There is a mesmerizing quality in photographer turned painter Alannah Farrell’s work, presenting a modern take on the day to day life and personal relationship of her community of friends. Her portraits dive into a surrealist reality that has all the trappings of a figurative master’s practice in technique and composition. This shape and reverence is contrasted by the IRL experience, empty cigarette boxes, technologies and beds left unmade. It is with those details that she is able to convey the struggles and victories of her subjects. These subjects are real people that deal with real issues and life and the ware and emotional capacity that is prevalent in the tones used on the skin, the details of shadow work also frame the figures into the potential depth of sleep paralysis and all the trappings of living. Ahead of her solo show Worlds without Rooms at The Painting Center, we are enthused to learn more about her captivating work.
How do you feel you relate your work to your upbringing in the Catskills vs the East Village?
When I grew up in the Catskills through the ’90s and into the early 2000s, it wasn’t the hip place it is becoming today. I used to joke there were more cows and coyotes than people, which may have been true, actually. My family was the oddballs in the area. My parents and five siblings are all super creative, entrepreneurs, and independent thinkers, and we didn’t quite fit in with the families that had lived there for generations. We grew our own food, we danced to all sorts of music, we didn’t have much technology beyond electricity and a landline telephone. I spent a lot of time roaming the wilderness, watching the tumultuous grey skies from my window and drawing. My mother is a painter and as her first child, I really wanted to be like her. There was something beautiful and melancholic about my childhood in the Catskills which is still visible in my work, I think, intertwined within the colors I use and the feelings I hope to invoke.
The East Village got me into people! Coming from a rather isolated area, I was delighted to be around lots of people but also felt like a freak. My social skills were not the best, to say the least. After work and school, I started going to clubs. Goth clubs, drag and gay clubs, hip-hop nights, hotel parties hosted by club kids. Really anything and everything I could get in to. In these flamboyant alternative scenes, I felt like I was seeing some kindred spirits. I was curious to learn about other people’s histories, their unique stories, and I wanted to work on creative projects with them. It was my way of getting to know people better.
Though your subjects come from earnest backgrounds the rich use of masters techniques highlight strong details and tones, how important do you feel it is to frame the average person in this way of portraiture?
The technical process of how I paint is creating some of the looks you describe separate from the conceptual meaning. Conceptually, it’s an act of platonic love. To me, these individuals are important relationships and parts of my life and narrative. To me they are not average, they are individuals for whom I feel a lot for and with. It’s easiest to work with people I have strong feelings for. I find spending a lot of time making a painting of someone I have no feeling for incredibly difficult. Luckily, I haven’t really had to do much of that.
Where does the fear of sleep paralysis come from, is there something in your work's details and shadows that provoke this concept?
Like many people who think a bit too much, I have a lot of neuroses. I try my best to suppress these fears during the day otherwise I’d never leave my house, haha. In doing that, I think my fears manifest at night in the form of sleep paralysis and other nightmares. The experience of feeling paralyzed in your sleep whilst simultaneously seeing nightmarish figures definitely scares me. In my paintings, I try to imbue this sense of something lurking just outside the frame or behind an otherwise innocuous scene or portrait. Many of the objects and details act as clues, like clues in a true crime story... I want viewers to look at those details and wonder what happened here? What is the model thinking? Sort of like a still image taken from a David Lynch film. Without attempting some sense of tension and mystery I would get bored!
Your way of centering focus onto your subjects through monochromatic scale to color is lovely! How do you decide on the amount of flesh tone to display, with your subjects with all that I have been presented their feet are greyed is that purposeful or am I thinking too hard on the socks.
Thank you! While I try to envision a finished piece before starting it, the decisions for my color compositions evolve as I’m making each painting. Painting is such an alchemical medium, the way colors layer and interact is different than say, making the same image digitally. Some of these “magic” interactions is actually due to chemistry and the pigment makeup of different colors. Certain pigments are inherently more transparent than others. So the real thing always has elements of surprise along the way, even if everything is planned beforehand. I use an abbreviated version of the way many old masters painted. Painting the entire image first in grisaille, then layering transparent and opaque colors over top. Once I start with color it’s like an awkward sidewalk dance with the painting, some going back and forth until it feels right. I love color but I don’t like using too much color in one painting. Sometimes I leave the entire painting in greyscale if it captures everything I want without color. Often I start by coloring the face of the individual and working my way down, which probably explains why it’s often the feet or hands that are left greyed. Perhaps I’ll try it the other way around on my next piece! And I think I may have a sock fetish...is that a thing? I love frumpy, floppy tube socks. It can add a bit of humor to an otherwise serious subject matter.
For more of Alannah Farrell the artist encourages viewers to DM her
Alannah Farrell’s Worlds Without Rooms opens at The Painting Center March 28-April 20
547 West 27th Street, Suite 500 (5th Floor), New York.