Personal Mythology: Interview with Nessi Alexander-Barnes
By Sarah Mills
Nessi Alexander-Barnes uses the pronouns xe and xyr. Xe earned both a BFA in Studio Art & Design and a BS in Art History at Towson University, MD. Xe is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Missouri.
As someone who identifies as nonbinary and transgender, I have found a dearth of representations in popular media of people whose lives resemble my own. The things I create are my answer to this problem. Popular culture is our contemporary version of mythology- stories in which we invest parts of ourselves, that celebrate ourselves and our people, and that explain the world as we experience it. My artwork involves the creation of a personal mythology to fill that gap, populated by brightly-colored zoomorphic characters whose system of iconography is partially influenced by my art historical research and my idiosyncratic (mis)interpretations of mass culture. These characters enact allegorical narratives about my experiences as a person who is, among other things, genderqueer and pansexual and generally queer in a number of ways. I do not disclose the lexicon that goes into the creation of my imagery, because I want viewers to experience my work similarly to how I experience culture at large: as an outsider, who nevertheless forms relationships to the culture I’m trying to interface with through idiosyncratic interpretation.
Tell us about your artistic background.
Formally, I had some art training in high school, where my teachers thought I was a promising if a frustrating student who had some problems with authority and was easily distracted. I furiously resisted the idea of taking art seriously for a very very long time, tried to do a biotech degree, spent a brief year as a history major wherein I didn't actually take any history classes and took a bunch of art classes instead, and finally just leaned into it and shifted to art. During my time as an art major, I was really into art history as well, because it fed my work, and I got halfway through a double major without noticing it, at which point I added the major and a semester. I thus have two undergraduate degrees, a BFA in Art & Design and a BS in Art History from Towson University. I am currently doing an MFA at the University of Missouri.
Informally, I have always drawn compulsively. Usually, on things, I wasn't supposed to, much to the chagrin of my family and teachers and the occasional unfortunate employee of restaurants where I was given crayons as a child. I got on the internet early, in 2000, at the age of 10, and immediately gravitated to fandom communities with a drawing component. These communities are the places where I learned how to obsessively read into anything narrative left nearby, how to queer mainstream culture, how to use these personal stories to understand the world around me, and the powerful symbolism that one can put into an original character. It was also my first connection to the queer world at large, and the first space where-- it's not so much that I wasn't alien in terms of my experiences and the way I interface with the world, but it was the first space where it was okay to be alien in that way.
You identify as Nonbinary & Genderqueer, Panromantic, and Demisexual. How do these identities influence and drive your art?
They are primary drivers of everything I do. I exist at a confluence of many different identities, some of them big and systemic and others of which are more minor. Nonbinary/genderqueer/panromantic/demisexual are the ones I put most forward in my work, but they're not the only ones in it. As one would expect, they mark me as an atypical subject.
One of my major interests is culture and cultural products; alongside the interpersonal ill-treatment and institutional abuse that comes with being queer or LGBTQ, you're always highly aware of the fact that culture at large wasn't designed to include queer people. That awareness is profoundly alienating, because of these cultural products-- books, movies, anything we engage with-- functions as our contemporary mythology-- a set of stories that explain the world in a way consistent with or that reflects the experiences of the people engaging with them. The exclusion, which is usually deliberate and often viciously advocated for by whole swaths of our culture, is a reiteration of queer & LGBTQ people's being welcome in society at large.
At the same time, I love our cultural products. I engage with them all the time, even when I'm not represented in them. And, as so many LGBTQ and queer people have, I've taken those cultural products and altered them for my own purposes, reworked them so that I fit into that narrative. My work is the product of that. I've taken all the cultural influences and all the idiosyncratic ways I've queered them over my lifetime and churned them into a personal mythology that I put out there to make myself visible.
The lack of representation of queer & LGBTQ people in media is changing in good and meaningful ways, but that's an extremely slow process, and it necessarily involves simplification. You get one LGBTQ character in some media, and usually, they're one of two types: a gay man, usually white, or a lesbian who so frequently dies in the storyline that it's become a trope. We'll all die of age if we're content to wait around for the companies that make our mythologies to decide that we're profitable enough to market to and start representing us on their own. Additionally, even with the changes that have already happened and the push we are making for more representation, what can be given to us externally won't be able to represent the beautiful variation of queer and LGBTQ experiences. I have had a very unique experience of queerness and being LGBTQ, and so has every other queer and LGBTQ person I've spoken to. Those experiences deserve to be represented, and they deserve more than the boiled-down simplification that happens when you try to tell multiple peoples' stories at once, especially when that so often comes with a few voices being elevated further than the rest. The queer/LGBTQ communities have a historical problem of some members trying to speak for the experiences of all members, which has led to the alienation of an injury to queer/LGBTQ people of color and transgender people.
My work is my answer to some of those problems. It's my belief that if we want a cultural mythology, and if we want that cultural mythology to be representative of the many rich queer/LGBTQ experiences in all of their elegant complication, the best way to do that is to tell our own stories, and to make our own art, and to do it in our own voices. My work is my mythology, it reflects my unique subject position, it tells my stories and it renders me visible and it seeks to reflect the world that I experience as I understand it.
I hope for it to exist alongside the work of people engaged in similar projects. It also invites people to cross-identify with it, just as I cross-identify with external culture. People who share some of my identities might recognize some of the symbolism, but because it comes from the point of convergence of several identities, most viewers will only get part of it, and some might get more than others. Thus, I invite viewers to cross-identify and to queer it in order to find some space in it, just as I queer mainstream culture.
Can you tell us a little about where you source your imagery from?
The shortish answer: I filter my experiences, the serious thoughts that vex me, my concerns, my hopes, my happinesses, my victories, and my trials and tribulations-- all of the stuff that feeds into my experience of being - through a personal iconography, which I use to come up with characters and situations, that I then draw as allegories and render into whatever materials prove relevant to the individual work's meaning.
The longer answer is that, as I previously mentioned, I've spent my life engaging fondly (and queering) an external culture to which I am alien and whose cultural products were never meant for me. I also have two undergraduate degrees, one of which is in art history, and a lifelong fondness for mythology. This has given me an appreciation for iconography and for how zoomorphic entities have been vectors for symbolism and ideas. I grew up on the internet engaging with fandom, which is a fantastic education in how to queer things. All of these things combined have fed an internal iconographic lexicon that is composed both of mass cultural symbolism and some idiosyncratic deviations from that received symbolism. I use that lexicon to formulate the characters and the situations that become my imagery.
I've done this for a very long time, particularly with the characters, though it has grown a lot more sophisticated and intentional across that time. The oldest characters I've drawn, who are also my three most frequently used and who figure prominently in the laser-etched Ablations series, were all first made when I was about 10. Their iconography has evolved, but the roots of this project started early.
You work a lot with laser-etched quilting cotton how did that start? What drew you to this practice?
At the time, I was working with hand-cut appliques in highly-patterned quilting fabric. Hand-cutting the complex figures of my characters is a time-intensive and painstaking process. To save me some time, one of my advisors suggested that I try to use the laser engraver to cut out my figures.
I took a while to think about it, specifically about what it might mean. I use the quilting fabric because it's an intimate material, its intended purpose is to make a blanket that touches our skin, and those quilts often have a narrative attached-- either in the imagery or in the making ("my grandmother gave this on the occasion of etc"), or both-- they keep us warm and protect us. More staid versions of the same fabric (cotton or silk) get turned into clothing that we wear, that touches us intimately all the time. The cotton fabric is thus a kind of skin that carries a lot of cultural and intimate symbolism, and that we use, through deliberate choices of surface design, to represent information about ourselves. The laser burns material to cut through it, and my first thought with lasers was the medical application-- we use them to burn out imperfections or remove dangerous growths. Ours is not a medical laser, but it still burns out the designs of its user's choice from a substrate by removing the sections that are unwanted. One of the identities that I only occasionally disclose but which does drive my work is Masochist, and within that, I have an interest in the scarification of my body, and my scars as being a record of experiences.
Using the laser to burn my mythology into these quilting fabrics, and so to add onto their surface design the impression of my history, seemed really appropriate to my goals for the work. I also found it appealing to appropriate and slightly-misuse an industrial technology in the name of artmaking, as did Rauschenberg and Johns and Warhol, who are excellent historical references for anyone making queer art and, at least partially, deriving their imagery from popular culture and subcultural experience. Finally, the results of this process are extremely delicate, because the visible lines are actually the trapped ash remnants of the burning. For them to resolve into images against the busy backgrounds I frequently choose for them takes some work on the part of the viewer, and can only be done from a few feet away. They require a quality of intimate attention from the person who views them.
What is your studio practice like?
My studio practice is nomadic, which is partly because of my many processes and partially a relic from when my living situation was insecure and I could only consistently access scraps of paper and found ballpoint pens. My practice is also very academic. At least half of what I call my studio practice is research and reading, often things like queer and feminist theory. I have learning disabilities; I listen to my books with voiceover (my partner hates the robot voice) while I'm drawing, which actually helps me internalize what I read and feeds later concepts. I do consider that an extremely critical aspect of my studio practice.
There's also a segment of my studio practice grounded in writing; I'll often write about some concepts I'm interested in, or the things that are bothering me, and that I'd like to feed into a picture, in the form of little loose journal-essays, and then that will guide me when I start thinking about what iconography I need to turn those thoughts into an image.
My studio practice also shifts between digital and analog, but it's always grounded in drawing. I get the ideas into the imagery, and then I draw out the imagery either digitally or with tracing paper or in variously colored pens literally on top of one another, and then I translate that imagery into the media and/or states that feed its meaning.
You work in so many different mediums is there one that stands out to you as being your favorite?
The decision to work in a lot of media is a conceptual decision because my experience of being queer and LGBTQ (and neuroatypical) has been so fluid and variable and required a lot of adaptation. I also tend to genuinely enjoy all of the media I work in, but I think that's because I'm actually pretty easy to please. But in addition to their historical context and material traditions and their interpretations, which are the basis for my choosing them in any particular piece (a nod to my background in the academic arts and one that people with a similar background can find interpretive purchase in), each media and process has physical benefits and limitations that are both enjoyable and really frustrating in the making of each work.
If I had to choose, I think my favorite medium/process would be drawing, either digitally or with a ballpoint pen. It is the process that remains consistent (if, occasionally, invisible) across all of my work. I like it for its immediacy and for the flow of thinking through these ideas that bounce around my head all the time, and their translation through my hand, in real time.
Where do you hope to see your work go next?
I would really like my work to be included alongside of that of other queer artists and writers who are working to represent their experiences and lifeworlds, because I really do believe that the best way to represent and celebrate the fantastic variation of queer and LGBTQ communities & people is to elevate the voices of many of us at the same time, and to forge identifications and connections both across and within communities. I want to help make that happen.
I also have some projects in mind for the future that involve an element of curation and/or archiving.