Know Thyself, the title of Giles Alexander’s latest body of work, is taken from the phrase above the main portico of the temple at Delphi and is perhaps one of the best pieces of advice ever dispensed. In Western and Asian thought alike it forms the basis of long established wisdom governing behaviour and experience. It has been said that all our attempts at progress and development, on both a collective and individual level would be futile without a level of self-consciousness and self-engagement. The battle to know ourselves, to understand our motives and our failings has been constant since times of antiquity. Never has it been more important as we enter an age replete with seemingly infinite sources of information and shifting societal foundations.
One cannot help but directly think of Giles Alexander the artist in relation to the maxim Know Thyself. As a painter he belongs to a long standing academic tradition of virtuously handled oil painting and precision draughtsmanship, yet he stands aside from this, quite purposefully drawing attention to moments where he departs from tradition. This is not willful contrariness; Alexander uses and abuses his polished aesthetic as another way of interrogating his world, provocatively challenging the established ‘norm’ and questioning all that we hold dear.
In his seductive paintings Alexander represents classical sculptures and planets floating and slightly distorted in a hyper-real deep-space environment. In his choice of subject the artist draws attention to those things that are a constant in the modern world; the legacies of Classicism and the Enlightenment and scientific and industrial advancements. These permanent features that underpin our society are contextualized in the wider scheme of the universe beyond. Alexander’s paintings ask us to re-engage with these subjects, which are deeply embedded in our psyche. His juxtapositions lead to an interrogation of how stable these foundations are in the face of ground-breaking scientific research and development taking place across the globe. Realistically, all that we take for granted as a permanent knowledge or a safely held bastion of thought will someday be interrogated and possibly replaced? And so we return to the challenge and importance of working to uphold the maxim, Know Thyself.
There is a visual pun in these paintings between ‘space’ as a crucial component of all painting and ‘space’ the final frontier. Alexander has always focused his attentions on real and imagined space, often drawing our attention to the shifting boundaries between the two. By suspending these painstakingly created figurative elements within optically black, deep resined backgrounds the artist successfully conjures an alternative space in the picture plane, developing an ambiguous and mysterious atmosphere
Underpinning this interest in the status of the image is the very materiality of the work, always executed with a virtuoso academic ability. Alexander raises questions about the role of realist painting and authorship by juxtaposing the revealed hand with the concealed. He explores concepts of looking through, at or upon by contrasting “contemporary” layers of resin and paint over “traditionally” oil glazed imagery, giving illusionistic depth while at the same time a sharp awareness of surface. Giles Alexander cannot be defined by his academic ability nor does he allow himself to be constrained by it. He consistently and expertly carves out new directions for himself, toying with the boundaries of realism and propels all of his paintings into a vital critical dialogue about the world in which we live
Kate Bryan February 2012
Head of Contemporary, The Fine Art Society, New Bond Street, London