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Creating A Visual Language: The Art of Michael Alan


Michael Alan. "I done did my penance," 2012. Everything on paper. Courtesy of Gasser Grunert Gallery.

“I’m here to create an empathetic, honest, strong visual language, by working through every process I can, whether it’s drawing, painting, sculpture, performance or music that will touch as many people as possible. Life is short.”Michael Alan

Focusing for these two weeks on artists who not only do their own work but dedicate themselves entirely to creation, no artist, in my opinion, has an artistic output that matches Michael Alan in both staggering quantity and careful attention to each individual piece and his entire work as a whole.

A born and raised New Yorker, Alan’s art touches many genres ranging from drawings/paintings, sculptures, live performances and his music, Michael Alan Alien, collaborating with musicians such as Jello Biafra from The Dead Kennedys, Shinji Masuko from The Boredoms, Jeff and Jane Hudson and artist Kenny Scharf.

Working in several interconnected styles, Alan’s art ranges from extremely detailed line drawings to delicate watercolors to complex collage drawings that feature cut-up prints of his own drawings and paintings.  Alan weaves together all these different variations of his work by altering his own images and figures through various techniques and processes, constructing an entirely unique world with his imagery or a “visual language.”

Asked about the process behind creating this visual language, Alan explains:

There’s so many different processes that it’s hard to just pinpoint and discuss A takes you to C. I’m working on building a language through various ways of drawing and painting and arranging and rearranging thousands of different images that I’ve created. I’m interested in the exploration, the continuation of the world and characters that I build and how they evolve through time. My process is to document life…an intangible space and put that into a piece of paper or canvas and then you have truth. It all starts with my line, the continual DNA through my work.

Compared by Robert Shuster in the Village Voice’s “Best in Show” to Egon Schiele, Alan’s unique line joins Alan’s multitude of works together.

Alan describes:

My line has its own movement that ties together all my processes. The line is used as a thread that weaves parts of my collage, painting, drawing and performances together and acts as a guiding system through the work.

Michael Alan. "Enigmatic Sleep," 2012. Ink on paper. Courtesy of Gasser Grunert Gallery.

Looking at line drawings such as Enigmatic Sleep, Alan’s line swoops, spins, twirls, dashes, twists and turns in a fluid and yet angular fashion. Alan’s line balances a juxtaposition between the lyrical rhythms and jagged starts and stops that create negative space, appearing to the viewer as shifting 3-dimensional forms.

Alan’s linework is also notable for its rapid technique. Bringing paper, pens and gadgets wherever he goes, Alan creates these line drawings on the spot within minutes, capturing the energy surrounding him by quickly recording it on the page, sometimes even in the dark of a movie theater or concert.

Alan’s line then gives way to his other wide variety of techniques that comes from constant daily discovery in the studio. From splashing across the page with markers to lightly spray-painting on the drawings and paintings to adding weight with heavier lines, Alan mixes a complex combination of materials and techniques to add color, dimension and most of all, movement to the work.

Alan reflects:

Through working every day, I reinvestigate some of the visual discoveries that took place in the studio. Exploring different techniques, visuals and ideas about existence.  I have to study the works to see how they’re put together, some more than others. There’s color patterns, choices, mixing of random materials that I constantly discover new ways to create a picture. The goal everyday is to just get one level higher beyond what I already knew.

Another style of work that Alan frequently makes is his faded watercolor paintings. Often haunting and revealing the worlds within the body, these works harbor remnants from his previously completed works. Not a transfer, Alan instead uses a variety of techniques with watercolor, markers, blending and bleeding to add color and faint images.

Michael Alan. "Waiting on Me," 2010. Ink and watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Gasser Grunert Gallery.

Discussing these emotionally powerful watercolors as well as other works, Alan explains:

The paper or the canvas is an emotional reader. The emotion or non-emotion is undeniably read by a true eye and soul the same way a scientist reads a litmus test.

In addition to the watercolors, Alan also constructs complex collage drawings and paintings, sometimes layering printed collage pieces of his own work on top of his line drawings or watercolors, adding layer upon layer of his own work and line. Confusing time and the notion of an old work and a new work, Alan jumbles his past works and reconstructs them.

Michael Alan. "Holy Spirit," 2012. Everything on paper. Courtesy of Gasser Grunert Gallery.

The spontaneity with my work comes from recycling a lot of my own work. I’ll cut up drawings from 7 years ago, copy them, reprint them and it’s really refreshing to see that within any pattern, you can change it into a whole new pattern. I can go inside one of my drawings, cut it apart, replant it, draw over it, print on top of it, there are no limits. Its refreshing to see that you can never get stuck even with your own work. If I take a drawing and cut it up 6 different ways, it can lead me to a picture within a picture—a world within a world.”

Juxtaposing disparate elements from his old works and new works, Alan’s collaged drawings and paintings fit together as complex puzzles similar to M.C. Escher with their use of depth, movement and play with the viewer’s perception.

As Alan reveals:

My work is about mixing various different speeds, styles, techniques within my palate. And sometimes they all happen on one page, on one painting or one album. Its about the cross-pollination of all these different things that I’ve experienced. My work has to do with the concept of time. What happens if I use a drawing from 8th grade, with a drawing I did today with a collage piece I did a year ago. I love the ability to mash many moments into one.

Animating the viewer with these complex works, the viewer’s eye is constantly shifting, moving forward, back, side to side, and looping around the work. Alan guides the viewer through the work with arrows, numbers, letters and  realistic eyes or faces, mixed with unreal eyes and faces. While the collaged works can be extremely complex with these new materials and techniques, their use of depth, line and form is classic, strongly connected to Old Master works, which allows for the works to have a resonance with the viewer. Able to enter into Alan’s constantly shifting and evolving world, the viewer realizes they are looking at themselves.

Alan states:

I want people to really see a part of themselves within a work. I like readable parts with non-readable parts with swirling worlds taped under 7 years of work. I want people to be able to step in it at any time and hold onto something that has nothing to do with Michael. Anyone can come into an exhibition and grab onto something that is larger than me and larger than them. Because they are looking at everything.

Not only jumbling time within one work, Alan also reaches back into his own past works that have been purposefully set aside to accumulate time. Alan edits and re-edits some of his thousands of drawings and paintings that he has stored in various locations, from books in the studio, to his mother’s house, to a shed and storage spaces. Alan alters older works from three months ago to three years ago, and adds new collage pieces, lines and drips of paint to finally finish them.

Michael Alan. "I've been punched 1000x," 2005-2012. Everything on paper. Courtesy of Gasser Grunert Gallery.

First started in 2005, Alan’s I’ve been punched 1000x was only recently finished this year.  Beginning with an extremely detailed drawing characteristic of his older work, Alan then combined this drawing with the freer style of his more recent works.

As Alan describes:

I’ve been punched 1000x was worked on from 2005 until now. The title has a double meaning both physically, stating the wear and tear on the human condition and literally, like a time clock, documenting the span of 2005 to 2012.

Since Alan goes back to edit works that were done months or even years prior, his process naturally raises the question of when is a work finished.

Alan answers:

It’s done when I believe that the figures in the work exist. It never looks like everyday objects but I have to feel like it’s living and that it deserves space. It has to transcend me. The work has to finally touch on something besides what I’ve already touched on. Even though I am working using lines and pieces from older work, that even has to be pushed further. I don’t want to repeat. The collaging and the quilting of the line, the colors and arrangement really has to move.

Working continuously to further articulate his constructed worlds and visual language, Alan’s work stands as a testament to how much can be achieved through constant work and creation.

Michael Alan. "She Is My God," 2012. Everything on paper. Courtesy of Gasser Grunert Gallery.

Defining his artistic goals, Alan describes:

The goal is the continuation of life. If there is a continuation of humanity, its through watching people do amazing things. I’d like to keep growing as an individual and be a living example of creating an unexplainable space that makes people want to be more optimistic and more productive and to continue the conversation, create dialogues, worlds and visions. As humans we can do more than we think we can. I’d like to demonstrate this while I’m here. I want to see everyone do as much good as they can.

Its a quest, its not a job. I am honored. Having the ability to create is a gift and should be shared. Touch as many as you can.

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