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Home FEATURES Michael Alan Interview

Michael Alan Interview
Written by Kristin Bauer   
Friday, 14 June 2013 09:00

These days New York-native multimedia artist, Michael Alan, has been incredibly active artistically in the big city. Between staging hours-long Living Installations at the New Museum and other DIY spaces, exhibiting his drawings and paintings in group exhibitions and hosting an unusual solo show in the home of his mother, Alan proves that there is no rest for the wicked. I caught up with him recently to hear the latest, the backstory, and what's next.

Interview by Kristin Bauer
Photos: Joseph Meloy

Lately you've been busy with a your Living Installations and exhibition. First can you talk a little bit about the exhibition you had at your parents' house? I'm intrigued by that.

Hm. Where to start on that one...

Where did the idea come from? It's a pretty unorthodox idea- does exhibiting in your parents' home speak to your work in some way?

You know, participating in art and signing on, doing all the steps, being in the scene and doing what you've got to do- you just constantly question is this exactly what I signed on for? Is this exactly why I'm an artist? I try to constantly do things that are the reasons I signed on. Like when I was younger, why I drew as a kid, why I made pranks and would be the class clown and draw in peoples' books, draw dicks on walls- you know, where that pure essence came from. I got pretty fucked up this year.

I broke my spine and got water in my brain. My mom lives in the city and I had to move my studio back in there and she's been sick, so we've been taking care of each other.

And with people coming to visit me to see how I'm doing and see my mom- slowly it kind of hit me, "why don't you just do a show here?"

I always try to do shows in strange or odd places along with the regular gallery format and all that. I just felt like it would be really honest. It's where I've spent a lot of time and its an extremely emotional space for me. The work I make is about emotion and letting people in so it really fits. My parents have been a huge support and I want to celebrate that. My mom has been a collaborator in my performances and she can't go to them anymore and go see the exhibitions. I got this success going on and want to bring it to her in her own home.

I'm curious about your mom as a collaborator. I know you've collaborated with a lot of different people, and it ranges from your folks to Kenny Sharf to Jello Biafra. Can you talk about how you go about choosing your collaborators, and possibly some of your favorite collaborations you have done?

Most of the collaborations are musical, or the Living Installations, which I think is more of an experience than a performance. I've learned to choose the people based on being drawn to them as a person, not so much to their art but their spirit. Real soul searching, proactive people. That's Kenny Sharf, I mean he's super, super, super alien-nice. I've never met anyone as nice as that guy. I don't want to work with people who are negative and down. I'm coming from the Fugazi scene, you know, the posi-punk scene- so negativity doesn't match. So I'm looking for people who are proactive in their life. Especially in collaboration, there's hiccups- and it's about getting through that hiccup. And that's how my mom is – I grew up collaborating with her as a kid. We made a children's book when I was younger, always doing artistic stuff. I would do studio visits with her when I was five.

You have a Living Installation coming up at the New Museum?

At New Museum there's a huge performance thing going on called UnTapped, and I'm doing my rendition- I guess it will be more of a solo version, it will be four hours with music made with people I've collaborated with. I haven't worked out entirely what I'll be doing.

It seems like it's pretty organic and spontaneous, your process for creating that experience?

I wish. Well, you know, 50% yes. I do plan what goes on and it's a lot of time to organize the individual parts, but with the human body it takes its own course- like paint on paper- but there's so much preparation. Like preparing for a storm. You have to make sure everything's safe, everything's gathered, all the people know what's gonna go on somewhat. It's a lot of touch and go, communication, non-communication. They're usually like 8 or 9 hours.

You've done these a number of times- when did you get going doing them?

I started the first version of it nine years ago but it was more drawing based and theatrical. And it was called Draw a Thon Theater- it was free spirited. Every hour it was a different theme. It was long- they were like 15 hours long. We had audiences of 300 to 500 people.

So it's evolved over time?

It's evolved over time as an artistic piece- its way better. It's a DIY project on purpose. I don't want it to be sponsored by a gallery or for anyone to put money into it cause that changes it. That's important so it's not bringing something that's sponsored by Target or whoever. It has that energy I don't see around New York as much- the old New York is kind of gone. And the big new New York is all about money, and I'm probably on the opposite end even though I work with galleries.

That (money) is not your motivator or a part of your process.

No it's not my motivator with that project. It's a money burner. People are like, "why are you doing this? You're a grown man."

It seems like there are definitely some parallels with the aesthetics of your visual artwork, in terms of your drawings and paintings, and with your Living Installations- specifically the line and texture and spirit of the work. Can you talk about how they may be connected?

This all came together because people wanted to animate my drawings. I just wasn't interested in making animation but I like people. I used to do a lot of pranks and social experiments and had a NightCLub in NY when I was younger. I've been in the music field for a while. I just wanted t o animate them (my paintings and drawings) with people. Wanted to see how models, friends, family interpreted what I do and help me bring it to life by doing something they normally wouldn't do. Then at the end I look at the photos (of the Living Installation) and I draw the photos and print the photos, cut them up and bring them to the show.

So when you're collage-ing images into your paintings, part of where that comes from is documentation of your Living Installations?

So it really spirals. I never run out of my own reference and I never want to. And working on people- first of all, I like to draw life. I see the paper as an energy reader. So I just try to get as much energy on there as possible. And working with the show there's definitely energy being harnessed and changed and turned into documentation and images and music and a lot of the pieces that come off the performers or are built for the event, they have energy. And then they get cut up and go into a painting and it's really activating the art further. Or taking a drawing from the studio and gluing it to someone's face- it's really intense. It's really pushing my comfort levels... But to talk about the work itself, the Installation is like the B-Side project- not the primary thing I do.

With your paintings and drawings, you've been making work for quite a while, how did you get started making artwork?

Well I was lucky and unlucky being born in NY. It's given me some great opportunities in a sense, seeing and being involved in the culture here. I was also raised during a time where it was really violent, so I was immersed in a lot of things I wouldn't wish on even my enemies. A lot of that violent stuff I witnessed and different things I went through come out in my art. That gave me a lot of perspective. I was drawing always and I always had a way to draw my pain or draw other people's pain. As I've gotten older I've harnessed it into something a little more beautiful, but growing up in the eighties in the Outer Boroughs, you're not going to have the best life. No matter what neighborhood you go to, you're gonna get subjected to a lot of things.

I had art- I didn't have spoiled art, I didn't come from a rich family. Around me nobody else made art so it was kind of interesting. But I was attracted to the art scene in NY right away through my mom. So I had all these insane realistic life references that I had a place to start from.

I was pretty much given a NightCLub when I was 17, called Michael Alan's Playhouse, I split owning it with this fireman, right by the ferry. It was right by Wu-Tang and they used to come all the time and there was 1000 people a night. It was crazy. I was 17 and making all this money and I put it back into art and into art school. Then I got out of that scene, because it was crazy.

Then I was doing stuff with Palladium at 18. My mom called up and got me fired. That guy Michael Alig (of LimeLight) wanted to kill me, he was looking for me... I was like a little kid running all these parties. I was really popular in all these underground scenes, not in the galleries. At that time it was Downtown 81 and everyone wasn't coming to New York to be an artist. I missed the Downtown 81 Bus but had my own bus. I was having art shows at the Palladium and LimeLight when I was 17 and then eventually I got going and kept going getting my own solo shows.

The doors kind of opened for you to move along on your path- like, right place, right time for certain things in a natural progression.

Yeah, that's exactly how it went, I didn't force it I actually went against it. My friends were like "Why don't you be a full-time artist? Whay are you working at a club and putting out a rap record?" I didn't understand that being an artist was a profession, I didn't get it.

You're still living in New York and you're represented by a gallery in Chelsea, correct?

Yeah, Gasser Grunert.

How's that going? Do you have any visual art shows coming up?

I believe so. We've done three shows already. I have a group show up at Woodward Gallery. But I'm pretty much working with Gasser Grunert.

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