Today on the Current we launched a new series called First Person, in which we’re inviting writers from around the world to reflect on their most unforgettable moviegoing experiences. While developing the series, we were looking for good stories, beautiful writing, and a wide range of tones—melancholy, provocative, silly—that could reflect all the roles that cinema plays in our lives. To illustrate these essays—among the most personal we’ve ever published—we knew we wanted to work with someone who could bring the layers of time and memory they evoke to visual life. Criterion art director Eric Skillman got us in touch with the New York–based artist Xia Gordon, whose editorial illustrations demonstrate her gift for distilling abstract ideas and complex emotions into compelling imagery. She was into the concept, and we’re thrilled that she’s signed on to do the artwork for First Person going forward.
Since this is the first time we’ve ever commissioned illustrations for the Current, we thought it would be nice to chat with Gordon about her creative background and to introduce our readers to her work.
Tell me a bit about how you got started in illustration.
I’ve been drawing since I was young, and for undergraduate I went to the School of Visual Arts, where I majored in illustration and cartooning. After graduating, I tripped and fell into the world of indie comics, and that was my springboard for doing editorial illustrations for places like the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Penguin Random House. It’s been great working with a variety of clients and seeing how different art directors operate.
How do you tailor your aesthetic, which feels very distinctly your own, to all the different assignments you get?
My style is emotive and dynamic, and I’ve been lucky to be approached by people who already know that it’s going to be a good fit for them. Usually I’m asked to do work for articles about racial injustice, reproductive rights—things I care about. That makes it easy for me to make honest, organic work. This series differs a bit from other projects I’ve done because I was encouraged to make images that spoke to how I related to pieces of writing. But I was intrigued by it because I have a love of film, and film really influences my work.
Walk me through how you approached the art for the inaugural essay in this series, in which André Aciman reflects on the first time he saw The Apartment and a bygone era of moviegoing in Manhattan.
I was really drawn to the nostalgia in it, this feeling of mourning an old world. It made me think about the age of COVID-19 and how different things are, how we’ve had to adapt to a new way of life. When I was reading the piece, I was thinking about paintings I’ve seen from the forties and fifties that depict rainy scenes in New York, with reflections on the pavement, tall buildings, fluorescent lighting, and human figures dwarfed by their surroundings. I wanted to capture that feeling, and also to depict the Regency Theater, which he describes at several points throughout the piece.
Could you tell us a bit more about how cinema fits into your life and work?
I’m a big moviegoer, so I’m suffering a bit right now, like a lot of us. For most people, movies are a first introduction to storytelling, and that was definitely the case with me. Cinema is related to my practice because I consider myself a storyteller too, and I want to learn from those who’ve done it before me. The way I think about composition and color-grading has been influenced by the movies. And a lot of movies tend to be character-driven, so that has had an impact on the way I work with figures in my illustrations.
My favorite filmmaker is Paul Thomas Anderson, and my favorite film is Phantom Thread. I’ve talked about it with everyone who will listen to me. I saw it at a time when I was in transition—it was the beginning of winter, and I was moving, making and losing some friends, and thinking about my art career and where to go next. I related to this story of a temperamental artist, and it doesn’t hurt that the film is beautiful and that the music is by Jonny Greenwood—I’m a Radiohead fan, and I listen to them while I work. I just can’t get enough.
Below is a gallery of Xia Gordon’s previous illustrations related to arts and culture. Check out more of her work at XiaGordon.com.