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In the Studio: Alex Venezia

by Allison Malafronte

Alex Venezia in his East Oaks Studio in Raleigh, North Carolina

Consistently creating artwork from an authentic place is not as easy a feat as one might assume. With the many distractions, comparisons, and commercial pressures common in today’s culture, it takes serious dedication to stay true to one’s beliefs and vision. Alex Venezia—a Virginia Beach-raised artist who has recently relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina—has had plenty of practice in this regard. As a self-taught painter, he is not only well-acquainted with endless hours of hard work but also with accountability and introspection. Throughout his journey, he has had to make several self-assessments, including purposefully tuning in to specific qualities in film, music, and story-telling that resonated with him so he could translate that resonance to his fine art. Recurring themes of nostalgia, melancholy, and solitude resulted, and a peaceful stillness in his paintings arose out of his own soulful search for beauty and serenity. 

Over the last two years, Venezia has been enjoying his new residence at East Oaks Studio, where he shares space, ideas, and friendship with painters Michael Klein and Louis Carr. As a team, East Oaks Studio is bringing quality art education to an international audience through their online and in-person workshops and videos, and Venezia is proud to be a part of the camaraderie and collaboration this community is creating. In this Q+A, the artist touches on his work with East Oaks Studios, and shares his thoughts on such topics as art education, studio work, competitions and awards, social media, upcoming projects, and more. 

AM: When did you become involved in East Oaks Studio, and what is your current role there? What is it about EOS’s content, philosophy, and mission that resonates with you personally?

<em>Heartache</em>, 2019, oil on panel, 40 x 27 in., private collectionAV: I was in Norway studying with Odd Nerdrum in early 2018 when East Oaks Studio invited me to work alongside them in their studio. After returning back home, I pretty much immediately moved to North Carolina. I'm involved in the community aspect of the studio, working together under the same roof, and I occasionally teach and do live demonstrations. For me, EOS was an opportunity to work alongside exceptionally skilled painters, gain insight into the life of a professional artist, and make friendships.

AM: Prior to sharing a studio with Michael Klein and Louis Carr in Raleigh, where did you live and have a studio? Was it a shared space or were you by yourself? What are some of the benefits/advantages of sharing a creative space with other like-minded artists?

AV: Prior to moving to Raleigh I lived in my hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia. I had been working completely alone up until that point, with only brief encounters with like-minded individuals during workshops. One of the greatest advantages of working alone is that you’re challenged to hold yourself accountable, and your self-education is not bound to a certain rubric. I’ve also found working around other like-minded individuals to be a great experience. It’s a good feeling to have the hum of others at work around you. There are eyes you can trust for honest feedback, and there’s always something to learn. 

AM: You have won several awards and honors in the last few years, including First Place and the People’s Choice Award at the Portrait Society of America’s 2019 Competition, First Place in the GCA’s 2017 Still Life Competition, and two emerging-talent honors from BuzzFeed and Southwest Art. Do you think there is a need for more competitions and juried processes in the art world to create  motivation and healthy competition?

Garden Roses, 2018, oil, 12 x 19 in., private collection AV: I do wish there were more competitions for representational art that would push painters to their fullest capability. What comes to mind is a competition where artists would have an assigned topic to create a narrative painting from, such as the Prix de Rome in seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century France. In those competitions, the award was grand and the criteria really pushed painters to achieve their full potential. I believe we'd start to see some incredibly transcendent work if we had competitions of that kind—but there needs to be an incentive to do so. 

AM: Speaking of competition, what is your relationship with social media? What do you think the benefits are for artists and what are the disadvantages?

AV: Social media is how I discovered the painters I wanted to learn from, and it also  eventually became the place where the galleries I now work with found my art. So for those reasons, among others, I find social media beneficial. It can also become a place of unhealthy comparison, however, and a source of false validation, so you have to be careful to use it for the right reasons and to not let it skew your vision.  

AM: As a self-taught artist, how difficult was it for you to learn how to paint/how many years did it take? I know you began by studying/copying the Old Masters, but what came next? What were your most valuable resources during that time?

AV: The fact that I didn’t attend an atelier or academy had its disadvantages, including accountability. It took about six to seven years before I started becoming self-sustainable on my work, but I still consider myself in the process of learning. My main education would be a cycle of taking a workshop, putting into practice what I learned, and constantly working. I would watch videos, read books, and try to reverse-engineer paintings. Watching the painters at work during these workshops was really the most valuable—you pick up on little things in their decision-making that you can't find elsewhere. 

<em>Returning Home</em>, 2019, oil on panel, 20 x 33 in., private collection

AM: Your artwork has a strong nostalgic sense, a timeless quality, and often contains feelings of melancholy or loneliness. Is that what painting and capturing beauty is for you? Taking viewers outside of a specific time and place and creating beautiful, stoic scenes that speak to universally understood emotions or situations?

AV: I really appreciate that, thank you. You put it perfectly, "Taking viewers outside of a specific time and place and creating scenes that speak to universally understood emotions." This is a very important philosophy to me as a painter, but I have a long way to go before being able to convincingly achieve this at the level I wish to. I'm interested in what makes a painting convincing, especially when trying to tell a story, and I'm excited for the journey of trying to enhance these skills. I find that we as artists can easily forget our own taste and the aesthetics we're drawn to, and instead emulate what we think a painter ought to paint without realizing it. So, at a certain point I began to become aware of this, and as a result I went through a process of self-examination, studying the films, music, stories, etc. I was drawn to. This is when I started to develop a melancholic sense in my work. It was so obvious to me in everything else I was drawn to, so it's interesting that it took some time to discover it in painting.

Summer Peaches, 2019, oil on panel, 10 x 18 in., private collection

AM: I notice that the positions/poses/expressions of your portrait and figure models are uncommonly beautiful and poetic. Do you typically “direct” your sitters in terms of the emotion or expression you want them to convey, or do you cue off of their natural countenance and circumstances to decide how/what you will paint? 

AV: It's different every time, but I usually go in with an idea of what I want, a general sense of the pose I'm after, and the mood I'm trying to portray. The end result, however, ends up being a combination of that idea and his or her own personality. In many cases, it's how the model rests in between the poses that I've asked them to try that ends up being the perfect pose. 

Melancholia, 2018, oil, 15 x 20 in., private collection

AM: Are there any upcoming paintings, projects, or events in 2020 that you are excited to share?

AV: I’m really excited to explore new ideas and practice more plein air painting and anatomy this year. I'll be in a handful of shows with Arcadia Contemporary, where I'll be showing new work. I have two workshops coming up: one here in Raleigh and the other in Yorkshire, England with Rosemary & Co. Brushes. Hopefully I’ll be spending some time in Rome while in Europe as well.