Exhibitionists

Exhibitionist in Residence: artist Alex McLeod's wild fantasy landscapes

These vistas are a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there

Leah Collins - CBC Arts

October 16, 2015

By the Sea, 2010. (Alex McLeod)

Canada might be the world's second largest country, but there's a landscape infinitely more expansive than our own. No, we don't mean Russia — although yes, smartass, that's technically true. We're talking about the imagination, and if you're partial to daydreaming, get a shot of inspiration by checking out Toronto artist Alex McLeod. The scenes he creates seem familiar — there are pine trees, mountains, happy little Bob-Ross clouds. But using Photoshop and some 3-D rendering and modelling software he forges another world entirely, one that bends perceptions of what's real and what's virtual.

This week's Exhibitionists is all about landscape, and throughout the episode, we'll peer in on some of McLeod's digital realms. The Rockies don't look like these mountain vistas, but the Canadian landscape is, in fact, a major influence on McLeod's art. Here, our Exhibitionist in Residence tells CBC Arts why — and explains why he'd choose Scarborough over living in a fantasyland. 

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There's a lot to heart about Instagram

Unlike the worlds seen in past exhibitions such as the hard-candy kingdoms of Distant Secrets (2011), or the frosted forests of Outworld (2013) — images so detailed you might confuse them for dystopian Rankin-Bass sets that have been photographed, not rendered entirely from scratch — the digital art you'll see on Exhibitionists feels, well, way more digital.

That's because those animations first appeared on McLeod's Instagram, where he uses the platform a bit like a sketchpad.

Every Asset, 2011. (Alex McLeod)

"It's a safe space to test work," he explains, and the marshmallow tundra and tribal-print peaks he posts might yet transform into completely different projects. That said, his Instagram is more than scrapbook of works in progress.

"[Instagram], for me, is about the context of pushing art," McLeod says. "It's kind of like invading this space of people's lunches and selfies — which I love! I always hit 'like' on the brunch and selfie photos. But yeah, it's more about taking over that space with art."

Canadians love talking about the landscape

Agree or disagree with that statement? Here's McLeod's answer: "Yeah, totally!"

"It was our earliest form of mass visual communication," he continues, referencing our earliest colonial days. "The way that the land was communicated back to people in Europe was through massive beautiful paintings of endless landscape. It was almost used as propaganda for Canada.

"But it's also an easy topic. It's abundant — and somewhat diverse in our nation. I mean, the west coast definitely doesn't look like the east coast… That helped it be the perfect subject for us."

And yet, you won't recognize McLeod's landscapes anywhere in Canada. Super Mario World, maybe. Skyrim, for sure. His are fantasy lands. But they're still connected to something real — something he can't help but address in all his art.

Gold Plains, 2013. (Alex McLeod)

"Life and death exists in the landscape and it's visible in the landscape. Even a decayed tree, seeing moss grow on it is a visual representation of that life cycle," says McLeod.

"The work I do, I don't know if I would be able to communicate any other way. A lot of what I do is the idea of interconnected matter and the transition of life and death and the circle of life — like Lion King. But not like Lion King, but sort of like Lion King."

From real life to hyperreal

"Going into the forest and experiencing nature is, or can be, sublime. I think communicating that seems natural, and it seems intrinsic," says McLeod, explaining that a few of the animations on Sunday's show were directly inspired by the wilderness. His hometown Scarborough Bluffs informed this piece:

And a recent visit to Banff resulted in animations like this one, Moon Mountain.

"Actually seeing mountains in real life, and seeing the vastness was quite incredible," he says. "I think real-life natural wonders inform the virtual ones."

"Misty mountains," toy-like trees, candy clouds: McLeod recycles these elements, and they're part of a hyperreal iconography that re-appears throughout his work. "It's because I think they're relatable," he says. "You see a cloud and you see a mountain. 'Okay, I'm looking at a landscape. I'm engaging in a space that seems familiar — yet I've never seen it before.' That's kind of what I want to build, environments that don't exist anywhere but they seem somewhat familiar.

It's a nice place to visit…

"I want to live in this!" That's how one Instagrammer reacted to this animation.

If you're charmed by McLeod's imaginary scenes, you can relate. As for the artist himself…

"I think they're too messy. I think they'd be terrible to live in, these environments," he says. "They're devoid of human space. It would a very lonely, and terrifying, place to live. It would be like a terrible dream — like if you were stuck in it, like you were physically transported to this space, where nothing was right.

"I'm OK reproducing them because I'm on the other side of the glass."

How can I do that?

McLeod studied painting at OCAD in Toronto, but he's completely self-taught in the medium he loves best: digital. If you're inspired after seeing his landscapes, or just curious about how it's done, here's his advice: "Totally do it! Don't be afraid."

Just do it. But first, just Google. "We're in a golden age now. I taught myself, whether it was through YouTube or online Lynda tutorials. And so much software is available — open-source software and demo software. If you want to do anything, just research all the possibilities. Find the shoe that fits and go with it. I tried so many kinds of software before I chose the one I did, but it's so great and empowering."

Want to see more of Alex McLeod's work? Visit his website and find him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Watch Exhibitionists Sunday at 4:30pm (5pm NT) on CBC Television.