By Matt Cosper
February 25, 2019
Painter Alexandra Loesser Schoen is an alchemist of image and color, working in oils to create dynamic aethers and dream-like images of animals, humans, and creatures somewhere in between. By placing symbolically rich figures into fields of pulsating color, Schoen sets the stage for her viewers to encounter their own personal mythologies. In conversation recently at her studio, Schoen unraveled the threads of her creative process and the work that results from her intimate choreography of color and form.
Born in Glendora, California, Schoen moved to Charlotte at age five and graduated from Providence High School in 2005. After high school Schoen returned to California for a few years but ended up back in Charlotte, where a painting class at CPCC shifted her perspective of herself as an artist. “I thought I wanted to be a film major. I didn’t even know. I’d drawn my whole life but never painted…I took a little painting class at CPCC and painting was just really natural,” she says. “And then once I majored in it there was nothing else I was going to do.”
Schoen speaks highly of the skilled faculty and rigorous training she encountered at UNCG where she obtained her BFA in painting. She credits tough critiques as having taught her and the rest of her cohorts to drop their defenses and bad attitudes in order to grow into more mature creators. While art school was transformative for Schoen, discipline after school served her well in her career. “When I got out of school I treated it like a nine-to-five job. I got up everyday and I worked even when I didn’t feel like it. You’ve just got to put the hours in, and at least try, every day.”
Discussing her mode of working, it becomes clear why the discipline of daily practice is so important to her. She describes a method that is organic and intuitive, following emotional impulses wherever they may lead, whether that’s down a blind alley or toward a completed work. “I don’t do a lot of preplanning, and in a lot of ways I think that might hurt me, but if I do too much pre-planning I get bored with it. I have to let it happen spontaneously,” she says.
Daily attention and keen instinct is required for the openness of this process. Looking at her work and articulating her process Schoen seems something like a predatory bird, scanning her imaginative landscape for a hint of movement before swooping down on her prey. There is a patience to this which belies her own assessment of herself: “I jump to decisions. I jump to paintings. I grab on to ideas. They don’t always work out because I don’t always think through them. But often the ones you feel really inclined to jump on are the ones that turn out to be good work.”
Schoen’s works are often inhabited by animals and she affirms that nature provides a bit of distance for working through difficult material. “I feel like I’m always in between my first and my next existential crisis so I’m usually working through phases of my life or a certain emotion that I feel like I need to explore,” she says. “Sometimes I use animals for that because it allows you to be like a third party.”
Using wild creatures in this way, as a means of mediating intense emotion, gives Schoen’s animals a totemic presence in her work, elevating the imagery from merely representational to near mythic. Schoen asserts that art should be both beautiful and honest, and acknowledges that honesty and beauty are hugely subjective. She notes a painting which features a lioness’s bloodstained maw and elaborates: “‘Beautiful’ is a personal thing. I saw a lot of beauty in that blood-soaked lion. If you take away context and look at the color and the texture on their own without the narrative it can be really beautiful once you dissect it.”
When asked about the consequences of the image’s inescapable context (it’s never going to be pure shape and color; it is in fact a painting of a bloody lion mid-meal) Schoen replies: “I think animals live a very pure existence and I’m kind of envious of that. The lion isn’t killing because it’s a serial killer. It’s hungry.”
Just as impressive as her handling of emotion and the unconscious is Schoen’s technical skill. Her works are the product of a well-trained and self-assured hand. A lifetime of experience in drawing contributes to the confident realism of Schoen’s rendering of animals and human figures in her work. It is the opportunities inherent in color, however, that define the medium of painting for Schoen. “Color is just the best. And the dimension you can get…it’s like a living breathing thing on it’s own,” she says.
As she works through the emotional currents that drive her imagery, applying color is its own playful and organic process. The way that Schoen speaks about color reveals an intimate, collaborative relationship: “Some of the colors that I use: my magentas, crimsons, the cad reds, they open up beautifully and not all colors are the same in that way. I love colors that do that for me, you just tint them a little bit and you get a hundred new colors out of them. It’s fun to watch…they take on their own emotions. You’ve got to respect them.”
Schoen’s work reveals itself as at once profoundly personal and yet deeply invested in unconscious zones that transcend ego. Her process is equally fascinating for its dual nature as exploration of self and encounter with the physical facts of her medium: a wrestling match with her materials that has taken a toll on Schoen’s physical health. This unpredictable dance of artist, subject and medium is perhaps what makes Schoen’s work exciting to gallerists and collectors from North Carolina to San Francisco. Her images are striking and executed with polished competence, but that isn’t what is special about them. It’s the vulnerability and struggle vibrating under the surface of it all that is most compelling.