The art of space

Giles Alexander and his work Eye on the Heavens: Portrait of Professor Brian Schmidt
Credit: Giles Alexander

 

Giles Alexander is hard at work painting his preoccupation – space. He takes a break from his studio in Sydney, Australia, to talk to me about his upcoming London exhibition, E=mc2, at the Fine Art Society in London.

The English-born painter, who moved to Australia in 2000, grew up with a passion for cosmology and physics, which certainly shows through in his latest works. The exhibition features large-scale, detailed depictions of gas giants and their moons such as Io and Titan, supernova remnants and scientific spaces here on Earth, like the Large Hadron Collider.

Discussing the planetary subject matter, Giles describes his painting style as hyper-realist. “I paint in a very traditional, oil on linen manner. I don’t like short cuts,” he says, explaining that the paintings are a way of reconciling the ‘fine art’ history and tradition that his technique comes from, with images that are beamed back from the outer Solar System and beyond, such as Home? #4, below.

“For me, science is the most exciting realm of humanity right now, and I think that images like this have become part of the collective subconscious,” he says. “In a way I see this work as a time capsule – these paintings hold the aspirations and technological signposts of the society that created them.”

But don’t the images created from the Voyager and Cassini spacecraft data do this more directly? I ask. “Yes,” says Giles. “That time capsule may also contain the original Cassini image. But it says something different that a human has bothered to record them in a fine-art medium – it says something about how these space missions’ discoveries and findings are interpreted by human society.”

Giles also points to the very presence of his paintings – many of the canvases measure over a metre on their longest side – as being something that is completely different to seeing them in an everyday way, either online or in print. “You could go down to a high street printers with a digital file and get a ‘better’ image,” he says. “But to see the hand-made, meticulously resolved nature of these subjects in a painting is physically arresting.”

Another striking aspect is Giles’s use of a reflective, high-gloss resin layer on the otherwise matte surface of his works. Does that not make the picture harder to see? “It does make the image hard to read, but I want people to have to work to see them,” says Giles. “It’s an additional filter that holds that disbelief for another second as you’re forced to ask yourself, ‘Is it mass produced, or is it hand made?’

Also important for the artist is the way that this reflective layer puts the viewer in the picture, for instance when they're looking at Home? #1, pictured right. "They’re like dark mirrors with the images hanging in them,” he says. “And this encapsulated floating image raises several questions – is it of deep space, is it a mirror, is it a surface?”

In the end, for Giles these reflections, the hyper-realism, it’s about illusion. “What is real?” he asks. “This 2D image, or the images of Io and Titan that are beamed back to us by spacecraft?”

While the latter may be based on data registered on scientific instruments, to make an impact in the wider world it must be put across in a way that we are familiar with – as an image.

“As soon as we leave our tiny planet, we leave our frames of reference behind,” Giles explains. “We have to throw out the colour spectrum and even orientation, the simple question of what is up and what is down.”

Giles Alexander, E=mc2 is at the Fine Art Society, London, from 30 May to 23 June. For more details visit www.faslondon.com or www.gilesalexander.com