Allison Zuckerman

Allison Zuckerman

Oh my gosh, I just seriously can't get enough of Allison Zuckerman's painting installations. For one thing, they're exuberant in their color and playful in her use of cutouts and images from cartoons and comics. But the playfulness bears a biting edge, putting her work in a realm somewhere in between a serious commentary on gender roles and stereotypes, and the over-the-top ridiculousness of a bawdy play. One could interpret her installations as stage-like, which the viewer can walk around only to become a part of the scene. And at the same they're time reminded of the 2-dimensionality of the work, or how fickle it can appear, as it disappears almost entirely when viewed from the side. Allison shares with me some more thoughts on her practice!

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Hiya Allison! First, I would love to know more about you. You received your MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015 and are now based in New York. Where are you from originally, and what was the rest of your art education like (formally and informally)?

I grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and graduated from a class of 36 students. My high school art teacher, Mr. Bowie, was highly influential on my way of approaching art – he encouraged experimentation and the recycling of materials. I became heavily invested in studio art beginning in 9th grade, when I would take figure drawing courses on Saturday mornings. I was accepted into the (now defunded) Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts in 10th grade, a residency awarded to high school students devoted to the arts. I spent a utopian summer in Erie, Pennsylvania, working alongside artists, writers, musicians, actors and dancers. 

I declared my major (Fine Arts) early on during my undergraduate career at the University of Pennsylvania. During my junior year, I was nominated and accepted into the Yale-Norfolk Summer School for Painting and Photography. There, I began integrating photography into my painting practice and completely revamped my approach to painting. I began to use paint as paint, rather an as a rendering tool, and delved into theatricality and camp as themes within my work. 

I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received my MFA in Painting and Drawing in May of 2015. My graduate school experience was extremely positive; my nonconventional approach to painting was encouraged and fostered by my advisors and professors. During my time at SAIC, I focused entirely on collage. In my final year, I began to collage outside of the picture plane, using 2-dimensional cardboard cut-outs as life size collage pieces that dominated the viewer’s space and invited them into the world that I was creating. In this way, the presentation of my work become performative.

What first interested you in making art?

It’s something that I don’t really have a say in. If I’m not making work, it feels like restless leg syndrome. I feel anxious if I do not have a piece of art in the works. If there is nothing for me to look at and think about pushing, I start working. I follow the art.

Your recent work combines painting with photography and moving image, often figurative, slightly grotesque but with a sense of humor, and a bright color palette. Can you tell me a bit more about your subject matter?

I am inspired by artwork that performs, excites, and entertains. My Pop-Surrealist work, maximalist in its presentation, is suspended between high seriousness and ridiculousness.  The theatrics of feminine emotion, pushed to the brink of hyperbole, ignite my mischievous, irreverent, cannibalistic, and cyclical artistic practice.

Through an interchange of photography and painting, I convert painted strokes into printed pixilated marks and apply them as collage to canvas. I photograph a painted figure from a completed painting, print this photograph, and either cut it up or use it in its entirety in a new painting. I also use the photographs of the painted figures to build the bodies of the 2-dimensional cutout sculptures. I employ visual repetitions throughout my paintings in a pointed sardonic reference to Freud’s famed idea that "Hysterics suffer from reminiscences." This digital recurrence of resized body parts and characters also serves to parallel Internet hyper linking; the protagonist of one painting becomes a portal into a new world when it appears in a separate painting or cutout sculpture.  

My artistic practice extends into public spaces as performative art-interventions. I place the cutout sculptures in parks, beaches, and boardwalks and photographically document day-trippers gleefully interacting and posing with them. The cutouts function as “selfie” generators, bridging the gap between art and life.

I enjoy how especially in your recent exhibition at GL Strand in Copenhagen that your paintings are installed tightly salon-style, or filling the whole wall. Do you consider these in any sort of narrative sense?

My hope for this installation was to undermine traditional narrative structure because everything occurred at once: there was no clear sequence of events, and no definitive conclusion.

The paintings, arranged in both comic-book layout and salon style, simultaneously fueled and settled the clash of high and low. I duplicated some paintings in print because confusing the high status of painting with the low status of widely disseminated media motivates me. 

The freestanding cutout sculptures in the gallery were extensions to the paintings. They are life-size collage pieces that occupy the viewer's space. As the spectator moves around the exhibit to view the paintings, she or he becomes a part of the forest of imagery. Portions of the paintings are hidden and revealed in a state of flux based on the perspective of the viewer. At every perceived angle, the work shifted, paralleling the variable emotional state of the central heroine. The paintings, gridded and pressed alongside each other, suggested a comic book strip. There is little breathing room between paintings. They were intended to inundate the viewer with inescapable histrionics resulting from a woman’s objectification.

What is your process like? Especially working in various media; do you work on numerous pieces at once?

In graduate school, I would amass my material, which included print outs of old and current paintings, and photoshoots that I would direct and participate in, and cover my studio floor with collage pieces, literally wading in material to use within my paintings. My practice has shifted since then, into the collage portion of art-making taking place on the computer. I collage past paintings on photoshop, print them onto canvas, and then paint onto these surfaces. In this way, the collage is seamlessly integrated into the fibers of the canvas.

Can you describe your studio? Do you have any routines or rituals there?

My studio is in my apartment; I wake up and paint, come home from work and paint. I enjoy living in my workspace. Most of my apartment is covered in paintings, finished and in-process. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks while painting. Marc Maron’s WTF podcast is a favorite.  

What do you think is the best advice you've received?

Find your voice and speak it. 

What is your go-to when you find yourself in a creative rut, or wondering what to do next?

I try to post to Instagram daily and have been doing so for a year and a half. It’s funny because the immediacy and ephemerality of that world has completely influenced my way of art-making. Many times I’ll make a post for Instagram, become interested by its potential, and expand it into a longer-term project. My paintings are becoming more screen-like and the theme of flatness is definitely on my mind. I see so much art through my phone screen and feel that I am making work now to be viewed in that capacity. I also consider Instagram a way to show work to a wide and engaged audience, outside of the traditional gallery system. I have sold artwork and received commissions from Instagram and feel that it is now not completely necessary to have gallery representation.

Is there anything that you find particularly challenging or daunting about pursuing an art career? Or an obstacle that you've overcome, from which you learned a lot?

It’s a completely unknown journey…it is necessary to love the purity of art-making because I have found that the nuggets of commercial success are sporadic and infrequent. 

What do you find most fulfilling about what you do? What keeps you going?

For me, making work is similar to polishing a stone. My themes and ideas are becoming more and more focused, clearer, and direct. To look back 6 months or a year, and to see the way that the work has changed, is quite rewarding. It is compelling to look back and connect the dots, but the future of the work is still a complete surprise. 

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently developing?

I will be participating in a group show at Zolla Lieberman gallery, located in Chicago, in February. 

Find more at allisonzuckerman.com!

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Lisa Denyer

Lisa Denyer

Julia Selin

Julia Selin