By BARRY N. NEUMAN, MAY 2017
A force of nature has descended upon the art scene, and her name is Allison Zuckerman. While visiting Philadelphia to attend her five-year college reunion, Ms. Zuckerman agreed to participate in an interview by e-mail.
Barry N. Neuman: Your work is decidedly extroverted. What kind of trial-and-error process did you go through in order to achieve the pandemonium of "Act Natural," your remarkable debut solo exhibition at Kravets/Wehby Gallery?
Allison Zuckerman: I wanted to create a maximalist exhibition that was an all-immersive world, one that inundated the viewer with theatrical yet sensitive imagery. When I repeat an image, I like to think of it as visual hyperlinking, creating a sense of déjà vu and linking one painting or sculpture to the next.
In the process of curating the show, I created digital mock-ups of the gallery space with the work in various arrangements. In one form, I created a wall of paintings that were gridded and pressed flush together. Through these studies, I learned that there is a point at which too much visual information becomes white noise. Susie Kravets, Marc Wehby, and I decided on an installation that left enough space for the viewer to be able to take in each work on an individual basis but also appreciate the installation as a whole.
BNN: Your works are of our times and not likely to have been produced ten - or even five - years ago. It's more than a technological matter. Previously, tableaux like these had either a computer-oriented sensibility or an attitude that leaned toward the handmade. How do you feel you were able to successfully unite the two?
AZ: Digital techniques can appear cold when they are physically manifested. It is very important for my work to have life and to feel warm and worked. For that reason, I always paint on my printed canvases and sculpture. I consider the printed portion of the canvas to act as an underpainting.
BNN: You are originally from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. What in your early environment lead you to a life in the visual arts?
AZ: I began taking Saturday morning art classes when I was five. My parents encouraged my early love of drawing, and I had weekly after-school painting lessons throughout lower and middle school. During upper school, I took figure-drawing classes at the local art association and enrolled in A. P. art I also was fortunate enough to be selected for the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. I can trace my love of artifice and kitsch to my upbringing in central Pennsylvania. Many of the suburbs where I grew up are festooned with over-the-top Americana: garden gnomes, American flags, pink flamingos, above-ground pools.
BNN: What led to your mastery of both painting and new media?
AZ: Painting is still at the core of my artistic practice, but working digitally allows me to shorten the distance between thought and expression.
BNN: Were you seeing art in-person in your earliest years, and, if so, where? What, if any, impressions did such works of art make upon you?
AZ: My parents took my siblings and me to science and hands-on museums. I think seeing museum exhibitions in this way instilled in me a desire to create art that would be easily accessible to the viewer and enjoyable to interact with. With my own work, I want to welcome and include the viewer.
Our family went to Paris when I was 12, and I remember falling in love with Impressionism at the Musée D’Orsay. The trip also inspired me to study French language and culture throughout high school and college.
The single painting I connected with most deeply as a young girl was “Sleepwalker,” by Eric Fischl, which I found in a library book I’d randomly pulled from the shelves. I had never seen subject matter like that in a “serious” painting. It was so raw, so wrong, so compelling. I still think about it often.
BNN: Your undergraduate studies were at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. What was the studio art program like for you there?
AZ: When I began painting at Penn, I made large, tightly rendered oil paintings of exaggerated portraits of friends and myself. The art department lauded these. During the summer between my junior and senior year, I attended the Yale Norfolk Summer School of Art, where my mentors encouraged me to experiment with paint in more adventurous ways, rather than just using it as a rendering tool. When I returned to Penn for my senior year, I brought these new philosophies and experimental techniques back with me, and as a result, my critiques were far from walks in the park.
BNN: You went on to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for your MFA. What contributed to your formation there?
AZ: At SAIC, my unconventional modes of artmaking were immediately supported and encouraged, and I felt truly free for the first time. It was at SAIC that I began to use photographs of my past work, cut them up, and repurpose them. I experimented with physically cutting up my paintings and collaging them onto new works. It was very liberating to take what I felt was so precious, destroy it, and then breathe new life into it. I was responding to my disillusionment with romance, the strict gender norms, the impossible body standards, and the stilted modes of behavior I felt beholden to during my time in college. Artistically, I was fed up with arbitrary rules of what made art “good” and acceptable to academic authority. Collaging was a form of catharsis, a reclamation and conquest of my past.
BNN: During your years at Penn and SAIC, what media was especially impactful for you?
AZ: During my freshman year at Penn, I discovered a TV show called "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" I had never connected so intensely with a show or movie before. Inspired by bad '80's TV and commercials, this show used anti-humor, camp, absurdism, and an intentional digital glitch aesthetic to create the funniest comedy I had ever experienced. In graduate school, I became immersed in John Waters. "Pink Flamingos" and "Desperate Living" inspired many of my photographic self-portraits. "RuPaul’s Drag Race" influenced a few pieces, as well. In terms of reading, “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl,” by Tiqqun, and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on 'Camp'” provided hyperbolic context for many of my paintings.
BNN: The structure of each of your works is simultaneously economical and complex. There is action happening on, behind, and in front of the picture plane. In many works, one or more figures are breaking this plane. Nudes figures are running towards the viewer. Large individual figures and features of theirs, such as, feet, eyes, and lips, are thrusting their way forward, as well. For you, what forces are at play in making all of this happen?
AZ: Collaging has a way of creating planes within planes, implying space within flatness. I want to create work that moves and feels as ephemeral and disjointed as the media deluge we are confronted with on a daily basis.
BNN: You reference many modernist motifs, including those by or reminiscent of Picasso and Matisse, and you seem to have an affinity with the Surrealists and the Dadaists - and with Marcel Duchamp, whose work is exhibited in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Other previous generations of artists, such as, those of the Pop Art era, had brought their own original and updated concerns, methods, and materials, into the conception and production of works reflecting the aforementioned. What approach did you take to make such vibrant works?
AZ: Duchamp is definitely a hero of mine. I think of my artistic perspective as a lovechild between Duchamp, Warhol, and Koons - pranksters of the art world. Duchamp taught me that I could take a stock image of a garden hose and call it a torso of a woman’s body. Warhol taught me to repeat visual motifs ad infinitum. And Koons opened the possibility of creating ridiculous freestanding sculptures that dominate the physical space of a gallery. I also think of art as being a visual history of collective intelligence.
Today so much media concerns image sampling and proliferation. For example, in “The Thinker,” I incorporate own imagery with bits of Diebenkorn, Matisse, and Picasso to create a contemporary version of a traditional portrait. In “Portrait of the Artist on Her Day Off,” I portrayed a woman, lounging in a valley beneath a swirling, Van Gogh sky. The figure’s pose simultaneously pays homage to and pokes fun at Picasso. She smiles (with a mouth taken from a portrait I'd painted of my brother), while she shamelessly presents her unshaven leg and gnarled toes (repurposed from a portrait I’d painted of a ballerina’s feet). The beach ball, resting near the figure’s leg, is a nod to Koons.
BNN: You're a part of a new generation of female artists, taking a new approach to depicting females who are nude. What brought you to this subject, and what are you bringing to it?
AZ: For so long, women have been excluded from western art history because they were not allowed to paint the nude. When men painted the female nude, it was for other men. It was about responsibility-free pleasure. The nudes were idealized and generic, perfect for visual consumption. My nudes make the viewer feel uncomfortable. My nudes stare back and challenge the viewer. Grotesque yet alluring, my nudes say, “I’ll consume you.”
BNN: What do you call the free-standing works, and how do you relate to them?
AZ: I call them “cut-outs”. I consider them extensions to my paintings; they are figures that have emerged from the painter's world and inhabit the viewer’s space. They are also enlarged collages. I often play with images of my work on 4 x 6-inch photo paper, cut those up, and create new pieces. Sometimes, these will inspire a large-scale sculpture.
In the piece, “Out to Pasture,” I wanted to create dynamic movement while experimenting with drastic scale shifts. The tiny pink runners run in and out of the legs of the inflatable deer. The hair of one of the female figures is blown back by an invisible gust of wind. The eye that is present in many of the paintings is used as the deer’s eye, and, rather than use its own hooves to run, the deer has roller skates that are animated with human features. When the cut-out is photographed, part of it - specifically, the inflatable deer - looks three-dimensional because of the flattening effect that photography has. I find it so fascinating that photography can be so unreliable.
If the paintings are bricks within the installation, the “cut-outs” are the mortar.
BNN: What's up next for you?
AZ: I will be participating in the La Brea Studio Artists Residency in September.
“Allison Zuckerman: Act Natural” is on view at Kravets/Wehby Gallery, 521 West 21st Street, New York, from April 27 to June 3, 2017.
Barry N. Neuman was previously the New York editor of the online edition and an associate editor of the hard copy edition of “Boiler,” Milan. Works of his published in “Boiler” include interviews with Matthew Antezzo, Carles Congost, Christian Flamm, Graham Little, Victor Rodriguez, Lisa Ruyter, and Gordon Terry. He has additionally guest-curated group exhibitions at Team Gallery, New York, and La Panadería, Mexico City. Mr. Neuman received a M. A. in visual arts administration from New York University and a B. A. in biological sciences from the State University Of New York At Binghamton.
Photograph by Lance Evans
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