We All Live Inside Alec Egan’s Freakish Floral Paintings

Using floral motifs and everyday objects, the Los Angeles painter conjures up crisp still lifes of blissfully domestic settings where psychodrama creeps in and not everything is as it seems. Ahead of his latest solo exhibition, “The Study: A Solo Presentation of New Work by Alec Egan” at Charles Moffett Gallery in New York, he dishes on the common threads between poetry and painting, the influence of Laura Ashley, and why he doesn’t have florals in his own home.

All studio photography by Ye Rin Mok

Your recent shows have all built one room within an imagined home. Even though the homeowner is gone, do you know who lives here?

At times I have an idea about what kind of person lives here, and at times I don’t. The narrative of these concurrent series of paintings aspire to build an entry point for identity construction, however never directly aim to expose a concrete identity. So at times my guess is as good as yours. I think everyone who views the work thoroughly begins to construct their own perception of a character’s identity. That’s what I am mostly interested in.

It’s difficult to not correlate this room, “The Study,” with recent anxieties about remote work and returning to the office. 

Working remotely was not of major exploratory significance to me, selfishly, because as a painter I’m always working remotely, so I don’t really think about it that much. The subject matter of interiors and domesticity does boast a whole new set of psychological complexities due to the pandemic and of course I find that to be an area that’s rich to explore and think about—especially a place in a house we go to assimilate information or to learn. The study functions as a space where, on one hand, one might obsess over a problem they can’t fix (trying to solve the unsolvable) yet on the other hand might be a place one retreats to escape in fantasy or hobby. I thought that duality was appealing and timely to explore. 

How do you know which objects to include in each room? What do you think they say about the owner? 

The objects kind of include themselves. Rarely is an object’s inclusion pointed and symbolic. Instead they’re more about connecting visual motifs and trying to be additive while also retaining a sense of normalcy in the compositions. Through building the rooms as organically as one might design their home—through accumulation—the objects and their placement feel completely familiar and yet, very singular to the environment of the paintings. This tension helps the viewer feel like they’re constantly on the verge of placing the environment but always just out of reach. 

The floral patterns resemble those by Laura Ashley, an iconic brand described as “quintessentially English” yet one whose recent bankruptcy filing is leaving it squarely in the past. But laced throughout these paintings are feelings of dread for the future. Do you find that you think about the future or the past more while you’re creating?

I can’t believe Laura Ashley is bankrupt! I didn’t know that. They definitely helped usher patterns into a certain mainstream lexicon. I remember seeing them all over growing up. Despite Laura Ashley’s demise, the use and popularity of patterns is constantly waxing and waning. What was widely adorned in the 1940s/’50s/’60s in pattern and design can and has reemerged in the 21st century as campy chic and now widespread popularity once again. The recycling of cultural iconography intrigues me because it helps reference both the past and present (and perhaps the future) creating spaces that are oddly both nostalgic and current.

Each work seems to ascribe deeper meaning to mundane objects, from an unhooked telephone to single clementine. Have you always paid attention to the little things?

I have. I feel like I’ve always had a bit of an existential inclination philosophically which, in a strange reversal of logic, has made me more connected to banal objects. In other words, while I’ve always questioned the meaning of everything at large, I’ve found comfort and connection in the unconditional domestic objects that surround me. I guess the artifact of a painting is so interesting to me because it exists somewhere between the existential and the banal domestic object. It bridges a gap. 

There are also cultural references, such as the Jaws poster.

I was interested in the Jaws poster because of the imagery, which evokes a reptilian-brain anxiety. I think that type of evocative primal anxiety is one that we can all relate to as of late. 

How does your poetry background shape your artistry? If you could capture the show’s essence in one poem, what would it be?

Good poetry is about using the economy of language to expose the true nature of something no matter how big or small. This is what I hope to do through the language of painting—looking at the little things and the economy of how they are composed in relation to one another and hopefully exposing something nuanced about their identity or that of their owner’s identity. I don’t know if there’s a poem that can capture the show or one that speaks to its essence directly, but this Mary Oliver stanza comes to mind:

Where will we go
with our table and chairs,
our bed,
our nine thousand books,
our TV, PC, VCR,
our cat
who is sixteen years old?
Where will we put down
our dishes and our blue carpets,
where will we put up
our rose-colored,

Does the repetitious rendering of floral illustrations ever get tedious?

Oh boy it does, and all I can hope is that the psychological feat that it sometimes takes to make the paintings is somehow imbued in the paintings themselves.

You’ve said that it “blows your mind” that humans have removed flowers so far from their original habitat—from nature to gardens, indoor potted plants, and now printed on wallpaper. Why do you think we gravitate toward florals as a design element?

Besides fire, flowers are probably the oldest naturally occurring phenomenon to hold symbolic cultural value. I don’t know why that happened, besides common sense. For this reason, they are and forever will be humanity’s predominant icon of beauty and therefore lend themselves to endless design tropes. 

Do any floral patterns appear in your own space, or is that something you’d rather keep on the canvas?

I keep it on the canvas. I spend so much time making the patterns it’s kind of like I live with them. When I’m not with the patterns, I prefer to be in a more open, blank space. 

What compels you to continue exploring ideas behind still lifes? Has your appreciation of the genre evolved throughout lockdown? 

My appreciation of still life is equal to what it was pre-lockdown. Exploring still lifes is of equal interest to me as being reluctant to explore the figure. Through still life, one can demonstrate the prosaic device of “showing” instead of “telling.” That excites me as a storyteller.

You’re also debuting sculptures for the first time. 

I’m debuting sculpture as well as a wallpaper and flooring installation. All of these decisions were made to accentuate the psychological effect of the patterns but also to make the conceptual keynotes of the interior come alive. I really hope it’ll turn out as peculiarly overwhelming as I imagine it will. 

What room will you build next?

This is the question everyone always asks me! I never really know which room I will build next, but I’ve been wanting to explore the attic of this house for a while. 

The Study: A Solo Presentation of New Work by Alec Egan” will be on display at Charles Moffett Gallery (511 Canal Street, New York) from Sept. 7–Oct. 9. 

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