Discovering graffiti as a middle-school kid in Atlanta in the early ’90s, Alex Brewer found that everything about it spoke to him.
There was the thrill of taking part in something illegal and rebellious outdoors, the mystery of it, that you saw someone’s work and name but knew nothing about the artist. And, to a great degree, there was his self-proclaimed obsession for lettering and type.
“This was pre-Internet,” he says from Reynolds Gallery, where he’s working in paint-splattered shorts on a two-wall mural for his opening. “Not like today where you can see someone’s work on the other side of the world by pulling it up on your phone. I had to get out and walk train tracks and bike under bridges to look at older guys’ work.”
After trying a semester at Virginia Commonwealth University — “if Richmond had been like this in the ’90s, I’d have stayed,” he says — Brewer returned to Atlanta where he thought graffiti artists were doing cool things. He took a position at a fine-art publishing company, a move he credits with teaching him how to use materials and paint because of his work with professional artists.
His focus began to shift after 2000 as he attempted to use spray paint in a far looser manner than is typical for graffiti, where the goal is clarity. It also was a scary time for graffiti artists because of fears about being arrested. So for a while, he separated his street and professional identities. By the middle of the decade, that concern began to taper off as he took his studio practice more seriously and acquired representation by an Atlanta gallery.
He was blending the two disciplines by late 2009 in grand scale public murals done in a painterly manner.
“It was my use of the concepts and tools of graffiti with fine-art techniques, a hybrid of those two, that led me to where I am today,” he says.
For an exhibit in 2012, he used household mops to mark gestures for a large-scale painting, part of a process he’s still pursuing through experiments with different ways to mark the surface and different tools with which to do it.
Brewer participated in the Richmond Street Art Festival in 2012 and 2013, a whirlwind that he characterizes as a lot of fun. “You only have a few days to work, so you have to work rather quickly,” he says. “For me, it’s all about exploring the medium and the materials, so there are infinite things you can do. I get really inspired when I think in that context.”
It was during the festival that gallery owner Bev Reynolds approached Brewer to find out what else he could do. His new show, “Hense: Drawings, Paintings and Shapes,” at her gallery is the result. There are colorful, expressionistic abstractions on paper, canvas and, perhaps most strikingly, two walls of the gallery.
“It was going to be just the back wall, but it wanted to be bigger,” Reynolds says, while Brewer smiles during his second day of painting. Using Pantone colors of acrylic and house paint, the artist’s process is spontaneous and evolving while he layers bright colors of summer, inevitably painting over something from earlier. Following his intention to keep things loose, colors are allowed to blend where they want to blend. He self-edits, trying something and then rearranging elements.
“It’s knowing what to leave and what to redo that’s a constant balancing act,” he says. “I try to reach a point where I am somewhat satisfied, doing the rollers last. I let the paint rollers edit myself and cover what’s there. I have a hard time knowing when to stop.”
Years after Brewer ceased tagging public places with his street moniker, Hense, people continue to ask him why he stopped making graffiti. His standard response is, “Why would I want to go on making no money and not growing as an artist?” S
“Hense: Drawings, Paintings and Shapes” is on display through Aug. 29 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. For information call 355-6553 or visit reynoldsgallery.com.