When we first met artist and illustrator Alice Tye two years ago she had already secured the US state of California, with its familiar and yet utterly unknowable landscapes and its perpetual presence in pop culture, as her subject of choice. She used paint and lithograph printing to build images of the west coast as she had experienced it – through cinema, through photographs and through TV and literature, but never actually IRL.
Now two years out of uni, Alice has just returned from a two-month road trip across the USA, and she’s painting California again. This time though she’s lost the rose-tinted hue of the big screen, and replaced it with a rough-edged reality.
“We kind of thought that if we were gonna do the whole American road trip thing we had to get a really great car,” she tells us. “So we got a convertible mustang.” Starting in LA, Alice and her boyfriend drove through Vegas, Big Sur, Yosemite and to San Francisco, where the pair took the train to Chicago before continuing on to New York. But the most poignant part of the trip for her was LA.
“It’s so different from any city I’ve ever been to,” she says. “LA kind of doesn’t feel like a city; it’s like loads of towns or villages joined up. There were amazing pockets, and then other bits which were just not what I’d seen in my head. It’s really hard to articulate it now that I’m back. I guess you don’t really think about the residential areas so much when you’re picturing what a city is like, because you just picture the landmarks and the famous streets. There’s so much suburbia in LA, and a lot of it is not as polished as what’s normally presented to the world.
“Also, LA is not always sunny like everybody says it is!” she continues. “It rained a lot while we were there, and you know how Brutalist architecture looks really nice in the sunshine and then when it’s cloudy it just looks really awful? LA looks really sad and miserable when it’s raining. All of my earlier work is idealised – it’s all blue skies and no clutter, all about clean lines – but in reality there are bits of cars, and street signs, and bins and things.
“I hadn’t really appreciated how much the cars dominate the the city, either. It’s not until you’re there that you realise how much you see from your car. So I’ve been repainting things I painted before, and a lot of my new work is focused on the freeways and roads as really integral to the city.”
"LA looks really sad and miserable when it’s raining. All of my earlier work is idealised – it’s all blue skies and no clutter, all about clean lines – but in reality there are bits of cars, and street signs, and bins and things."Alice Tye
The techniques she used to create her previous work intensified Alice’s sense of displacement. Part of her degree show project involved painting La Jolla Road in Palm Springs as she saw it through Google Street View, spending hours poring over her screen with brush and paints before compiling all of the resulting paintings into a four-metre-long leporello book. So unsurprisingly, walking down the street in real life was a strange experience. “I was like ‘I know that rock! And the angle of that tree!’”
One of Alice’s projects had been based on the representation of architecture in film, “so we went to see lots of John Lautner buildings,” she continues. “Or tried to see them, the ones that were not hidden away by big walls.” Joan Didion, writer of the moment and unbeaten patron of California with all its sinister undertones and polished exterior, was similarly influential. “She was a big reason in why I was interested in California as a place,” Alice says. “When I did Pick Me Up illustration fair a year or so ago I made all of my work all based on her novel Play It As It Lays, as if I was illustrating it. She writes a lot about driving in freeways and how she’ll suddenly change lanes and take an exit, and I feel like when we were there I just kept thinking about her descriptions of that.”
She was struck by how self-referential the cities they were visiting began to feel after a while. “While we were in San Francisco we were trying to think of all the references, films and TV shows we’d seen the city in, but when we looked it up, they were actually filmed in LA. That was a strange thing – you realise that a lot of what you think a place looks like was actually filmed in a totally different place. They’ve just taken static shots of that city that you relate to. It’s really LA-centric.
“You realise once you’ve been in a few cities that they all have the same attractions, too. There’s always a really tall building with a view over the city, there’s always some sort of boat trip. Even the art galleries started to look the same.”
Now that she’s back on British soil Alice has set to revisiting scenes from her earlier work, but without the fairytale, golden sheen that she once gave them. Her landscapes are moodier now, grubby and cluttered, but still permeated by LA’s endless hopefulness. Does it feel like a kind of coming of age to consolidate her initial image of the state with its reality? “Kind of,” she replies. “It’s been a focus for me for such a long time that I feel like once I’ve painted everything that I wanted to from this project I’ll be able to move on. It feels like a nice way to get closure on it.”