We are all searching in these crazy times for something or someone to raise our spirits, a source of positivity and encouragement to see us through our dark moments. I have been following the work of prolific and dedicated Native New York artist Michael Alan, and find his art provides me with what I need to get me through the day in ground zero. Alan’s mastery of his process and sheer dedication to art making under any circumstances are an inspiration. Robert Schuster, the Village Voices art critic compared him to Egon Schiele, and like Schiele who worked through War and Pandemic, Alan maintains a relentless creative drive no matter what. I find myself turning to Alan’s Instagram for a daily dose of uplifting art, versus fear news, and for longer posts I check out his Facebook: it really keeps me going. I adore his recent NYC icon paintings!
I have come to know Michael through his artwork, and am amazed at the fact that he keeps going. His health is beyond fragile and he needs to be especially cautious about it these days, yet he sure speaks up, and paints out. He also keeps a close and loving eye on his 83 year old mother who lives with him. He puts it all on the line for his work, his city, and his mom. He maintains his artistic process, working day and night.
Michael is teaming up with his friend Norman Reedus (of the Walking Dead) zombie killer! Norman’s gallery is to release an edition of prints that will be produced on Norman’s site with all profits going to fight COVID-19 worldwide. I find the punk art friendship of these two wild men to give me hope for the future!
I caught up with Michael through digital social distancing and was able to ask him some questions about his art making process and what motivates him.
Courtesy of the artist
What do you think of the state of art at the moment?
In today’s society art is anything you say it is, which is why a lot the majority of the art that you keep seeing is either judged on stock base or who is cool or trending now, versus mental impact. Before Covid-19 you had endless regurgitation, endless art for fame, art for stock, versus art for change. I’m not saying that’s gonna change but to me that’s been the worst and dominant part in painting and drawing. We substitute the image and the power for trend. Its all man-made - trend, money, power. It’s all superficial. The question should be what is true art.
For me, great artwork conveys a taste of planning mixed with spontaneity. The great masters made sure your eyes moved all around the picture plane. They sure didn’t want their heads cut off. When I work, whether on a flat surface or on people, I think in terms of something that will live past NOW and, also, has an algorithmic pop to it, whether through color and line or just balance.
How did your unique line quality come about?
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. 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.
You are driven to create. Do you have a sense that your time is limited?
I think a lot of people living in NYC right now with underlying health conditions feel time could be limited. Time is limited and time is precious. I also 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. I can't neglect my past. I can move on from it, learn from it and incorporate it. The past makes me who I am. I don’t work blind, I build from the bottom to the top, referencing symbols I created as a child all the way to what I 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 I 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.
Courtesy of the artist
How did you get started making art?
I grew up in the epicenter of culture. When I was a baby art was at it’s high in New York City. I watched it all. My work is strong due to my struggles growing up here. NYC was also hell and if you didn’t live the high fancy life it was hard to stay alive, very much like now. I took all that and pushed to survive as me, and as a painter. I wasn’t drawing comic books or robots. I was really into color, blending and blotting. I lived at Srs. of Mercy convent in Fort Greene as a kid, on an off with my aunt who was a nun there. I was inside churches all the time and rendering them. My grandmother was really big on religion too so there were 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. D.R.I!!!! Crass and all these bands had this beautiful cover art. I think Crass is high art. Being down with the old school NYC graffiti scene always has influenced me, the true graffiti on the trains was beyond. In my latter years creating with Kenny Scharf and becoming his friend was great, as I lost my best Bud, ODIN, RIP. I don't necessarily understand many big artists mentality with tons of assistants making their work but I understand Kenny, him. He is a true friend.
Can you tell me something about your process?
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. 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 are 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 every day is to just get one level higher beyond what I already knew. 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.
There’s a spontaneity and freshness to your work. How do you maintain it? How do you make so many? Why?
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. Mostly, I just work around the clock, as there is no time, and it’s not work, I’m fortunate to live off being creative.
What do you want viewers to get out of your art?
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.
Courtesy of the artist
What is your goal as an artist?
The goal is the continuation of life. If there is a continuation of humanity, it’s through watching people do amazing things. I’d like to keep growing as an individual and be a living example of creating an explainable 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. It’s a quest, it’s not a job. I am honored. Having the ability to create is a gift and should be shared. Touch as many as you can. Do your part if you can!
There is so much positivity in your work, but sometimes things take a darker turn. Can you speak to that?
There is always a void, there is always light and dark, this is “our” life, it’s the artist’s job to push through human bullshit and fill it with color and power. Too much pain exists. The void is strong, and when there is money and the potential to be famous, egos will do what they need to eat. I make all images, I can’t just make a pretty image, or only dark, but that’s just me. Im a journalist.
How do you see the future of America in this difficult time?
I worry about us as a race of people, if we can make it happen, live better, let go of fear and hate and work with nature, then I will let you know, for now - I can only live now, and put it all into my family, work, and hope to push some other ways to see this mixed-up like we live in.
Courtesy of the artist
Michael and his partner Jadda have also partnered to produce The Living Installation, whose most recent performance “Changing Faces”, broadcast online from their home was a delight. If you are interested you can still purchase a ticket to view it at www.michaelalanart.com/thelivinginstallation
More information can be found on www.michaelalanart.com. His bio reads below.
“Michael Alan is a staple iconic native New York City nonstop artist and activist who’s roots lie in the underground art, music, punk, 90’s clubs, and street culture of old NYC. He got his shine at a young age, with his work critically acclaimed, featured in countless solo, group, and museum shows, and worldwide collections. He is known for his signature line work, figurative abstract painting, and Living Installation performance which has made an impact on preserving old NYC culture. His work varies from drawing, painting, sculpture, print making, collage, mural, installation, music, and performance. Alan is extremely prolific, creating work around the clock all around the city. He has produced over seven thousand completed artworks in spite of enduring massive trauma to his physical body.”