By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Alexis Gomez’ studio at the Torpedo Factory is remarkably barebones.
There are a few faceless wood and plastic life-sized figures, one that looks like it’s walking out of the wall and another splayed out on Gomez’ desk, but the walls and floors of the studio space are almost completely empty.
The stark simplicity of the studio slips away, however, as soon as you strap into a virtual reality headset and dive into an early version of one of Gomez’ projects.
The empty studio is replaced by a psychedelic backdrop. Faceless figures – similar to the ones that sit in Gomez’ studio – stand in a circle as silver orbs bounce in and out of sight, all set to the atmospheric strains of a sample taken from hip hop artist Kid Cudi.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.
As one of the youngest artists at the Torpedo Factory, Gomez, 25, is using his short-term residency to explore the increasingly permeable boundaries between physical and digital worlds. Using augmented and virtual reality, he layers digital elements onto physical sculptures to inspire critical thinking about technology and its role in modern life.
“If I [were] to give you my elevator pitch in one sentence it would be: My work investigates the internal and external spaces we inhabit as human beings,” Gomez said. “Internal dealing with the mind, external dealing with our body and its environment. There’s a whole digital plane that I’m referencing as an internal awareness, and then, when it becomes physical or sculptural, it becomes really tangible. I like where those two lines overlap.”
Born in Fairfax and raised in Woodbridge, Gomez found art at a young age. Painting and drawing were some of the only things he was good at in school, Gomez said. When it came time to think seriously about a path after high school, it seemed like the only option, he said.
He devoted all his free time to painting and, despite having very little education in religion, found himself drawn to religious iconography.
“Demons and angels and stuff like that,” Gomez said. “… I was never really a religious kid. I was never forced to go to church. Something about those narratives struck a chord.”
Between religious imagery, lessons taken from art history and his use of oil painting and ceramics, Gomez’ work was fairly traditional when he entered the Corcoran School of Art and Design at George Washington University in 2012.
But it wasn’t long before Gomez found himself exploring new, sometimes uncomfortable, artistic territory, he said. After a professor introduced him to a program called Cinema 4D, there was no going back.
“Essentially he looked at my paintings and was like, ‘You could do all of this in the software with the click of a button, so I just have to show you,’” Gomez said. “He showed me and then I went down a rabbit hole really. Then all my work took a digital turn.”
Gomez replaced the life-sized clay figures of his early college work with 3D scanned and laser printed versions of his own body.
He created the figures, which appear throughout his work, by 3D scanning his body, breaking the scan down into layers using separate software, lasercutting the scan out of acrylic and then reassembling the separate layers into a life-sized figure.
They may be scans of his body, but Gomez resists the urge to use them as a form of self-portraiture, he said. Filtered through countless software programs, the smooth bodies and featureless faces became a generic vessel for Gomez’ work.
“Even though I know that I’m working from my own body, my identity isn’t important in it,” Gomez said. “I’d rather let that dissipate within the process and let that just exist as a being. … It’s more about human experience than just my experience.”
At this point, his work remained solely in the physical world. His senior thesis project, “Room of Consciousness,” featured these digitally rendered figures hunched over, hands over their faces as if crying, in a dimly lit, blue vinyl-walled room.
Throughout his time at G.W., Gomez continued to experiment with Cinema 4D and add more software to his digital palette. Eventually, through YouTube tutorials and hard work, he learned how to create augmented reality experiences that could be integrated with his sculpture work.
Unlike virtual reality, augmented reality does not take the user into another world entirely. Instead, like the gaming phenomenon “Pokemon Go,” augmented reality layers digital experiences onto the real world, usually by using smart phones as a portal.
The technology is still both a gift and challenge for Gomez, since there is a learning curve with software like Cinema 4D, Gomez admitted.
The technical challenge has made Gomez’ work more collaborative. His process is built on the kind of open source sharing and collaboration defined by the modern internet era. When he doesn’t know something, there are YouTube tutorials. When he needs a specific visual asset, someone has probably offered it up for free online.
“I think it lends itself to collaboration more than anything. Whereas if I’m doing the sculptures or doing the paintings, it’s a super isolated experience,” Gomez said.
Despite the technical challenges, Gomez’ digital medium provides almost boundless creative potential.
“If there are any limitations with it, it’s me for now,” Gomez said. “Until I learn more, I can’t really say there’s limitations on the technology. I don’t think there are because it’s only getting better.”
Like most of his work, Gomez’ early AR projects were heavily inspired by the visual design and mystery of science fiction films like “Alien” and “Arrival.”
“Cosmic Warrior,” a collaborative project Gomez did with interactive art space Artechouse in 2018, was a “wormhole activation” that took a public space and transformed it into a short science fiction scene.
Gomez positioned one of his life-sized figures to appear as though it was emerging out of a portal in the wall. Pointing a phone up to the sculpture activated the installation, which animated a similar figure that walks out of a digitally rendered portal on the opposite wall.
“Prometheus,” a similar AR installation, featured a black 3D scanned and laser cut figure shouldering a flat slab with the words “Since birth it was prophecy” printed on it. Similar to “Cosmic Warrior,” the words activated a scene of sci-fi spirituality with a circle of faceless figures positioned in different poses.
The words are lyrics from a Kid Cudi song, as the genre-bending artist has been one of Gomez’ major sources of inspiration.
“It’s molded so much of my work, if not all of it really,” Gomez said. “I guess it’s just his whole message. He has this kind of space narrative that I’m drawn to as well, this intergalactic being and higher power kind of stuff.”
Gomez has named several installations, including “Cosmic Warrior,” after Kid Cudi’s work. Gomez even hung a comic book-style Kid Cudi poster on the wall, referring to it as his “studio assistant.” Kid Cudi has been a common creative thread through Gomez’ art since high school, and the musician continues to inspire his work at the Torpedo Factory.
After several showings at the art center and a post-graduate residency, Gomez secured a series of short-term residencies earlier this year. The Torpedo Factory has given him steady studio space, a precious commodity in the art world, and a network of fellow creatives, Gomez said.
Gomez’ Torpedo Factory experience hasn’t been without its fair share of tension, he said. His work stands in stark contrast to the more traditional work of veteran artists in the space, and the recent history of conflict between artists and the city has made some artists wary of change.
“I’ve never really felt too welcomed by the other artists. More questioned,” Gomez said. “… Torpedo Factory has been in such flux of where it’s going and a lot of the artists have been here since it opened, so they take a lot of pride in the Factory and that they’ve been with it all along. Any changes they’re kind of wary about. I know my role. I’m the new guy and I try to not step on any toes.”
Gomez’ work is, in the most literal sense, meant to take people on a trip. He intends for his AR projects to call attention to the ways people use their phones, not just in art galleries but in the world, Gomez said. In the Instagram era, most people’s worlds are already filtered through a screen.
But getting people to think critically about technology is a challenging proposition, Gomez said, especially when AR and VR are still new to people.
“Once people get past that ‘This looks pretty cool’ and start realizing what they’re doing – they’re looking at their phone, they’re looking at where they’re moving in this digital space – I want to highlight that a bit more and let the spectacle dissolve,” Gomez said.
Challenging people to question technology and interrogate the ways in which they use it on a daily basis can be exciting and a little dangerous, Gomez said. Once you start questioning things, where do you stop?
“I go down that rabbit hole all the time. I live in that rabbit hole, so it’s just trying to get people to come down it with me,” Gomez said.