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Q&A with Alex Rosborough Davis

Alex Rosborough Davis (they/them/theirs & e/er/ers) is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in mixed media sculpture, collage, and video. They earned their BA in anthropology-sociology and environmental studies from Knox College. Davis discovered their passion for art late during their college career. Working in the Knox College bike shop—a room full of scrap metal—inspired them to pursue independent study in welded sculpture under Mark Holmes. The challenges of art-making fulfilled Davis in ways that they had not previously known as they were seduced into a new calling. After resolving the work and receiving the Beverly Bender Sculpture Award, they began a year-long intensive post-baccalaureate study in the Knox College art department. They exhibited their first solo show, Repression: Expression, at the end of the academic year in 2019.

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Alex Rosborough Davis, Beat the Straights with the Pink Wedge (Queer Constructivist Battle Flag) [Queer Constructivist Manifesto Dispenser], 2022–23, Salvaged materials: fabric, wood, rubber, broken mirror, and steel; grout and inkjet prints

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Alex Rosborough Davis in their studio. (Photo: Caitlin Custer)

Tell us about your thesis project.
I’m presenting three works for my thesis: a library, a flag, and a sculpture.

Where did the idea for the library come from?
A big part of this is in response to all of these book bannings going on. I’ve been seeing this escalation of right-wing, bigoted violence, especially targeting queer peoples, so I’m building a library of queer revolutionary literature. There’s an idea that being true to one’s self in a queer context is a revolutionary act.

Something that I learned in my own research and learning is that the first target of a large Nazi book burning was the library of the Institute for Sexual Sciences, which was founded by Magnus Hirschfeld. A lot of great research and practice went on there, and they were a threat to the Nazis. To squash that threat, the Nazis burned everything.

So, the idea is creating a nomadic library, a setup that I can easily unbolt and take somewhere else. It relates back to how a lot of queer people have to move away from their hometown in search of love, acceptance, or just to escape violence. There’s a transient nature to queerness and having to discover who you are, and how your identity evolves away from what is expected of you.

How about the sculpture?
Another side of my work is offensive and defensive structures. This one has taken the form of a Czech hedgehog, which is a tank trap. I’ve made it out of what I consider to be queer materials. It will be leaning against the bookcase, because I’m thinking about how these things — ideas, books — can be defended.

And the flag?
The third work that I’ll be showing is a flag I made based on El Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” which is about the Russian Revolution and the Red and White armies. I’ve taken that along with the straight pride flag that was developed by an alt-right group. Mine has a pink triangle on a black background, which I relate back to the “Silence Equals Death” poster from the AIDS crisis. The flag is cantilevered off the wall with a platform that holds my manifestos.

Alex Rosborough Davis with their art. (Photo: Caitlin Custer)

How has your practice changed during your time here?
When I came to WashU, my work was very much about confinement. I started to realize that it wasn’t a fruitful place to be — like, why am I replicating the bad things of my life and the world around me? I wanted to make work that was in opposition to that.

I’m interested not only in protecting the thought of other people, but also pushing my own thought into the world.

What draws you to certain objects?
I’ve always been drawn to found objects, things that have had a life before me. I started seeing them as having a queerness to them. I ended up writing a manifesto, and in it I identified queerness that extends beyond the realm of sexuality and gender, but has more to do with this lens of experience. I was thinking about queerness as having to do with being discarded, hidden away, confined, neglected. I realized I’d already been collecting these queer materials from places like scrap yards and my grandma’s basement.

I’ve heard people say that the way I talk about materials is objectifying people. But I see it as humanizing objects. That distinction is important to me. If we throw away a lot of things, does that also mean we throw away people? When I look at American society, I would say yes.

At the same time, I was also thinking about the queer body. We all come into this world with our bodies and we modify them, we get tattoos, piercings, cut and dye hair, put on whatever clothes we want. There’s that famous RuPaul quote, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” So these sorts of things are going through my head. I’m drawing this line between the material and the body.

Within queer culture, there’s this idea of assimilation versus separatism. How can you turn the other cheek when your head is no longer on your shoulders?

How did you end up a following a creative path?
I came to art from a background is in sociology and environment studies. I took a sculpture class my second year of undergrad. I really jibed with it. My senior year, I was running my school’s bike shop, and all I wanted was to learn how to weld. And they turned me into a sculptor.

Why WashU?
I was born and raised in St. Louis. I spent some time living in Germany. I did my undergraduate degree at Knox College, a tiny liberal arts college in western Illinois. The thing that pulled me most towards WashU is the Berlin Summer Academy. As a Germanist, I really had to jump at that. It was definitely worth it. I was also able to experiment and dabble quite a lot. I dabbled in performance art, in large-scale prints. I just had great access. I’ve gotten a lot of support and feedback from the faculty, too.

What do you hope someone feels when they see your work?
I hope they get a sense of emotional drive behind the work, which is a mixture of anger and desire. I see that as leading to a sense or idea of potentiality.

Alex Rosborough Davis reflected on the scope of their practice, time at WashU, and thesis project leading up to the MFA in Visual Art thesis exhibition. This is an edited transcript of Davis’ words as told to Caitlin Custer.