From his Venice studio, artist Alejandro Gehry pays homage to musicians who are larger than life.
“When people think about punk, they think about the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop,” says artist Alejandro Gehry, as he walks through his Venice studio, his voice an echoing pinball between the cement floors and the 14-foot-high ceilings. “They tend to not think about the powerful, talented women.” His latest oversize canvases, currently blanketing the walls of the industrial space and depicting fierce musical heroines including Joan Jett, Siouxsie Sioux and Penelope Houston, seek to right that wrong.
He gestures to one of his muses, a woman with a mop of red curls wearing a tiara and a lip-curling scowl, glorified in brash oil paints against a backdrop of photo-realistic, black-and-white Xeroxed fliers. “That’s Poison Ivy from the Cramps. She’s a bit more rockabilly—she always looks like she is going to hit you,” he says appreciatively of the guitarist.
Gehry has been working on this canon for two years; it follows Empires Make Up—paintings whose jumping-off point was World War I headwear and its evolution from decorative to protective (an array of real-life examples sits on a nearby shelf). He layered modern meaning over that start, conflating the war’s centennial with the debate over women in combat, and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” via scenes depicting female soldiers from opposing sides in the Great War in lustful encounters.
He teaches one day a week at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts; the other days he’s here—a short commute from his home upstairs. He lives there with his wife and fellow artist, Carrie Jenkins. Though their aesthetics are distinct (he’s influenced by an outré ’80s sensibility; her work feels dreamier, with rebellious undercurrents), the two share an illustrative quality and a love for things figurative and feminist.
The artist attributes his career in part to his father, architect Frank Gehry, who recognized his son’s aptitude for visual learning at a young age, thanks to an interest in the creative output of his dad’s social circle. “At 3 or 4 years old, I could recognize the paintings of some of his friends: Ellsworth Kelly, Sam Francis, Ed Moses—these guys that I sort of grew up hanging out with,” Gehry says.
He attended RISD, majoring in illustration—a choice influenced by his childhood affinity for superhero comics and, later, independent graphic novels by the likes of Adrian Tomine. In 2001, a commission for murals for the Issey Miyake store in New York set him on his current path, and contained a symbolic clue to the antiestablishment themes that would recur: a safety pin in his subjects’ ears. “I wouldn’t call myself a punk but the movement has always been an influence in my work, my style, music and politics—especially with what is going on politically right now,” he says. “I have always pushed boundaries…if that isn’t punk, I don’t know what is.” • MELISSA GOLDSTEIN
Edited by Kelsey McKinnon.
PHOTOS: Jessica Sample.