January 2012: In Conversation with Michael Alan
Michael Alan, History Pushes Through, 2011, ink on paper.
Born, raised and never leaving New York, artist Michael Alan has been a presence in a wide variety of New York scenes—from the gallery circuit to late-night parties to his former club, Michael Alan’s Playhouse to his live art pieces, Michael Alan’s Living Installation. Chances are if you are out at all in New York, you have probably or will probably witness Michael, drawing his way through a party, a concert or a gallery dinner. Typifying this constant artistic presence in New York is how Michael and I met at two separate parties this past summer. Even though I previously attended Michael Alan’s Living Installation at Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Cavern a year earlier, we officially met at one of Kenny Scharf’s dance parties, Cosmic A Go Go, in his East Williamsburg basement filled with day-glo painted toys, disco balls and Scharf’s art. Sitting in the corner of Scharf’s basement covered in fluorescent paint, attempting to cool off, I watched Michael perform David in the Dark. In this secret performance that seemed unexpected and wild to even the paint-drenched partiers, Michael turned his friend Dave Modello into a live representation of a specific drawing, using a detailed, constructed mask, day glo paint, and any odd material he could get his hands on. A few weeks after Cosmic A Go Go, I saw Michael again at a party organized by Muffinhead and Shien Lee of Dances of Vice called Dot Dot Dot at (le) poisson rouge. Between dancing with heavily made-up drag queens, I spotted Michael moving from bench to bench, side to side, drawing everything around him from the dancers to the space itself. Sitting with him, Michael showed me the drawings, which captured all the energy of the party around him—the movements, the outfits, everything.
Since then, I’ve learned that Michael lives in a state of constant creativity. When he’s not drawing or performing at the Living Installations, he’s in his Downtown studio for 12 hours working on drawings and paintings, from his complex line drawings to the muted watercolors to heavily collaged paintings, with a level of productivity and artistic development that I’ve never before witnessed. In addition to his fine art production, he also makes music and writes every day.
Emily Colucci: How are you today?
I don't even know what day it is. I don't believe in today—everything is now.
Emily Colucci: Lets start with how we met. We met at two parties—Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic a Go Go and Muffinhead and Shien Lee’s Dot Dot Dot this summer. When I saw you at Dot Dot Dot, you were drawing everyone and everything at the party. Even though you do go to parties and capture its energy, you also spend a lot of time working solo in the studio. How you balance the two?
Alan: I see it as a responsibility and a process. What I mean by responsibility is being active in the community. By going out and being that guy who draws everything, it creates a dialogue with the public, which is part of my responsibility as an artist, not just hanging a painting. Then I channel the energy from life, people's conversations, all things around me, parts that become code then I transmit it. Sometimes its finished at a party, on the train or in the studio. Its like carrying a baby around with you. I feel that it helps me grow so much. I relearn things about people that I might forget if I just stay in the studio. Its this constant reminder of opposites that ends up playful.
Colucci: You have recently started a new project that could be seen as equally social as the drawing at parties—musical collaborations with incredibly talented and well-known musicians such as Geneva Jacuzzi, Japanther, The Krays, Tim “Love” Lee, Jesse Jones from Yuppicide and Renaldo and Loaf who are part of The Residents tribe. This project started in conjunction with next (and possibly last) Living Installation at ABC No Rio, a punk art venue that also doubles as a punk music venue, which is also being closed down for years of renovations. How did you get into music? And how did these collaborations come about?
Alan: As long as I can remember, I've been a part of the New York music scene whether as a punk kid sneaking into shows and drawing, a DJ, a musician, a promoter, a freestyle artist or an organizer. I would encourage anyone who might have done something in the past and put it down to find some way to return to it. I used to tour with my music but I dropped it to pursue my fine art career. Its been really rewarding to find a way to still do it. Don't give up on all your passions to just pursue one-find one way to incorporate all of it-whether its baseball or dog-walking. you can find some way to fit it in. It'll just free you up. As far as the recent collaborations, Jesse Jones from Yuppicide is my really good friend and this seemed like a great way to collaborate with him. I knew Ian from Japanther even before he was in Japanther and I’m so proud of him and Matt. Tim also is just a studio-mate from back in the Dumbo days and the Krays have helped a lot in previous performances. Geneva Jacuzzi was just someone whose music I liked. We're Facebook friends and I just asked her. I don't normally write people I don't know. I just felt it was perfect-she's really punky. She's been really generous with this project and funny. These collaborations are similar to how artists used to send the postcards in the mail between one another. This is my way of collaborating with other artists. Collaborations can get kind of tricky and I'm trying to make this as carefree as possible. Just sending songs back and forth. For me as a painter and a draftsman, its fun to watch my mouth turn into the lines.
Michael Alan, Past, Present, Future, 2012, everything on paper.
Colucci: Your mom is also one of your musical collaborators and she’s extremely good. She also has played a big role in the Living Installations. How did your mom become a rockstar?
Alan: She's like a little magical penguin. I don't even know if she's real. She's just a magical mom, everyone who meets her is like "what?" She's not a hippie. She's a tough Irish lady from Bushwick. She doesn't even look real. David Lynch would marry her if he could. I've never met anyone like her and I've met alot of people. The only person who comes close is Kenny Scharf. I live in make-believe land where I was raised to only care about being happy and making silly noises no matter what. Tough times equals time to make jokes.
Colucci: How would you describe your music and what you bring to these collaborations?
Alan: I see myself as a mix of ODB/ Darby Crash/some sort of raccoon on 75 cups of coffee, happy to be alive. I hate to say it but my approach musically is definitely not for everyone. Its comedic and chaotic. Its also raw. I'm not a trained musician and its really really in your face. I have heard from the bands that they are happy to have someone bring that to the table. I'm the wild one in the pack no matter what band I join because its not my profession. I’m not trying to sell it or get a record deal. With the music, I can really let loose but in the painting, I have to calculate where everything goes.
Colucci: Since you use your computer and 12 tracks and Triton for all of the music, you can pretty much record anywhere you want and at any time. Where did you record the songs?
Alan: Sometimes in the studio, the street, in my car, with my mom on the couch, on the floor, in Noah Becker's bathroom, in your house, in Ann Temkin's office at MoMA, in my dad's bed....
Colucci: Even though there are some differences between the looser music and your calculated drawing and paintings, there are some undeniable similarities between the sounds and the movement within your drawings and paintings. What are the similarities and the differences between the music and the drawings and paintings?
Alan: There are many many similarities. Some of the songs have a dreamlike repetition that is like looking at a painting. I'm planning an exhibit called Sound Drawing where viewers can have the choice to listen to the songs via headphones and look at a painting. The paintings are moving and the music obviously moves. Its a way people can connect deeply to the work. I felt that connection when I heard Basquiat's recordings with Gray. Same with seeing Keith Haring’s sound works and seeing Kenny Scharf performing and hearing his voice. Hearing the artist's voice is so helpful even if its altered and strange. Its really helpful for me too as I'm working. I'll be painting and singing. I'll keep moving around the studio and don't really slow down. One influences the other. Its hard to go to sleep. One difference is I don't use technology in my art. I'm an anti-technology artist. I don't use projections or assistants. I run myself ragged, working on everything by hand. The music is working with people and technology, which is a big step for me.
Colucci: Returning to your painting and drawings, one of the aspects that constantly fascinates me about your work is the play with time. You use your older paintings and drawings as collage pieces in your newer works and you also revisit your old drawings, adding new aspects to them sometimes even years later. How do you define an old and a new work?
Alan: I don't know if I really believe in time. Time is just another system created by man to calculate something like money or red light/green light. I'm really interested in playing with that notion. I'm interested in creating a visual language and when I look back at a 5 year old drawing, part of is tracing the origin and timeline. You can't neglect your past. You can move on from it, learn from it and incorporate it. The past makes you who you are. You don’t work blind, you build from the bottom to the top, referencing symbols you created as a child all the way to what you make now so people can follow and not get lost. There is a connection. There is always that signature line. I like to live now and I like to plan ahead. There is always some plotting and you have to think of the future too, which way the work will line up and how that keeps building. Warhol planned a show at the Met of the portraits while he was making the portraits. It’s really important to have a strong direction and a master plan. I dislike work that doesn’t have a continuing dialogue.
Colucci: How did you find your line?
Alan: I found my line when I was younger through drawing fast. Young meaning little. It got me in a lot of trouble but also saved my life. My line is my signature.
Michael Alan, Double Liar, 2011, watercolor, ink and pencil on paper.
Colucci: What do you hate?
Alan: Bad art in good spots, snitches, users, fake plastic people, war, ownership, greed, people who want to do but don’t want to communicate, waste, wasted talent, overindulgence in fleeting sensations.
Colucci: What do you love?
Alan: People who really really are excited about what they’re doing and are excited about life. This is what makes life continue.
Colucci: You’ve made it clear to me for a long time that you have been drawing throughout your life from when you were a child to being at parties to right at this very moment in the studio. When did you start drawing?
Alan: I drew my way through life, watching people get annihilated, ducking bullets, being attacked and learning how to survive. Drawing for me was a way of talking. I didn't really understand and maybe I still don't understand people's motivations. I came from a house where my mom wrote a book called The Adventures of the Buzzaboo and Mrs Poo. I came from a world where there was extreme love and creativity in a cesspool of some really horrible destructive stuff--"harmonious opposites". My mom was a writer and a social worker. My aunt was unreal. She was a nun. My father was a collector of Dali but didn't speak much about art. He made sure the house wasn't burglarized. We were robbed 6 times in a year. Thrown into the world around me, I wasn't exposed to kids before that. The first day of school I got punched down a flight of steps-I found out being different wasn't a good thing in NY. The people’s painted idea of NY is a place to go if you're a freak or different but being raised in the late 70s early 80s, I missed out being a part of the Downtown art scene. There was no one to really communicate with. I had this best friend who was a graffiti artist called ODIN (RIP) who I could talk art with but other than that there was no one. Drawing wasn't a coping device but its just what I did. I was the guy who drew stuff.
Colucci: It seems like the New York you grew up in was this dichotomy—on one hand, you were surrounded by violence and on the other hand, surrounded by great art, music, writing and culture. You also experienced some great changes in the city. What was it like to grow up in New York?
Alan: A lot of people are born into wealth but I feel like I was born into art. It wasn’t always negative. The positives of New York always outweighed the negatives. I’m really thankful that I was born here. New York is a really rich city. I have an advantage artistically. Its because I’ve seen some really cool things from hanging out with my friend Kevin (RIP) at the Planetarium in the Natural History Museum to seeing a Chuck Close retrospective to doing a show with Run-D.M.C. My art changes and switches, moves and evolves because the city is always moving and changing. Growing up here, you had to get accustomed to that. New York is the moving city. Time doesn't really stand still in the city. There is never a moment of silence and similarly there is never that silence in my own art. Even in the muted watercolor drawings of bodies, there are still movements inside them.
Colucci: Even though you grew up through some of the roughest years in New York, you still have a really deep understanding of art history. Where does that come from?
Alan: It came naturally. I wasn't drawing comic books or robots. I was really into color, blending and blotting. I was inside churches all the time and rendering them. My grandmother was really big on religion too so there was a lot of art history books in her house. I studied a lot of science as a kid. My dad who also drew was a collector of Dali and Miro and I would always find my way to get an art book. Also punk music had great art. Crass and all these bands had this beautiful cover art. I think Crass is high art. Some of the graffiti scene also influenced me like meeting Mutz, a really nice guy who made me take more time with my work. Seeing graffiti on the trains was very artistic. I also read a lot.
Meeting Kenny Scharf and becoming his friend in the recent years was probably the best artistic thing to happen to me. I don't necessarily understand other big artists with tons of assistants making their work but I understand him. He's playful.
Colucci: In addition to the phenomenal amount of drawings, paintings, sculptures, performances and songs, you also write a lot too and I think that often gets overlooked. I see these wacky writings on Facebook and obviously lyrics from your music. What is the latest thing that you wrote?
Alan: I just found this and I didn’t remember writing it. I don’t think its good but maybe that’s what makes it good: I dreamed that I made 3 large sculptures that spelled out S-E-X. Each letter was the size of a car. This was on the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. As I ran around the letters pecking them like Woody Woodpecker, all the traffic chased me around for hours. I jumped on a boat and traveled across the river to a small island to hide out and had diarrhea. Cops were coming to the island and I couldn’t run because I had diarrhea and then, I woke up with diarrhea.
Colucci: What goes on inside your mind?
Michael drawing at the American Museum of Natural History
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Emily Colucci is a freelance art writer who has written for Bomblog, Art 21 and 22 Magazine and a regular contributor to Hyperallergic. She also works at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.