Color Surface Texture: In the Studio with Alexander Comminos
by Cayetano Garza Jr. • photos courtesy Comminos Studio
The artist’s journey to find an artistic voice, a medium that best conveys their imagination, is often circuitous. A sculptor may spend years attempting drawing or a painter decades before discovering ceramics. Alex Commino’s journey, one that would lead him to the Rio Grande Valley and the burgeoning art scene there, is just such a journey.
Alexander Comminos was a self-described “troubled youth” as a teenager. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Comminos was the son of two very talented, professional photographers who found stability in commercial graphic design and teaching. He and his siblings where exposed to art of all kinds from a very young age. He was no stranger to the work of Picasso, Calder, and Chagall as a child. When young Alex found himself on the wrong side of the law, the solution, as they saw it, was simple.
“My parents decided I needed to find a ‘better use of my time’ so they enrolled me into early college courses at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”
It was there that Comminos would begin studying drawing, soon moving on to sculpture before finally settling on metalwork.
After high school, Comminos would go on to attended Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) from 2001 to 2003, beginning his undergraduate studies in metals and jewelry. At SCAD, several professors inspired him to experiment with different materials, mixed media and fibers. At some point during his early college career he also discovered the work and life story of artist Lee Bontecou at a retrospective exhibition of the pioneering artist’s work.
“That show really – that about made my head explode.”
The desire to work in metal diminished and he found himself at a crossroads.
Comminos reapplied to The School of the Art Institute in Chicago and was able to receive credit for the early college courses he had previously attended and went on to receive his Bachelor of Fine Art there.
It was during his time back in Chicago that he got heavily into ceramics. After graduation Comminos apprenticed with internationally renowned artist Jun Kaneko at his studio in Omaha, Nebraska. He would work with Kaneko for three years, refining his ceramic techniques under the master artist, assisting him with his production.
It was through Kaneko’s connection to Ken Little, another nationally acclaimed artist who lived and worked in San Antonio, that his path toward graduate school became clear. Comminos would move to San Antonio, become immersed in its art scene, and receive his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio.
It wasn’t too long afterward that Comminos would find his path leading him to the Rio Grande Valley.
Working as an artist’s assistant after graduation, Comminos would assist artist Bill FitzGibbons with the fabrication and installation of a show at McAllen’s International Museum of Arts and Science (IMAS) in 2014. Through more mutual art connections Comminos met sculptor Brian Wedgworth, who offered to show him around.
“And that’s how I ended up finding Harlingen.”
Upon visiting Brian’s downtown studio, his jaw dropped.
“I saw his space, which is, what? 5,000 square feet? I look up at the wood rafters and I’m like Whoa! Shoot! Wow! So I asked him what he’s paying in rent – and yeah, this seems do-able!”
Through Brian’s landlord, Comminos was introduced to the space at 214 North A Streed located within the historic Plaza Hotel near historic Route 77 in downtown Harlingen, Texas. It had been unoccupied for four years. It would become the future home of his studio and gallery.
“What was cool about Harlingen was Harlingen still had potential. Right? It wasn’t all defined yet. And basically you could carve out a space or you could make a space or you could rehab a space and you could actually afford to do it. Unlike a lot of other cities. San Antonio about ten years ago was about the same as Harlingen is today. You could find decent warehouse spaces for not too much money and you were able to work on em and rehab them.”
He goes on to describe how the areas that support the arts have diminished over time or changed with the tastes of the art world and the ebb and flow of rental prices in San Antonio.
The other thing that attracted Comminos to the Rio Grande Valley was the excitement level around the scene in contrast to the general apathy in a more metropolitan area.
“You open up your door and people want to see the work. The students come out. People are excited.”
After graduation from UT-San Antonio, Comminos made a living teaching at his alma mater as well as surrounding community colleges. Finding an opportunity to teach at The University of Texas – Pan American in the Fall of 2014 in the ceramics and design departments, the move was a natural one. The path had become clear.
“The students down here, they actually appreciate information. They like working. They do have interests. And they’re open to new things.”
Comminos splits his time between his studio and his work as an instructor at the newly renamed UTRGV. Although he still spends his time making ceramics, he doesn’t limit itself to one medium, or one approach.
“I started painting when I was working for Kaneko. The funny thing about clay is that it needs down time. You can’t just work on it and work on it and work on it. So basically the paintings came in to play about 2006. I’d be stuck in a building firing a kiln for two weeks straight, wouldn’t be allowed to leave the building.”
Finding himself responsible for millions of dollars worth of ceramics being fired in one of the largest production kilns in North America he was looking at being trapped for weeks on end.
“I’d work on clay things and waiting for them to dry I’d hop on over to painting.”
For Comminos, painting has been one of the most lucrative pursuits, but he continues to push the boundaries dabbling in silkscreening, painting, printmaking, and ceramics.
“I’ve always been attracted to materials. It’s a different kind of relationship, but it’s always me responding to the materials.”
When asked about his inspiration for the downtown Harlingen mural he completed last year he says, “It’s color, surface and texture to manipulate the space.”
Comminos describes the Shinto idea of ascribing power to objects. Depending on where they’re displayed, they exhibit power.
“Painting, ceramic, it’s all the same. Objects.”
Comminos describes the wall, it’s constant presence in the day to day normal street life of downtown business hours. A massive 20 foot tall by 80 foot wide expanse of wall behind the storefronts on the west end of Jackson Street.
“What I was hoping to do – I call it a visual rift or rip – i wanted a tear in your everyday blah life. I always joke that humans are really good at putting things into boxes. With that piece day in and day out basically you have a huge color field, a lot like a Rothko or any abstract expressionist painter.”
He goes on to describe how the use of broad action painting via squirt gun to paint at a vertical what someone like Pollack would have done on a horizontal and adding rectilinear forms of varying hues to transform the space.