By Caleb Neelon
Cambridge, Massachusetts native and current Philadelphia resident and Space 1026er Alex Lukas will be coming to San Francisco in January for a show at White Walls in the Tenderloin. He'll be showing his delicately rendered landscapes on paper, works that capture a kind of magical, high-velocity serenity of a compelling image seen from a moving train. Yet while his images certainly stand on their own I'm fortunate to have a few in my house, and without fail, my visitors' eyes all settle on them what makes Alex one of my favorite artists today is his breadth. His 'zines, illustration work, and other projects are all so refined that each one only adds depth to the other. It certainly makes an art career easier if you have one 'thing' you do, and you beat the hell out it, but as much as Alex shoots himself in the foot by maintaining such a diverse output a great deal of which his name doesn't appear on the more I appreciate it. And the more you learn about the scope of his work, the more you'll enjoy each element of it, I assure you.
My name is Alex Lukas, I'm from Cambridge, Massachusetts, I make drawings and run a small 'zine publishing company as well as doing the occasional illustration and writing project.
I'm doing a show of works on paper at White Walls with Chris Pew and Amy Casey. I'm showing about 15 new pieces including a few larger scale drawings that I am excited about. They are part of this ongoing series of drawings of disaster I have been working on for a few years now. I think the show opens on January 12th.
I made a little Xerox comic in elementary school, like 5th grade, but after that, I think I started making zines again when I got to college. In high school these girls Lennele and Chara made a 'zine that I did a bunch of drawings for. The only one I can remember was a black power afro-pick.
I came up with the Cantab Publishing name about 6 years ago and it was then I got the P.O. Box, which I guess is how I mark the real beginning of Cantab.
Well, it really started as me making 'zines I would make to give to friends, like most 'zines start. I have put out over 20 titles over the past six years or so, and with a general run of about 100, I figure I have made, by hand, about 2,000 zines or so.
To date, there have been a lot of different 'zines about stuff I do or that friends do, that while they may be slightly different in subject matter, I think that a lot of the ideas cross over. Like, I'll put out a comic that I hope a kid who is into graffiti will be excited about, and then put out a 'zine about graffiti that hopefully a kid who is into comics would be interested in. I just hope to cross-pollinate ideas. My next goal is to present ideas in a way that really capitalizes on that they are in presented in book form. That has always been important to me, even if I haven't achieved it yet, but the form of "book", with it's beginning, middle and end is so intrinsic in the way we interact with the objects. I think that this form is super under-utilized, if not totally ignored in 'zines today.
It also seems that, for the most part, 'zines have separated themselves into two. On one hand you have you punk rock 'zines that are filled with a ton of information, but they look like shit. Well, not shit, but they have their own design aesthetic. Then you have your 'artist' 'zines that are filled with a ton of drawings, but beyond that, there is no new information in them, they are sketch exhibitions you can hold. I really hope to eventually start making 'zines that bridge this gap, 'zines that are art objects but that convey information, 'zines that take advantage of the fact that they are a book. I don't think I have done that yet, but that is the goal. I think Brendan Fowler's Sex Sells 'zine/book with the Barry McGee cover and the Steve Keene painting was a great art object that also conveyed a great amount of information.
Maybe this is a cop out response, or a continuation of the grand tradition of me shooting myself in the foot, or my problem of not really being able to commit to one thing, but I almost hope it never makes a dollar. I mean, I never want to have to treat it as a business. So far, the books have only cost as much as I have and I no more than I am willing to lose. All the Xerox 'zines just cost time, really, and the few projects I have had professionally printed, were either funded with money from outside sources (Spothunters was paid for in part with the loot I won from that Tokion King of Zine competition, as well as some funding you got for the show) or with money I saved that I wanted to spend on having something made.
On the flip side, I do become precious with my 'zines, I think that only having 100 of something makes you cautious about where they go. I charge a little bit of money so hopefully one 'zine pays for the next. I would love to get to a place where I can have stuff printed and just give it away. I think some of the best publications out today are free. Dan Murphy and Tony Smyrski's Megawords Magazine is an amazing, free publication. ANP Quarterly. Even Vice, as much as I'd like to say I hate it, once you get past the "Do's and Don't"s (I'm a little salty because I was a "Don't" once) they really explore some interesting topics. What was that in the last issue, where they talked to US soldiers who had deserted and gone to Canada? You really don't see that type of stuff many places. And it is free. Even before I knew about Vice, the free comics newspaper Paper Rodeo was an amazing publication. Doing something you can just give away also alleviates the awkward problem of nervously looking for your 'zines behind others, three years after you dropped them off, before you try to collect the consignment from the guy at the counter who really doesn't want to pay out that ten dollars or whatever it is he owes you. I really hate that.
I bailed on Cambridge, sure, but after 18 years straight, including 13 years of public school, and a few summers to boot, I think I deserve a change of scenery. And Boston is a hard place to be a young artist. We talk about this all the time, it isn't a great city when it comes to supporting it's own. Having said that, I think growing up a place, especially in Cambridge, where so much of the art money is wrapped up in community mural projects, it is hard to open your eyes to the new possibilities and new opportunities. I know there is a lot going on down "South of Washington" or whatever they are calling Harrison Ave in Boston now, but I never went down there as a kid, so I find it hard to have reason to go down there now. There just seem to be more opportunities for me elsewhere right now.
I have always said that I think I will end up back in Cambridge, but I think that I need to see some other places. And while it has changed so much, there is still an idealism there that I enjoy. I highly value the education I got in the public schools, the general politics of that town, my friends, my friends parents. We talk a lot about Cambridge Moms (I have one), those strong women with who dress a little quirky, have radical political beliefs and houses filled with books and photographs and old records and never throw anything away, I like that a lot. I want to have a home like that when I'm a little older. I'm also happy that so many kids I knew growing up are now back working and teaching in the public school system, (my dad worked at the high school for years too) I know if I raise my kids in Cambridge, they will be in good hands, and that is super important to me. Cambridge is also a place that, once you live there, it never really goes away. Everywhere you go you run into people with a connection to Cambridge. It really is a bond between like-minded people. So I do plan on returning one day. If it will be like what I want it to be when I'm ready to go back, that is a whole other question, but I hope it will be.
I don't want to speak too much about Phila, since I really haven't explored here much, but 1026 is great. I'm here most days from about 10 in the morning to midnight, seven days a week. My good friend Will Buzzell invited me to share his studio and I am super thankful that he got me here. Young people here are really invested in the city, in the community, in making it work. Kids here are buying homes. Beyond the fact that it is affordable to do so, it really speaks to a commitment to the city, to the longevity of people's involvement.
I'm also excited about our line up for the gallery next year. January has a solo show by Brian Willmont that opens on the 4th of that month, Brian and I are also doing a two person show up at Park Life in April I think. Then Justin B. Williams is coming through in February with some friends to do something that I'm sure will be amazing. I think the gallery space at 1026 is one of the most under-recognized in the country. Over the past ten years, they have had so much good stuff come through here, and we have so much good shit planned, but it is still a struggle to get people to notice what we have going on and to get people outside of Phila clued in and excited.
I left Brooklyn after three years of living there. Basically, I got a job delivering food on my bike in Bushwick about a week after moving to New York. I ended up waiting tables at that same restaurant for the rest of my time in New York. I just got really comfortable, which is sometimes a bad way to be. Then opportunity came up to move back to Boston and help my friend Ryan renovate a house while we lived in it, working in exchange for free rent. I moved my stuff back to Boston, said goodbye to Brooklyn, went to Stockholm for a week to do a show with some friends at Galleri Loyal. When I came back I was immediately living back in Boston, where I ended up staying a little longer than I had planed.
When I finally got on the road, my first stop was St. Louis where I slept on my friend Joe's couch for about three weeks. I had a blast just exploring the city and drawing. Then, after a few weeks back in Boston, you and I drove out to Denver to do that show with Justin B. Williams and Becky Suss at Limited Addiction.
Then after about a week in Denver, when you flew back east, I ended up heading west to Oakland. My best friend Kareem had been living out there for a while and kept bugging me to visit, so I found a sublet for the summer (I took Nick Meyer's room, he is a photographer everyone should know about). I ended up working 3 days a week at a pizza spot/bar on Telegraph Ave and 3 other days a week as Andrew Schoultz' assistant. It was a super fun summer, between Andrew and Andres from White Walls buying me beers some days and working at a bar the others, I probably drank a little more than I should have, but that's alright. I'm heading back soon for the White Walls show.
Basically, in the past six months I have driven about 18,000 miles.
That period in Providence history was dominated by Fort Thunder. I got there in the fall of '99, right before Paper Rodeo started to be published, but when that 'scene' was already hugely influential. Honestly, and I kick myself daily for this, I should have paid more attention to what was going on. When I got there the kids who were into the Fort Thunder stuff were really 'cool' and so I think I had the easy but natural knee-jerk reaction of someone on the outside, I hated on it. In my defense though, it was also hard at that time to distinguish between the originators and the imitators. There were so many silk-screening comics kids doodling on notebook paper. Someone came up with the phrase 'Faux Thunder' to describe a lot of the work that kids were doing then. I think, like a lot of things, when you are introduced to something at the height of when it is being imitated, it is hard to distinguish the good from the not so good. I'm glad that now, today, a lot of the really amazing things from that era are starting to rise to the top and be recognized, there was just so much imitation at that point. But The Fort itself was an amazing place the few times I went.
The Halloween parties will always stick in my mind, crawling through some maze held up by 1x3s and cardboard, emerging in the room with the keg, everyone smoking cigarettes with no exit except on your belly and the floor would be cover with dried leaves. It was a death trap and it was amazing. And it seems like even the smallest event at the fort would spawn a five-color silkscreen poster. The work ethic of that place is something that even at the time I could recognize. It also really inspired Space 1026, and I'm sure countless other like-minded places. But back to that time, after the kids at Fort Thunder got evicted in 2002 I think it was, there was this boom of illegal live/work/play spaces with funny names over on that side of town, and going to them, and maybe it was just because they didn't have years of accumulated stuff, or because it was all done in such a rush, done in a need to fill the void, it somehow felt less sincere to me. Who knows if it was or not, but that is how I felt, again, as a virtual outsider to that scene.
So, back on topic, I was not involved at all in that stuff when I was in Providence. I should have paid more attention. I'm embarrassed to say I didn't even see Lighting Bolt 'till 2005. When I moved to New York after school, I think I quickly realized the lack of that type of creative energy, and I hate the term, but DIY energy, was something I really missed, and I began to realize what had been going on in Providence was really special and unique. Luckily, my buddy Matt had gotten doubles of most of the old Paper Rodeos (including the all comics issue College Hill Indy) so I have those to look through now. And that period in Providence has been pretty well documented, thankfully. The Wunderground show at the RISD Museum last year did a great job of collecting a ton of posters from that time. I walked into that show and was bowled over, there were so many posters that I had only seen half obscured or half torn down. I even found a poster I designed for Brown Student Radio in the mix. You have no idea how happy I was to be included with that company, even in the most miniscule of ways.
Yeah, another important place in Providence's youth or "underground" (pardon the pun) history, in my opinion, is the old abandoned train tunnel that runs a mile underneath College Hill. I spent a lot of time exploring it when I was in college, so for the past three years, working very sporadically, I have been doing research and interviews with people who have interacted with the tunnel; graffiti writers, college kids, older rail workers. The eventual goal is to put out a massive book documenting the many facets of its history. The tunnel, which was for a time Providence's graffiti hall of fame, really served as a place where RISD kids and local kids could meet on an equal footing, across social lines, something that doesn't happen often. There was a riot there in 1993 after a May Day party, punk rock shows were thrown inside: there are a ton of stories about the place.
But beyond that, the tunnel also really serves as a symbol of Providence, to me. It was opened in 1908 as a commuter link between the booming towns on eastern shore of Rhode Island and down town Providence, then as the automobile came into it's own and ridership on the commuter line dwindled. Freight was carried through until 1981, but as one person told me, Providence simply stopped manufacturing things to carry over the rails, so the tunnel was abandoned. Providence as a whole, at that time, was really, really down. Now, as Providence continues to go through its 'Renaissance' the right of way to the tunnel has been turned into a parking lot for million dollar condos. I also find the actual space of the tunnel, the act of walking through it, to be borderline spiritual, so I really want to explore not only that feeling, but the challenge of conveying that feeling through a printed book to someone who has never been there.
I don't know if I ever tried to make scratchy comics like those that came out of things like Paper Rodeo. I think I ripped those kids off a lot more in terms of my silkscreen aesthetic. But one comics artist that I constantly try to rip off, who I was lucky enough to have as a teacher, is David Mazzuchelli. I think his influence, not just on me, but on a lot of underground comics and illustration today is highly under-rated. His drawing style is filled with deceptively loose, inky brushwork and yet he manages to make every line, every stroke hits exactly where it needs to. He was also, as far as I understand it, one of the first people to start printing underground comics using just a black and one pantone. The Rubber Blanket anthology he co-published with his wife, Richmond Lewis, has been a huge influence. Between him and my old roommate (another former Mazzuchelli student), R. Kikuo Johnson, I really ought to just cut a royalty check.
But back to that scratchy, Fort Thunder stuff, if you look at the really great comics work to come out of that era, Brian Chippendale's work, Mat Brinkman's stuff, Leif Goldberg's, Jim Drain's and more recently CF and Ben Jones, the drawing is incredibly smart, every line counts in all of those guys' comics. They make it look easy and it I can see it coming off as naive, but it is so intricate and it is really intelligent, informed comic making.
For me, all the work I do, the 'zines, the illustration, the gallery work, it all satisfies different needs. I know it is confusing, and I know I am probably shooting myself in the foot by utilizing very different styles for different projects so people don't quite know what they are going to get, but it is important to me to be able to explore different ideas in different manners. I compartmentalize my work intentionally, the illustration/commercial work really geared towards re-production, it is intended to be printed and distributed and accompanied by other material, be that text or photographs or whatever. That work also really allows me to explore humor and my somewhat nerdy comic book interests. I try to make people laugh with that stuff, or at least smile and shake their head.
My studio drawings, on the other hand, are inspired a lot by contemporary media imagery, be it on the news or in blockbuster movies, I'm very interested in the dominance of images of America destroyed. Even before September 11th this has been a common theme, but one of the things I think we all found startling about the news footage from that day was how right Hollywood got it.
I mean, no one was really surprised to see how it looks when a plane hits a building. The act itself was astounding, but the visuals were not new. The reality of it, the fact that the lights didn't come up and we didn't leave the theater: that is what was shocking. I really started exploring these images of the destruction of the American landscape right before Katrina. Watching the news, I had a morbid, awful fascination with the pictures of what was going on down there because that is what I had been trying to draw. It went from being fiction to on TV. I mean, the drawings I make are still are fictitious, but the images explore that we have seen paralleled in real life.
Yeah, I really throw a lot at these drawings, different tools for different marks. Most pieces involve some combination of watercolor, ink, acrylic, gouache, enamel, silkscreen and spray-paint on paper. I also sometimes draw into already printed material, mostly aerial shots of cities I tear out of books. I think that it is a little confusing for some people, because sometimes the distinction between what I have drawn and what I have appropriated isn't always immediately apparent. And I think that is fine. They are not meant to be straightforward narrative drawings, they are intended to be slightly obscured. If I can extend that to the execution, so you cant tell immediately how I made them, I'm happy. If I can use a bunch of different methods to make one coherent body of work, where it takes people a second to recognize what is made with what, that is fine to me. These drawings are intended to be slightly confusing, I hope it adds to the sense of unease and anxiety that I am trying to hint at.
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