ANYONE who visited the Speyside distillery of Glenfiddich in the second half of last summer couldn't miss them: a set of giant noses floating imperiously on the distillery's cooling pond. Alex Frost's The Connoisseurs succinctly drew attention to both the warm, malty smell of the air and whisky's culture of connoisseurship.
• One of Alex Frost's blind drawings, made by piercing a photograph which is then painted through. Picture: Complimentary
They had other impacts too, from attracting attention to Glenfiddich's pioneering artists-in-residency programme in which Frost was a participant, to unsettling the distillery's resident ducks. Now back in Glasgow, Frost seems diffident about them.
"I've never made something so completely obvious, so bold. The original idea was to have one static, but after we did some tests it was too irresistible not to have them bobbing around. It was quite a light-hearted piece – playful."
But noses will be back when Frost's solo exhibition opens this weekend at Dundee Contemporary Arts, his first in a major gallery in Scotland. Using the same title The Connoisseurs, he will group together a body of work which touches on consumerism, technology, lifestyle, art and veggie burgers, with a healthy dose of self-awareness and a sprinkling of absurdity.
Frost's reputation has been growing steadily in recent years. Coming up through Glasgow's grassroots art scene, he has exhibited in Berlin and New York, at Glasgow International and Frieze in London. Last year, he was shortlisted for the Jerwood Sculpture Prize and exhibited at the Venice Biennale with Artsway. Curator Graham Domke at DCA believes a major show in Scotland is long overdue.
"I first noticed Alex's work in the late 1990s when he graduated from the MFA course at Glasgow School of Art. He did a lecture at Transmission with Richard Wright and I was struck by the way he described his art. He's shown at big galleries in England, but he's overdue this kind of show.
"I really love his individuality. He's one of the more distinctive artists working in Scotland today, and he's got a great range in his practice. We're a big gallery, and we can showcase that."
When I visit Frost at his workspace in Glasgow Sculpture Studios, the room is full of work ready to be dispatched to Dundee. Stacked up against the wall are the panels of a giant mural, a mosaic made of coloured glass, ceramic and plastic. On the desk are several small sculptures which look like misshapen food packets made in polymer clay: "A slightly more sophisticated version of Fimo," Frost grins.
Both wrapped up against the cold, cradling mugs of coffee – Glasgow Sculpture Studios is only slightly warmer inside than out – we talk about art. Frost pulls down a book from a bulging bookshelf about "outsider" art, the grand designs created often by lone individuals, such as the Palais Idal, built over 33 years by French postman Ferdinand Cheval, or the Watts Towers in LA, the lifelong labour of construction worker Simon Rodia. He built his spectacular structures from scrap metal covered with broken glass, pottery and tiles, gathering his materials on walks around the city with a wheelbarrow.
Frost has been to see the towers, and dislikes the term "outsider art". "It's a bad term, it doesn't help. There are patronising references to 'just a humble postman', not acknowledging the fact the quality of what these people have done is incredible, the structures have lasted and look really amazing. I'm very much an admirer of these kinds of projects. When I was growing up, there was always someone in the family who was making things, whether they're necessarily defined as an artist is irrelevant to a certain degree. All that really matters is that it's good."
The mural, in 12 panels and potentially unfinished, is his response to the towers. "I wanted to make something on a Wagnerian scale," he says with half a smile. "But I'd always been limited by the obvious things, finances."
Though the mural contains glass, plastic and tiles, in a postmodern twist, it shows a series of wi-fi logos.
From a distance, the effect is watery, as if seen at the bottom of a swimming pool. In a further twist, Frost bought all his materials online: his wheelbarrow an internet shopping cart.
But there is an echo of Rodia's labour of love. "Gathering the materials took longer than anything. Making it was an enjoyable process, and I had people helping me, but it does drive you slightly bonkers."
Frost's work often balances contradictions. Here, he pairs a home-made hands-on crafts aesthetic with logos from the latest technology (the room containing the mural will also have free wireless access). "Wi-fi is an idea that's related to the ephemeral, what's not there, the invisible. An advert for something that's essentially invisible. It's the opposite of something like Coca-Cola."
Frost has often made work depicting brands or packaging, from large boulder-shaped mosaic sculptures depicting V8 juice or Ryvita, to small misshapen works in polymer clay showing meat and dairy substitutes.
"I try to be really selective about the kinds of brands I'm copying, tracing, simulating. They're not obvious, they're often the kinds of things tucked away on the back of a video recorder, hidden products, niche products. Some, like products from fast-food culture, feel far too obvious to use."
His products speak to a culture fascinated by technology, prone to anxiety, whose aspirations are expressed in health foods. His take on the hamburger is "Vegi-burger mix". But if he is critiquing anything, he always includes himself.
"I did grow up with a bit of that. I remember this period of time when healthfood shops felt more like chemist shops, things like TVP– textured vegetable protein – a real plastic food stuff. But this is not meant as a dig at anybody."
To say these works are a critique on consumerism is too simple for Frost. "There's nothing radical about saying that consumerism is a cultural problem, but there's an updating of these ideas at the heart of all of this. It's something a bit more remorseful, perhaps.
"Even though there are many evils around this whole consumer ideal, we all walk into it. We know we're being duped but we all enjoy it to a certain degree. I don't want this work to be perceived as having a go at people, I'm just interested in nuances."
Will Bradley of the contemporary gallery The Modern Institute has described Frost's work as "quietly subversive", "a cuckoo's egg carefully laid in the art-world nest of British middle-class values and aspirations".
Frost grew up in North London and studied Fine Art at Staffordshire University before coming to Glasgow. He wasn't particularly interested in art at school, though he did take part in community art projects, some involving mosaic murals. "That might have been the start of it all," he says, unconvincingly. "My mum was quite a craft-y person, she would always join local community centres and make things, a lot came from her."
The craft impulse is an important part of his work, though he subverts that as much as the idea of the artist's superior hand. He devised a method of drawing using knitting pattern computer software, then moved on to what he calls "blind drawings" where photographs are pixellated, then punctured laboriously with a pin and painted through. A new group of these in the DCA show, depicting a fictional group of connoisseurs, will also be compiled as a publish-on-demand book.
In Frost's work, for every action, there is a subversion: for every laborious act of making, a reference to the digital age; for every piece of realism, a twist which takes it away from that; for every traditional-looking sculpture, the sense that the core is polystyrene.
"I'm not a wholesale follower of anyone," he says, but mentions Oldenburg, Duchamp, Sigmar Polke. "Artists that I like, in their time they were doing something that everyone else thought was ludicrous, I'm trying to be equally ludicrous. I've been interested in lots of things, I suppose that's the duty of being an artist, there's a lot more to making art than making other art.
"So there are a whole lot of other areas outside of art that interest me."
• Alex Frost: The Connoisseurs is at Dundee Contemporary Arts, Saturday until 23 May.