the real world.  Do you do that…photograph things in the real world and then manipulate them with digital tools?  Or are they complete cyber-fabrications created from “scratch” in your 3D programs?
All of the objects have been created in 3D software, however some materials are made from photographs, such as the pine texture I use frequently.  I have photographed things that I have later wanted to build in 3D but haven’t done so yet.  I think it would be interesting to see what changes from ‘oringal’ to ‘photograph’ to ‘3d obj file’ to ‘render’.

Your works are very architectural so I wonder about your relationship to architecture.  Did you study it?  Do you love it?  Do you build in the real world?  Have any carpentry skills?
I have never studied architecture in school, but I really enjoy it.  Old and new.  But to be honest, I almost enjoy the models more than the finished product.  I suppose because they are physically closer to me in scale.  That and art with architecture.  Like my friend Luke Painter who makes these obsessively detailed mansions and cathedrals that look like they have been constructed from spare planks of wood.  His work is very cool and you should look him up 😀

Another artist that employs architectural imagery that I admire is Chiho Aoshima.  Her installation in the NY subway system where she transitioned from fields to dense towers is kind of the same thing I try and do, include many landscapes or densities at once.

My carpentry skills are poor, however for the past two years we have been renovating our home. Before then I hadn’t owned a drill 🙂 Online tutorials are my shop class.

Alex McLeod. mountain lake terror CGI

One of your influences is Taber Hill, site in Toronto of an ancient Indian burial ground that was discovered when developers were converting the farmland there for housing.  So, from this, I think you are concerned with history — the past being bulldozed for some present commercial need?  Is this a particular concern related to the past of the indigenous tribes…or is it a more general concern?
Although current concerns with commercial needs are of great interest, I wouldn’t say that I necessarily draw from them.  The Taber Hill reference was regarding not only the fact of how interesting it is that there is a huge burial mound in the middle of suburbia where kids play, but also that the grass and dandy lions have fed from the breakdown of those bodies. So in some distant way the ancient people still live through the cycle of life, which is essentially what the work is about.  (side note, the Lion King is definitely not an inspiration)

Alex McLeod
Alex McLeod. alliance kingdom rivalry CGI

Chiho Aoshima, rama and forbidden planet all have post-apocalyptic themes; monsters that are robots or aliens….buildings that are monstrous.  And all three involve story-telling.  Is there a narrative your images tell? For example “alliance kingdom rivalry” implies a story of kingdoms and warfare.  Can you talk about your narrative ideas and whether you have a complete narrative thread going through the works or if the works are discontinuous and have many possible narratives.
Well, holistically the work is about the transformation of matter from one state to another, and I guess that’s why there is so much on fire.  Regarding specific works I really want to leave them open ended.  It is important however that they exist in a vacuum where locations and periods are mixed together to suggest that the transformative path of matter is infinite.  Does that make any sense?

While your images suggest one world that is foreign to us, I wonder if you think of more than one world/planet when you’re creating?  Are you interested in the new NASA telescope (Kessler?) that’s out in space searching for life
somewhere in other galaxies?

I am a fan of the X-Files but it doesn’t really cross into my work. There is so much to discover here that it is quite overwhelming 😀

Alex McLeod. trunk signal OG

What’s your take on our planet’s climate catastrophe?  Do you think about it at all?  Is it All you think about?
I think real estate in Canada is going to skyrocket!  Just kidding, it is interesting, but certainly not all I think about.

You have no people in these landscapes…or animals although both are suggested.  To a certain extent, putting animals/humans in locks things down to a particular kind of narrative, while without them the viewer can fantasize whatever he/she wants to think about who lives, hunts, loves, dies in your worlds.  Do you have plans to add humans/animals?  If so, why?  If not, why not?
If you could see the work larger you would note that there are small non specific animals in a few works.  But for the reason that you gave nailing it to a specific narrative kind of kills the universality of the idea.  I may add people in masses in the future, but they would have to be fairly vague.

Alex McLeod. 55 tree signal on fire

I’m curious about what you used to paint before you gave it up for digital tools.  Your digital works are landscapes…Did you paint landscapes?
I painted skulls, clouds and buildings just as I do now.  Essentially I started using photoshop and vector tools to build reference material to paint from.  Once I was proficient enough with the software I was using I felt comfortable printing them as my final work.

How do you print these images to show them in galleries?
I print them with a lightjet printer and frame them in white stained ash.  Generally They range in size from 14″x18″- 36″x48″.  For my shows in February at Rojo (Barcelona) and March at Kalpany (Milan) the gallery is making light boxes and painting the walls black so that the work is the only light source.  Also I have been looking into how to make large installation size sculptures from my files.

Do you ever animate the works?  Or do you have plans in that direction?  It seems like a natural.  The images are like cinema stills sliced from some animated feature or short.
I am working on an animation right now using all open source software at my former University.  The project includes two undergraduate students and hopefully at the end their thesis work will benefit from it.

Alex McLeod. building test 2

I love that you’re giving away wallpaper images…nice!  How do you choose which ones?
I have just asked my friends what they liked.  That section is in need of some updating though, more wallpaper and more size variations with thumbnails 😀  If there is wallpaper that you would like to see shoot me an email and I will see what I can do.

What would you tell a young artist attempting to move from paint to digital?
To do as many online tutorials (pertaining to their software suite) as possible.  And to make themselves aware of what is trendy and unfashionable and try to be conscious of both when making work.  Then when they have something interesting going on they should tell the blog world all about it.

What do you think of Second Life and the Sims?  Ever play in those universes?
I feel out of the loop, I don’t really know anything about “Second life”.  I never really fell into love with “The Sims” either, but I did enjoy playing “Black & White” by Lionhead studio.  Perhaps that is sort of similar regarding civilization management.  I have however spent countless hours playing “Warcraft 1 & 2” which is again all about sustain and conquer.

“Second life” is limited aesthetically because their environment is rendered in real time, while I have the luxury of spending hours rendering a single frame.  In a few years when everyone has a million-core CPU the textures and lighting in “Second Life” or equivalent will be quite stunning.

What do you see as then next step in your art?
Sculpture, animation and large prints 😀

Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for this opportunity, you guys are fantastic!!