A man standing with his hands in his pockets in front of a colorful painting.
Alexander Sausen in front of his large painting, "Where The Pollen Flies," on display at the Undergraduate Juried Show at the Anderson through Dec. 9. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Class of 2022: Alexander Sausen’s paintings incorporate his fascination with fashion

Sausen, an assistant buy planner at Nordstrom, is adding a B.F.A degree in painting and printmaking to the fashion merchandising degree he earned from VCU three years ago.

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When Alexander Sausen received his bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in 2019, he knew he would return.

Back then, he’d majored in fashion to bolster a career in luxury retail. But, Sausen said, painting has always been a “crucial” part of his life.

“My Nana is a sculptor and a painter, so I grew up engaged with art both in and out of school, often painting with my Nana during visits,” he said. “The biggest moment where painting really changed for me was seeing a Fragonard/Van Dyck/Gainsborough exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum in high school, and this was around the time that I was doing a lot of research on De Kooning, Cecily Brown and Kandinsky. Researching these wildly different forms of painting simultaneously fueled a lot of ideas; some of these ideas still percolate in my head now.”

“After having already gone through art foundation and a few additional painting and art history courses, I remember thinking to myself at graduation that I would go back to school for painting when I was able to do so,” he said.

When Sausen lost his job at the Nordstrom buying office a few months after COVID hit, he knew the time was right to return to school. “I did get my job back a little while later, and fortunately virtual work made both school and work possible,” he said.

Now the 25-year-old is about to receive his second degree — a B.F.A. in painting and printmaking — from the VCU School of the Arts this semester.

Fashion still has a place in Sausen’s work.

“Some of my paintings incorporate fabric within the paint, and I’m currently working on a series of double-sided, unstretched paintings where each side completes the other,” he said. “In the future, I will likely transition to working on translucent fabrics instead of canvas so that each side can directly influence the other. In this case, fashion is more of a means to an end through surface and material.”

Sometimes, he said, the fashion references in his paintings are subconscious.

After all, Sausen spent a great deal of his childhood drawing dresses, trying to mimic the structures and movements of fabrics that he saw on the runway from Christian Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Elie Saab, he said. “I’m sure that these gestures show up in my work now. Other paintings are more about the representation of embroidery, embellishment, fabric drapery, fashion design and jewelry design through paint.”

During COVID, he created a painting to channel his anxiety into something productive that celebrates many of his childhood interests, including fashion. Titled “Grisha,” the piece took a full year to create. He used the smallest brush he could find to achieve densely intricate details of ball gown embroidery, textile prints, lush gardens and architectural structures.

Sausen is a rare two-time recipient of the prestigious VMFA Fellowship from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. (Only 10% of the fellowship’s 1,400 recipients have won more than once.) The first was in 2017 in the mixed media category, and the second was earlier this year in painting.

“It is such an honor to receive the fellowship with a group of other outstanding artists, and it serves as an affirmation of my painting practice,” he said. “It also makes travel-based research possible, which is key for the work that I’m doing now.”

Sausen currently has an exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art Perry Glass Studio in Norfolk. Running through Dec. 4, “Where The Pollen Flies” covers his most recent body of work and includes a sculpture the museum's glass studio team created for a live audience in response to the paintings.

“I had my senior exhibition at the Perry Glass Studio in 2015 before graduating from the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, so I was looking for an opportunity to exhibit there again. Everything comes full circle, and it was important for me to go back to where my VCU Arts journey started,” he said. “This exhibition is a culmination of many of the thoughts, processes, questions, problems and realizations that I have had since returning to school for a second degree in painting and printmaking.”

After graduation, Sausen plans to spend a few months in Canada — from where he can continue to work remotely — before traveling to Europe for painting research. After that, he plans to move to either Seattle or New York — wherever the work takes him.

“I’m really excited about some of the ideas and questions that have been coming up in my work, so a great deal of time will be spent painting, reading and writing — mostly about painting,” he said. “I have a whole stack of books that I’ll have time to read after graduation: ‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins, ‘The Prince’ by Machiavelli, ‘Notes from the Woodshed’ by Jack Whitten, ‘I Paint What I Want to See’ by Philip Guston, ‘Matisse-The Red Studio’ by MOMA, and anything that I can find on Hegel’s and Kant’s beliefs about darkness. There is so much to read and uncover!”