When Alexis McGrigg (b. 1989) was a young girl, she would sit on the front porch of her home in Omaha, Nebraska, and think that ‘somehow there was an alternate space I was supposed to exist in’.
After graduating with a BFA in painting from Mississippi State University in 2012, she studied for an MFA at Texas Tech University. And when that childhood memory resurfaced, she began to relate the notion of an alternate space to the ideas she had started to develop on the subject of black existence and how it manifests in physical and non-physical forms.
Five years on, Blackness and the spaces it inhabits are the thread running through her work, which embraces transmedia, installation, drawing and paintings such as those included in Say It Loud, the online selling exhibition organised by Christie’s in 2020 following the Black Lives Matter protests.
She is now represented by the Richard Beavers Gallery in Brooklyn, where a group exhibition featuring her work ends on 28 February and a solo show opens in April. Elsewhere this year, her work will be exhibited at South Korea’s Czong Institute for Contemporary Art in April, the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi, in July, and the Mississippi Museum of Art in August.
McGrigg thinks about Blackness in myriad ways, but, as she explains from her studio in Jackson, Mississippi, ‘it always begins in the body and how it moves through space. I use my physical body as a reference to the opening to see into a larger, metaphysical space. It’s like I’m trying to get so in tune with myself that I’m also in tune with my ancestors who are in this space.’
This connection with her ancestors, she says, connects her to ‘those experiences that are embedded in our DNA, the psychological trauma that, in some ways, makes us who we are as a people’.
One result of this process is Blackness: Violet Deep, a series of haunting paintings of spectral figures emerging from layers and drips of colour — some of which are shown in the video above.
McGrigg usually works in a ‘white box studio’, using sprayed fabric dyes to create ‘small speckles or particles’ that replicate her vision of Blackness. During the pandemic, she switched to working outside with fabric dyes and charcoal, but her process remained dynamic.
‘It requires a lot of my physical body and energy,’ she says. ‘I work pretty swiftly as I’m layering the fabric dyes. I’m doing a lot of pouring, a lot of rapid, jagged movements.’
Making art is a spiritual process for McGrigg, a ritual that involves meditation and repetition to help her reach a point ‘where we shed all the thoughts of who we think we are’.
‘When artists create from a place that’s true to them,’ she says, ‘people respond from a place that’s also true for them.’
Poetry also plays a huge role in her work: she might visualise an image inspired by a poem to ‘steer’ a work she is making; or use a word or phrase that comes up as she is working as inspiration for ‘free writing’, which becomes layers of script in her work.
‘I will get these phrases in my head,’ she says. ‘And then I’ll just start painting and pouring and moving.’
‘I’ve cried in my studio, because it’s painful to think about these ideas. But at the same time I feel empowered’ — Alexis McGrigg
McGrigg’s enigmatic figures emerge gradually during the layering process, she says. Having focused on black male subjects in the past, she now wants to think more about the ‘female figure and the energetic connectivity between two humans’ — and look beyond anger to how Blackness feels ‘when we are loved, or at peace’.
Clearly, the process is both intensely emotional and enormously invigorating. ‘Sometimes I’ve cried in my studio, because it’s painful to think about these ideas,’ she says. ‘But at the same time I feel empowered, because while I have watched others create narratives about black existence, this, me, being in my studio, is my right. It’s is my voice, saying: I am going to tell you who we are.’
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Again, there is that idea of being part of something bigger. ‘I feel like someone’s at my back when I’m working in my studio, saying: “Keep going! You can do it! You’re important! Say what you need to say.”’