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Vikky Alexander co-opts the visual language of consumerist culture to provoke a state of self-awareness in her viewers

“I still fall into the imaginative depths of the photograph,” says Vikky Alexander. The Canadian artist’s practice spans montage, sculpture, collage and installation, but photography remains her focus. “I love the glossy surface of the paper,” she continues. “It is still seductive to me.”

Alexander’s practice centres on exploring the mechanisms of display that influence society’s perception of beauty and desire, and the way in which they attribute meaning to things. The photograph exists as the ideal medium to aid this endeavour. “My work should make people self-aware about how they function in society, or how mechanisms of display attempt to influence them,” says Alexander. “But, in a fairly gentle way because I am doing the same thing. I am looking at a work and thinking ‘how am I supposed to perceive that?’.

Alexander’s first retrospective Extreme Beauty, on show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada, explores the major themes that have preoccupied her work for over three decades. “Looking back can be difficult,” reflects Alexander, whose entry into photography coincided with the emergence of the Pictures Generation in 1980s New York – a loose group of artists reappropriating the visual language of consumer culture in order to expose the tactics at work. Alexander moved to the city straight out of university in 1979. Her contemporaries included Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger and Sherry Levine – she was the youngest and most unknown, but the relationships she had with these practitioners contributed greatly to the development of her practice.

Between Dreaming and Living Series #5, inkjet print with coloured Plexiglas, 1986 © Vikky Alexander, International Center of Photography, gift of the artist.

“It was exactly what I wanted,” says Alexander, who discovered photography while studying at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, between 1976 to 1979. Visiting lecturers – including Dan Graham, Dara Birnbaum, and Martha Rosler – opened up the possibilities of the medium, but the photographer felt suffocated in the male-dominated darkroom in which street photography prevailed. “Those were the kind of ideas that I was interested in – employing photography in a more conceptual way,” she continues.

The exhibition begins with work made during this time, from 1980 to 1987. In Obsession, (1983), Alexander coopts the visual language of the glossy magazine, creating a 20-foot-long panel composed of images of model Christie Brinkly – enlarged and rendered in luminescent yellow. The piece epitomises the focus of her early practice: an interrogation of the ‘ideal’ woman projected by the media and advertising in order to critique, and expose, the wider culture of consumerism pervading public consciousness.

Today, the work has accrued new significance and continues to highlight the enduring drive for perfection that defines consumerist culture. “A graduate student was writing about Obsession and she was fascinated by the number of wrinkles that you could see on Christie Brinkly’s face,” says Alexander. “She was probably 25 at the time. But, because of the way she was shot, and because there was no Photoshop, she looks less idealised than models in magazines do now.”

Obsession (detail), silver gelatin print, vinyl type, coloured Plexiglas, 1983 © Vikky Alexander, collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, gift of the artist.

It was while studying at NSCAD that Alexander became interested in building design and structure, taking an experimental architecture course at the Technical University of Nova Scotia. In an interview with Canadian Art, the photographer also spoke about the lasting impact that Dan Graham’s photography of architecture and the vernacular had on her when he attended the university as a visiting lecturer. By the mid-1980s Alexander had began to explore these preoccupations in her work; her practice shifted to interrogate the way in which humans interact with nature. Then, in the 1990s, it refocused on our relationship with architecture and interior décor.

This final development coincided with Alexander moving to Vancouver in 1992, where she became associated with the Vancouver School of Photoconceptualism – a group of artists including Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham, employing photography and other new media in a conceptual capacity to explore the social force of imagery. The exhibition traces this evolution. Work such as Paris Showrooms: Gold Torso 2009 frames the gleaming interior of a shop, captured behind a reflective, glass storefront. Just as her earlier work encourages audiences to critically-reflect on the visual language of consumerist culture, Alexander employs architectural settings to invite us to think about how they are engineered to entice us.

The exhibition draws out these recurring themes. Whether we are reassessing the way in which we perceive the ‘ideal’ women depicted in magazine spreads, or how we position ourselves in relation to a utopic shop interior,  Alexander forces us to think critically about what we are looking at. “You see yourself reflected in the piece and you try to figure out how you are going to position yourself,” she explains. “It is all about self-awareness.”

Vikky Alexander: Extreme Beauty was on show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada, from 06 July 2019 until 26 January 2020.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.