A conversation between Alex Allenchey and Alannah Farrell
Alex Allenchey: Growing up amid a large, creative family with five siblings and a painter for a mother and a woodworking father, were the arts always in your life? Do you remember your first significant encounter with art?
Alannah Farrell: My understanding, to this date, is that I have six siblings, although I may have more out there! My father was prolific with both his work and creating children. My mother is an incredible self-taught painter. She's the biological mother to myself and one of my brothers. Although I would describe all of my siblings as creative and entrepreneurially-minded, I was the only one who pursued painting. My earliest memories of art-making are of watching my mother work on paintings for the business she ran with my father. I mistook my parent's creativity for frugalness and poverty as a kid, and haven't begun to appreciate their resilience and brilliance until recently. They turned a dilapidated rural village hospital from the late 1800s into a home, built their furniture and lighting, grew their food, and lived outside the grid during my early childhood.
AA: Outside of a certain isolation in the then remote Catskills, were there any specific challenges to your developing an early artistic practice? When did you know you wanted to go to Cooper Union?
AF: Hindsight is funny, what I once saw as challenges, I now see as crucial life lessons in building strength and studio practice as a lifestyle. I didn't know about Cooper Union until my senior year in high school when I got accepted on a full scholarship to a New York summer school for the arts (NYSSSA, I believe?). I always saw school as a way to escape my circumstances. Outside my parent's creative bubble, the area I grew up in was economically depressed and devoid of opportunities, especially in the arts. When I learned of Cooper Union, I knew I had to go there. My parents didn't graduate from college and didn't have savings for schooling. Of course, they were pretty psyched when Cooper Union accepted my application, and I'll always be grateful for that opportunity.
AA: Exploring the incredibly vast and diverse ecosystems of New York City can be a formative experience for any young person. Were the social and interactive elements of photography, something that was on your mind before you arrived in the city?
AF: No, I grew up drawing and painting, never touched a camera! Public school didn't have a photography department, haha.
AA: How does your background in photography inform your current painting practice? Are there certain approaches that work for both mediums?
AF: I studied analog and digital photography at Cooper because I was hoping to get a job in a creative field that could support me. I found the technical and social elements fascinating. At this time, digital photography wasn't so ubiquitous, and smartphones were only on the verge of emerging. Boy, did I overestimate how much photographers get paid these days! I think elements of creating image and form with light informs my painting, for sure. But for my practice, I see photography as just one of many tools in my toolbag. On the other hand, painting is my lifeblood, an identity, a means of coping with both the challenges and beauty of life.
AA: Light and shadow seem to play an important role in establishing a mood in your paintings, and I can see how that might have made a natural transition from photography. When did you arrive at your particular style of ethereal portrait painting?
AF: As a kid, I remember complaining about the green glow and stressful buzzing of fluorescent lights to one of my friends, who thought I was crazy. I remember the dark clouds and diffused light of the Catskills, making all the colors below appear more saturated, radiating amidst a blanket of grey. Even ugly, dilapidated buildings and rural gas stations covered in ads for beer and cigarettes became beautiful in this light. Simultaneous, conflicting feelings of melancholy and hope would overwhelm me. I've always been affected by light. I think everyone is, consciously or not. Light is significant; it can completely alter mood. It is the reason life grows and rests. To make a long story short, capturing and painting light has been a process I've been developing to communicate those feelings and scenes I've seen as a kid, a young adult, and now. With my current style, I began to feel comfortable, really honing in and expressing these feelings, which started maybe five years ago.
AA: Paintings from “Worlds Without Rooms”, your solo show at The Painting Center in Chelsea, often depicted your friends and peers situated in their own personal confines, offering a glimpse at the contemporary lifestyles of your generation. As a former model yourself, how do you decide on the people for your paintings, and what do you tell your sitters before they pose to help them convey the sentiment you’re hoping to capture?
AF: I keep it simple when choosing people to paint. They are always people in my community: people I'm close with, or at least feel kindred energy. It's less about aesthetics and more about knowing the ups and downs of their lives or aspects of their identity. Depending on their comfort levels with posing, sometimes I give directions, and other times not. The process is organic, often more about conversation and hanging out. I've modeled for different creatives and painters in my community, like the talented painter Alix Bailey, and photographers Ryan McGinley and Marie Tomanova. I would say my approach to working with “models” is closer to the latter two, who keep it ultra-casual, often just like hanging with friends.
AA: Your portraits are often populated with small but specific details and objects—a pack of cigarettes, a pile of books—which when combined with a level of anxiety and unease, feel almost like hidden clues of a certain import. Are these items meant to be unpacked by the reader, or are they simply local ephemera from the scene?
AF: The items I place in each painting are indicators of the narrative. Each one has meaning and is chosen specifically for that meaning. I set up and light the objects separately, in little maquettes, and paint them from life. Sometimes the items alone are enough to carry a story; a portrait in their own right, remnants of the absent humans.
AA: You’ve mentioned previously how much you relish the “alchemical” process of painting, and how the materiality of the medium dictates how works progress. Could you describe your process of beginning a work? Are early compositional decisions preplanned? Or is there a certain part that you leave up to spur of the moment choices?
AF: Early compositional decisions are preplanned and drawn out, but things do change along the way. Paint is its own beast and will sometimes steer the ship, and I'll go with it. I love when those magical moments happen. I would say every painting has them, to some degree, and some go through a total transformation from sketch to end. I'm still trying to figure out what makes these moments happen, maybe if I knew I could control them, but then again, perhaps it's the out-of-control nature that makes them magical in the first place.
AA: You mentioned how essential the process of “capturing and painting light” is to your practice, which strikes me as a constant back and forth with color, especially as it pertains to mood and tone. Could you discuss what role color plays in your scenes and how you approach integrating various pigments on your canvases?
AF: Yes, light can be neutral and devoid of color, but often it has a temperature, tint, color, or reflective color. And anywhere from subtle to drastic shifts in light can alter the mood and tone of the painting. When I imagine a scene to paint, I usually have a color palette in my head. The color is inseparable from the scene. However, I typically paint en grisaille first and glaze over with color. This technique—what I call an abbreviated form of classical painting—helps me achieve the color palette I want while giving depth and roundness to figures. Greyscale can do it for me too, and sometimes I leave parts or entire figures en grisaille. It depends if the color is necessary to that part of the painting or not. These days I'm leaning towards more color, maybe because I feel more comfortable with my techniques. And, as a painter, I'm always trying to challenge myself and push further.
AA: In your new works for “A Night in June”, there seems to be a slight emphasis on the world outside the four walls your figures find themselves in, with a couple direct references to exterior cityscapes and geography. Beyond this sense of place, are there other new approaches or ideas you’ve brought to these new paintings?
AF: Yes—some of these new paintings directly confront my battles with gender dysphoria and are, almost uncomfortably, open and vulnerable. Subject matter-wise, I'm usually protective of myself and hesitant to share my personal story. Fear and questioning the importance of a personal narrative (like, who cares?) has held me back in the past. However, as society begins to shift, and non-binary, trans, and intersex bodies are visible but still not globally accepted, I think it is relevant to the world-at-large.
Once I started working with others in my community and asking them to let me paint them in intimate spaces and vulnerable states, I began to worry I was exploitative. I think about being inclusive versus being exploitative, and there can be a fine line. I never want to exploit others. After asking openness from other people in my community, I felt the fair thing to do was to match their vulnerability and paint from my own experiences with a lifelong body and gender dysphoria. Using painting to confront these issues will hopefully resonate with other people going through similar struggles. For those of us inhabiting trans or non-binary bodies who are experiencing isolation, dysphoria, self-hatred, depression, and questioning (especially at this time), you are not alone!
AA: There also seems to be a slant reference to Otto Dix in one of the works. Would you count the German painter as an artistic influence? Are there other painters or art historical periods you find yourself regularly returning to? Who and what are you looking at currently?
AF: I would. I love Otto Dix's portraits, which I feel have many layers of humor, sarcasm, brutal honesty, commentary, and chicness. They are more than mere portraits and have an eerie timelessness to them. If you look at his Self-Portrait, 1912 (which I referenced), Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, Dr. Mayer-Hermann, etc., they could've easily come out of the 1980s-early 1990s. Pretty mind-blowing that they are from the 1910s-20s! Other favorite painters are Christian Schad (I love the new Objectivists re: historical periods), William Bailey, Alix Bailey, Michael Cline, Gregory Gillespie, Kurt Kauper, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, Kerry James Marshall, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Meredith Frampton, Touko Valio Laaksonen a.k.a. Tom of Finland, Namio Harukawa, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and so many more.
AA: Life in the present moment has been turned upside down in the wake of the global pandemic. Has your painting practice changed in these times?
AF: I think this is a time when many of us are facing our demons. None of the usual distractions or outlets to promote mental health are available to us, i.e.: spending a night with friends, going to the gym, and getting inspiration from real life, live music, art, and spontaneous conversations. I think, globally, it's an unprecedentedly difficult time for people suffering from extreme poverty, homelessness, distorted mental states, addictions, or those in abusive relationships. Having a reasonably stable community, I am fortunate and grateful for the basics, and that I can channel some of my demons into the painting process. During this time, I have gotten involved in some projects that raise funds for the Ali Forney Center in NYC and the NYC Coalition for the Homeless. So, I wouldn't say my painting practice has changed all that much, but I am in more of a community-minded mindset now more than ever.