One winter night outside a bar called Tortilla Flats in Manhattan I told my friend Alexis de Chaunac about where my father was on 9/11.
Those days I wasn’t smoking cigarettes, I was chain-smoking them, and as I lit my third Marlboro in fifteen minutes I said “My father lived in SoHo on the top floor of a loft at the corner of Mercer and Prince street. Every morning he woke up and ate yogurt and granola prepared by his assistant. Every morning he stood in the kitchen and ate his delicate breakfast while the espresso machine purred. My father. When the espresso machine came to an abrupt mechanical stop—thrrump—he picked up his little cup and strolled peacefully through the kitchen and into the living room. There, he turned on the TV, already tuned to the news.
“On the morning of September 11th, 2001, my father ate his granola and low-fat yogurt as always, slowly, enjoying it. A morning treat. Possibly with blueberries. Afterwards, he carried his Italian espresso into the living room. Wielding the remote controller, my father turned on the TV. A single point in the center of the black screen zipped open and exploded into vivid color, immediately revealing the North Tower in flames.
“My father. It took some time for him to realize what he was looking at. It took still more time for him to realize that the city where he lived was experiencing a catastrophe. What’s more: this was live, and happening only a mile away. So, still carrying his little, milky-white espresso cup, my father left the living room and walked to the staircase, located in the center of the loft, and which directly accessed the building’s roof.”
I paused at this point in the story to pull on my cigarette and squint at the glowing ember produce the growing ash. Alexis wore a cashmere scarf. He had black hair, moused, and a thin mustache. My friend is a distinct, timeless figure; both a gothic character and stately globetrotter. His style is unique. I call it Traditional Surrealist meets European Politician, Contemporary.
I continued: “My father ascended the staircase, opened the giant steel door at the top of it, and emerged outside into that crisp, fantastic September morning. Before he could even comprehend what was happening, he turned to face downtown and saw the second plane disappear into the South Tower—Ka-blamo. All day afterwards my father stood in awe on top of his building as chaos enveloped the island.”
I took the last pull of my cigarette, chucked it on the pavement, and crushed the butt underneath the sole of my shoe, smoke still streaming from my nostrils. A smile slowly spread across Alexis’s face. His right hand was on his waist, elbow out, creating a sideways v-shape. He lifted his left hand in front of him and pinched his thumb and forefinger together, leaving a little space between the fingertips.
“And the coffee cup?” he said. “And the coffee cup? What, em, happened to the coffee cup? Did he drop this, actually? In the shock of the moment, did your father drop the cup? He dropped it, no? So that it fell, as if in slow motion, and shattered onto the ground? Spilling coffee everywhere?”
The first time I ever saw Alexis’s drawings we were in his family’s townhouse on the Upper East Side. I waited in the dining room while Alexis retrieved his work. On each wall was a painting. Each painting featured hands. Some people collect art they can afford. Others collect art people will recognize. Still others collect pictures that speak to them, and what spoke to the de Chaunac-Lanzac family were hands.
Alexis emerged from a gloomy corridor, walking briskly while carrying an old leather binder like a monk might clutch a sacred text.
I said “Ah ha!”
He said “Would you like Nespresso? We have the machine.”
Alexis placed the leather binder onto the table. He opened the cover. One by one, he gingerly removed pictures that were drawn on lined-notebook pages, book pages, postcards, thick old paper, all types of paper; whatever he could get his hands on, it seemed. He arranged the pictures salon-style on the table. I saw faces and creatures. Violent strokes and intense detail. Hungry colored-pencil drawings. Moody charcoal black & whites.
I pored over the drawings. Alexis stood behind me. When I glanced over my shoulder I noticed that he kept his hands behind his waist. It was as if he was seeing me see his work in the same way a child psychologist might watch a toddler arrange colored blocks. When I looked back at the work I got lost in it. I saw agony in the eyes of Alexis’s characters. A beast’s insatiable gums. Bugs. Heroes. Freaks.
Finally, I lifted my head and blinked. Alexis was on the other side of the long table, watching me, two hands cradling a coffee cup.
He blew gently on the Nespresso and said, “These, actually, I drew when I was eight.”
So it’s official, I thought, grimacing. My friend is a genius.
Alexis explained that he had always been a draughtsman. His grandfather, the important Mexican artist José Luis Cuevas, was a major inspiration in his life. Alexis learned to draw from watching a master. What’s even more compelling is that throughout his life Alexis made art to organize his thoughts and experiences. He drew to understand things and keep track of them. Pictures, in other words, were Alexis’s first journal.
I’ve always admired my friend’s ongoing commitment to himself. On this visit, drawing wasn’t even his passion or focus. He was making films! Yet, Alexis took care of these early artworks. He nurtured and shared them as parts of himself.
2012 was a strange time in my life when everybody’s father was dead or dying. Four friends in as many months got the bad news about Dad and were Dealing. Two friends, in fact, called me on the same day, within an hour of each other, and told me two very different stories that had the same shitty ending.
What are the odds of that? I remember thinking.
Since my dad died three years prior in January 2009, I did my best to be helpful to these people. If not on the other side of that dark forest, I was further enmeshed in it. Like Robin Williams in Jumanji, I was somewhat lunatic, but had erratic wisdom. I could suggest at least a few do’s and don’ts regarding the ordeal of dead daddy woes.
For Alexis, 2012 was also a time of rich artistic expression. His father was in the hospital, but he was also a visual art student at Sarah Lawrence College. Dividing his time between the cancer ward and his studio in Heimbold Visual Arts Center, Alexis conceived of one of the first major series of his artistic career: Le Traite D’Anatomie Humaine.
For this series, Alexis pulled pages from a 19th century anatomy book which featured realistic drawings of organs, bones, and cells in the human body. Using colored pencils and white charcoal, he repurposed body parts, transforming them into attributes of faces and busts. A liver might become a cheek jowl.
Once a larynx, now a nose.
Alexis says that “This was a time in which I realized that we are these bags of bones and flesh. So I was interested in exploring my relationship with the human body, and what it meant to me. The original images triggered something in me, and I transformed them into something else.”
Another striking piece from this period is an abstract take on the Agony of St. Sebastian. Towering over seven feet tall on a rectangular strip of paper, Alexis’s Sebastian is a rich, thick black trunk pierced with thirteen even blacker rods.
Alexis admits that this was a difficult time in his life. On a daily basis he was face-to-face with pain, in-and-out of hospitals, but he wanted Sebastian to evoke both “suffering and transcendence.” If you look closely at the large-scale work, you see a trail of Alexis’s own dusty white footprints on the black tower, headed for the sky. The artist slogs through agony, pushes forward. Perhaps, at the end of the journey, he will reach the sublime.
I have followed Alexis’s career for a long time. A week ago I caught up with him at his studio in Long Island City. We sat across from each other and spoke about a series of topics that I picked. I carried a brand new notebook. Its cover was magenta. Visually, the arrangement of our seating somewhat resembled psychoanalysis, except I don’t know who was treating whom. In any case, Alexis leaned back, smirked mischievously, and said—
[Alexis’s words are categorized under a series of titled headings below]
It’s always difficult to define yourself, but I am French-Mexican, born in New York. And actually, since I was born, there’s always been that question of who I am. That’s definitely part of my process and quest as an artist. Additionally, as I’ve lived in different countries, and different cities, that question has always been there. And actually, I think my process as an artist has helped me nurture that sense of self. Exploring my ancestor’s cultures and confronting them with one another—that is actually what has enabled me to have a deep sense of self.
I’ve always been a foreigner. I’m L’Etranger. Camus. I’ve always been one foot inside, and one foot outside, which I think is the right place for me. I can understand the culture, I can approach it, but I am also outside of it, so I can look at it from faraway. I think for an artist you need that deep understanding but also the ability to take a step backwards, in order to see the big picture. But definitely some parts of my personality are closer to my French side, others more toward the Mexican side. Plus, being born in New York, some aspects of my personality reflect the New Yorker in me. As individuals, I think we are similar to architectures, layers upon layers of our own cultures. For instance, I am home everywhere. Even a country I’ve never visited. At the same time, I am home nowhere. As soon as I feel some kind of connection to a place, I’m home there, but I’m also not fully there. Not really. So that’s been an interesting kind of balance.
Family is an essential part of who you are. Even my approach to art has been strongly connected to my family. I spent my childhood in Mexico drawing in my grandfather’s studio, the artist José Luis Cuevas. That had a huge impact on my approach of looking at art, but also on living life as art. Life and art are not separate. Every day and every action is a work of art. It’s not only in the studio. Everything in life has the potentiality of becoming a continuation of art. Life is a game. At the end of the day, we are on a stage, and art is whatever you focus on. Everything is art, as soon as you give significance to it.
In France, I really had this sense of family, because that French side of my family, my father’s side, is very traditional. They are from, you know, aristocratic ascendence. My mother, actually, was the first foreigner in the entire family tree, and this is the kind of family tree that you can track down to the 1500s. You know everybody on all of the past branches. This really gave me a sense, during the ten years I lived in Paris, that you are a continuation of your ancestors. You are part of it. Your life doesn’t stop or start when you are born or when you die. You are part of a lineage, and you keep on going. So I think that’s what family means to me. You are part of a system, and you just continue it even if paradoxically you try to fight against it.
On the other hand, my mother’s side of the family, the Mexican side, are all artists. They champion the individual. The freedom of the individual is the most important thing. So, these sides of my family were like two separate worlds, and I think I have these two worlds inside me. This world of intense creativity, but at the same time a certain formality that comes from the French side. So I always try and find the middle ground between these two worlds. I try and manage it.
I think success is connected to family. Success can mean anything to anyone, but I think how I discussed family features two ways of looking at success: You can nurture your family, or you can nurture your individualism. And it’s very difficult to find a middle ground. For some people success is having a family, having financial stability, having this kind of settled life. For other people, success is how they develop themselves as individuals. I am looking for the middle ground because I know the excess of both. I think success is about equilibrium. It’s a tight line, but when you find the balance, it brings happiness.
Happiness is the feeling of being complete. Nothing more, nothing less. Being right here. In the present moment, and fully, fully enjoying it. For example, if people ask me if I miss Paris, or if I miss Mexico, when I’m in New York, I say ‘No I don’t!’ I always try and be in the moment where I am, and try not to be nostalgic. I think you truly become happy when you have a sense of being here. For me that’s happiness, being here.
O darkness, sadness…it’s a deep hole! But I think those are the best moments for creativity. You need to go to those moments of darkness—where you’re lost, where you’re mentally out of reach of things—you need to go there and try to grasp things. Because these moments of darkness actually bring interesting ideas. In happiness you don’t see anything. In darkness you start to notice things…and you try to pull them together…and I think you get closer to the human condition when you are in those moments of darkness, actually.
It’s also true that pain, loss, and grief can also limit your creativity. They can make you feel a bit stuck, like you can’t actually start making anything. But at the same time I think these feelings trigger a sense of connection, if you let them go through you. I think that is what art is all about. Art is looking to connect with something that is not there. Art is reaching out for a feeling of connection. Or, when you are making art for yourself, it is connecting with your deeper sense of self.
At the end of the day I think that moments of darkness and grief are just sparkles. The sparkles that will start the fire. After that, it’s all about execution. So I try and be as pragmatic as possible in my process. I create certain rules to be more productive. For example, when I started the Anatomy series I was spending a lot of time in hospitals, because my father got diagnosed with cancer. During this time, I had this sense that every single bone, every muscle, was an essential part of our inner ecosystem. Each day someone wakes up, it’s a miracle. Inside us, there is a fantastic machine.
These were my feelings, and my concepts. But then I tried to time myself when I made the work. I used a timer app! It became some kind of a performance. The work was no longer about that connection I was feeling with the human body. It was about triggering the connection. I did each piece in 25 minutes, because they say that after 25 minutes your brain starts to not be in the moment anymore. So, when I did those pieces on the pages of a 19th century anatomy book I tried to focus and respect them because each one of those pages has gone though time. They are over a century old. You can’t recreate them. When making the work, I was interested in trying to reach that moment of being fully there.
At this point, making art becomes more about the process than the emotional ordeal. One part of my process is consistently coming to the studio. And in the studio I forget the time.
The studio becomes a space without time, beyond time. I’m not anymore in the 21st century. I am beyond the present moment of the world. The studio space becomes ‘consacré’ as we say it in French, ‘consecrated,’ a place that becomes ‘sacred.’
I deeply believe that the ritual of art is what connects us to our ancestors, and that connection is what brings us closer to the sacred. I have moments in my studio where I have some connection with the sacred. It is a feeling where you forget yourself. It’s not anymore about you, or about the work, or even about the world. It’s just about that feeling of thankfulness of life. Being thankful. I think that’s what creation is about. Being thankful. This is worthwhile.
What a transition! There are the Americas, but this is America. The United States. The New World. Hope. But also layerings of culture. And quests of identity. Where do I come from? Where am I going? I was born here. I’m a son of this multiculturalism. This merging of worlds. Open horizons. Whatever. I actually moved back to New York the day Trump was elected. I was packing my bags when his results were going up. So I asked myself, Should I stay or should I go? Like The Clash song. When I got to New York it was a post-apocalyptic feeling. It was like coming to a country that has become schizophrenic. They thought they were like that, but actually, there were like that. And there was that sense of mourning. Death. End of hope. At least in New York. But I thought it was an interesting time. Because people actually went to the streets and reached out for what they believed in, instead of taking a sleeping pill and just saying, ‘Let’s keep on thinking we are happy.’ So, as we were saying, moments of darkness are good for awakening.
Morality is what gives meaning to life. I think someone who lives a life without morals, without values, without ethics, there’s no point. What’s good, what’s bad, I think these are some of the deepest questions. I think the best art, too, is when you get to the darker side. You need to be a bit controversial. You need to be a bit on that edge. Beauty comes from this evil side, sometimes. But also, even when darkness surrounds you, there’s this light at the end of the tunnel. This sense of hope. This gives you the sense of, keep on going. Morality is the light at the end of the tunnel. We are encased in darkness, but there’s this little light flickering, and it’s worthwhile to follow it.
That’s the last word, actually. That’s what I think. It’s the last word. No. But, seriously, one day you wake up and realize you only have so much time to make something worthwhile out of your life, and death is the only true and real deadline.
A week after we met in his studio, I sent Alexis the introduction to our interview. He called me to say that he enjoyed revisiting the story of my father on 9/11. He told me that the piece brought back a lot of memories for him, adding that on the day he graduated from Sarah Lawrence, he visited the 9/11 Memorial. It was the first time that he had been in that neighborhood since he was 7 years-old—when the twin towers still existed—and he went to the top and bought a King Kong “I love you, New York” postcard. Alexis said that on this more recent visit he appreciated that, underneath all of the new and pristine architecture, there was still the original structure of the World Trade Center. He thought that there was a nice connection between New York City and an individual’s personal life.
“We carry with us our own scars, our own history, our own personal architecture,” Alexis told me. “This is actually really fascinating,” he said, reflecting that both of our fathers died when we were young men. He stressed that in his own life there has very much been a “before” and an “after” the death he experienced, just like there is a “before” and “after” in New York. These events in a person’s life can drag you down, or they can lift you up. Again, he emphasized the word “after.” He said that for him life is about the after. I think so for me too. ♦
ALEXIS DE CHAUNAC
(French-Mexican, b. 1991 in New York, NY, lives and works in New York and Paris, France)
Rapidly up-and-coming artist Alexis de Chaunac draws from literature, religion, mythology, art history, politics, and his own multicultural background to produce exuberant, mixed-media drawings. He describes drawing as “a transcendental language that anyone can understand.” He works quickly, often with ink because of its fluidity, producing rich, multilayered works filled with faces and laden with cultural references. De Chaunac draws inspiration from such diverse artists as Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, Schiele, Picasso, and Francis Bacon, whom he groups together as “chroniclers of the human condition.” His own artistic rendering of humanity comes from literature. He claims influences from the Scriptures to great epics and all the way to Beat Generation writers such as William S. Burroughs. Referring to his practice as contemporary myth making, he takes archetypes such as Oedipus, Jesus Christ or Dante “working out of them to explore the primitive aspects of the human being.” Recognizing that art and the sacred have always been connected since both question death and challenge the passage of time.
Born in New York and raised in Mexico City and Paris, he grew up surrounded by art and culture, drawing in the studio of his grandfather – renowned Mexican artist Jose Luis Cuevas. He then lived for ten years in Paris immersed in European culture only to return to the US to study at the Sarah Lawrence College, NY.
Kyle Kouri is an MFA Candidate in fiction at Columbia University. His stories have appeared in Cleaver Magazine and Horror Sleaze and Trash.