Alison Blickle‘s current show at the Eleanor Harwood will transport you from the mindless drudgery of your sad-sack life to a mysterious place outside of time and space. It’s mystical, feminine, and nostalgic, yet somehow edgy and totally unexpected. Take a look, and read on for my exclusive interview with Alison about her exhibit, The History of Magic, Part I: The Hermitage.
RAAB: What in your artistic path or personal inspiration led you to conceptualize and create this series?
Alison: I’ve been exploring ideas around storytelling and narrative in my work for years. I’m attracted to the idea that narrative is kind of a no-no in the contemporary art world– it leaves a lot of room for originality and working in uncharted territory.
Also, my husband is a screenwriter, so we are always talking about story and character. It is a big part of my life.
RAAB: The History of Magic, Part I seems to take place in a fantastical world. Where (and when) is this world?
Alison: The world in the paintings is a blending of times and places. I want it to feel outside of time, like it could be happening in the past or in the future, and that it doesn’t really matter. And the where is an invented place that I wish I could visit.
RAAB: What was your creative process (physical and mental) when creating this series?
Alison: While planning my show, I decided that I wanted to make the narrative elements in my work more explicit. I wrote a folk tale-type story that follows a woman as she goes on a journey– the paintings are scenes from the story, and the ceramic sculptures are objects from the story, almost like relics.
The story has similarities to a creation myth, so I started experimenting with installing the work in ways that reference altars in front of religious paintings. The ceramic sculptures in front of them are like sacred objects placed as offerings in front of the scene in the painting. The painting in my piece called The Hand of the Philosopher rests on a small table, inspired by the predellas used in Italian altarpieces in the 1400’s. Ceramic or canvas wall hangings above the paintings reference the painted scrolls that sometimes frame the top of altarpieces.
This was the first time I’ve included sculptural elements in my work. So there was a new three dimensional aspect that was really fun to play around with. It involved lots of grouping, editing, and happy accidents.
RAAB: The works in this exhibit reference aesthetics of Byzantine, Art Deco, Pre-Raphaelite, and other movements. How did you choose these particular styles you reference, and how do they interact with one another?
Alison: I have been really into art deco design for the past few years. As I got deeper into it, I found that designers in the 1920’s were inspired by Navajo and Egyptian art and design, as well as European folk art. And some European folk art was inspired by the design of the Moors from Africa. More and more connections started popping up. I love it that humans from all different times and places influence each other– our visual cultures are all woven together.
This is also true of stories—the same stories have been told by people all over the world, from our earliest myths, to movies being made right now in Hollywood. It seems that both story and visual culture have a universality to them.
I play with this in my work, including patterns and design from all over the world, and from different eras. I try to combine them in a way that is unique and fresh. I want to the work to have a tension between feeling contemporary, and feeling like it is from another time.
RAAB: Why are the subjects all women?
Alison: It just feels right for the time being. I’ve been painting only women for the past few years. I put the people in my paintings into imagined places and situations so that I can live vicariously through them. They are my special, private little worlds, and I guess I haven’t figured out how men fit into them yet.
I’m sure I’ll paint some guys again at some point. I think another part of it is that I tend to paint my figures as very smooth and soft and sensual, including men when I paint them. But I haven’t always liked the way the men turn out painted that way. So I have to figure out how I want them to look.
RAAB: Most of the women in the works are interacting with objects. Why is that?
Alison: My story is essentially a reverse Pandora’s Box. Our main character is a woman who is a hermit, living by herself out in the woods. She has been there for years, and all she does all day is make things– objects, vessels, figurines. One day she is visited by a stranger, who has brought the plans for a mysterious object that she wants built. And our woman is the only one who can make it. She is asked to make the object, and then deliver it to someone in a town far away. Our woman has never left the woods before, so it’s a scary proposition.
The special object she has to make is the round, white vessel that appears in many of the paintings. I also made several of them as ceramic sculptures. She meets different people as she begins her journey, and everyone she comes into contact with changes the object or adds to it in some way. She discovers that the object is a tool that can change form to help her along her journey in different ways. In one painting she is out in the woods, and the object unfolds and becomes a star map, with patterns that correspond to the stars above her head. For the ceramic verisons, I found old constellation charts and sealed them inside the objects. They got burnt up in the kiln, but they are still in there.
RAAB: The patterns on the women’s bodies in The History of Magic… are so striking. Have you ever considered designing patterns or trying your hand at fashion design? (Hint: I think you should.)
Alison: Thanks! I would love to do that. Maybe I’ll have opportunity to try it one of these days. My sister is actually a knitwear designer at Urban Outfitters, so maybe it runs in the family.
RAAB: Can you talk about the relationship between the sculptures and paintings in the exhibit?
Alison: I wanted to try to bring the world in the paintings out into our world. For me, the objects function as artifacts from the story—almost like proof that it happened. And having the ceramics in the room kind of magnifies the energy in the paintings.
For me, your work recalls archaic, primal things like wilderness, old-world beauty, and ancient spiritual traditions, but somehow, it still seems totally modern. Can you speak to that?
I think that all of these things are in our DNA– symbols, story, archtypes, design, pattern. So they feel timeless. They are still relevent to us today, but they connect us to the past as well. They are ancient and modern at the same time.
RAAB: Can you talk about the theme of “The Hermitage”?
Alison: The title of the show is History of Magic, Part I… The Hermitage. ‘History of Magic’ refers to the book Histoire de la Magie, (The History of Magic), written in 1860 by Eliphas Levi. He was a French occultist who wrote about the history of mysticism, symbols, alchemy, and sacred emblems and paintings.
‘The Hermitage’ refers to the woman in the story living as a hermit, making things, day in and day out. A hermitage can simply mean a place where a hermit lives. It can also be a type of monastery, with a dedicated space for religious devotion. Depending on the work of the person living there, the space might be a studio or workshop. It is a place where someone would go to be separate from the world, and completely focus on their work. I love this connection between making art and spiritual practice, and the idea of the artist being separate from the world. Working in the studio can be lonely at times, but other times you can feel connected to something bigger than yourself.
RAAB: Do you plan on producing other “History of Magic” shows? (Part II, Part III, etc.) What might be the themes for future shows?
Alison: This show is the first act of the story. My plan is to have my next two shows be the second and third acts of the story. Ultimately, the woman in the story is going to break the white object open, and release a bunch of good things into the world. I love folk tales and mythology– stories that exist to help guide us through the difficult parts of being human. Issues that are often universal across time and culture.
I learned that in the original version of the Pandora’s Box story, Pandora is an earth mother-type, who releases all of the bounty of the world. Then over time it got changed until she became a villain– a misbehaving woman who is responsible for all the bad stuff that exists. So I wanted to go back to the original and do my little part to put that out into the world again.
RAAB: Do you have any advice for young artists?
Alison: Make the kind of work that you love. Trends change, so try not to worry if what you want to make doesn’t seem to fit in. When you really love what you are making, it comes through in the work.
Work alot! It’s the only way to get better.
Look at lots of art. In person whenever possible. Old art and new art. It will help you to be able to evaluate your own work better. It’s important to know who came before you– you are part of a tradition that extends back to the beginning of humankind.
RAAB: Finally, you used to live in the Bay Area (and this is a Bay Area blog, so…) can you talk about that? Did it influence your work? Do you miss it up here? Favorite place to grab a drink?
Alison: Being raised in the Bay Area was a huge influence on who I am as a person, which is reflected in what I make. Growing up, my mom was wiccan, so I went with her to celebrations of pagan holidays, and was taught about being connected to the cycles of the earth. Our house had little handmade altars in it, made up of stones, shells, feathers, and figurines my mom gathered and arranged together. The Bay seemed very supportive of that kind of thing.
I do miss certain things about the Bay Area– it’s so green, and has so much water and lovely views. And you have the best health food stores! But I love where Im living (in Los Angeles), so I’m happy.
I never went out enough to have a really solid bar recommendation. One of my favorite restaurants ever was The Organic Cafe in Oakland. It was a macrobiotic place where I used to work as a sous chef. The chef Tenzin has his own place now called Potala Organic Cafe in Oakland.
RAAB: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Alison: You looked super cute at the opening!
Thank you, thank you, Alison! …For your thoughtful answers AND the outfit compliment. I’m so glad I was able to attend the opening last week; the combination of paintings + sculpture + whiskey + lovely, lovely people was almost too wonderful to bear.
SF folks: If you’re intrigued by this woman (and hell, how could you not be?) you HAVE to check out her show at the Eleanor Harwood Gallery in the Mission before June 15th. Actually gazing upon these epic oil paintings in person is a straight-up unearthly experience.