Allison Sommers: What Passing Bells
Allison Sommers creates scenarios on canvas that veer towards the metaphysical and apocalyptic; her creatures are wild demons born of her own mind. Yet, what we encounter in her work is a silky and surreal combination of poetry and painting that reflects some deeper human dreamscape. Compelling and frightening, Sommers opens up our minds with a nearly bibliographic exploration of the world.
Deianira Tolema: How did you get acquainted with Wilfred Owen and his poems?
Allison Sommers: “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, the poem from which I took the show title, forms part of the libretto of Britten’s “War Requiem”, which is a favorite piece of mine.
Why did you choose “What Passing Bells” as a starting point to create your new works?
It aligned itself with me as I delved into this current body of work, more than began it in any sense. I hesitate to provide too much exegesis for the show, but I’ll say that I’m interested in the scale of grief, at once intimate and global. I’m greatly influenced by some of the art that was made after the Great War, and I think we’re in a period that has a lot of deeply troubling analogues to the interwar years. Whilst preparing this show, I spent a lot of time listening to the radio, and it’s hard to not have a certain sense of absolute despair and grief at where we find ourselves these days, and how familiar the agony and outrage of hundred-year-old art can be in this context.
Both poetry and painting are considered to be anachronistic, nowadays: what do you think?
I’m not sure about how one could argue that poetry is “anachronistic”. As for painting, I’m of two minds. I struggle a lot with answering for painting, actually, as we have periodically since, well, the age of mechanical reproduction. I’m not sure I can always confidently defend it, since it has a lot of problematic historical baggage, and can be somewhat old-fashioned in concept and practice and cultural positioning. At the same time, I do think there is something elementally compelling about mark-making, as creatures with opposable thumbs and limitless energy, and painting happens to be one particularly large and satisfying category of that.
In college you studied History with a concentration in Early Modern England. Why did you make this choice and how did you go from such a theoretical subject to a more practical one like painting?
I’d swap those two adjectives – there’s nothing more practical than the study of history, and, if not theoretical, then impractical as painting. Art-making should be very anti-practical, and maybe (or hopefully?) theoretical, if it’s going to be any good at all. I was always deeply attracted to history as a child, and couldn’t believe my luck, when I went to University and realized I could actually take courses – for a grade! – that dealt with the Reformation, the Plague, illuminated manuscripts and fourteenth-century spiritualist savants. As school went on, however, I started getting into the more philosophical, historiographical work, which I wish I had started with in the first place, if we’re being honest. I’d rather have had a better education in theory from University than I got. The problem with studying history is that you might just be only taught capital-H History.
What other topics have you explored, over time, while experimenting with different mediums and techniques? Have you ever delved into science, anthropology or other similar subjects?
My interests are pretty broad, so I always tend to follow whatever my current fancy is – sure, I’ve kept all sorts of different genre/subjects/frameworks in mind whilst working. I haven’t expanded any into a deliberate body of work, though, if that’s what you mean.
About the upcoming exhibition, is there a difference between your old works and your new works? Have you been moving away from figurative art towards abstraction?I’ve been moving towards abstracting figurative art, rather than moving to a “pure” abstraction (at the moment, anyway). And yes, I do think there’s been a pretty clear trajectory of change in my work over the last few years. Hopefully, anyway! How tedious to remain consistent. Trying to do a little damage to comfortable working.
Your works, in my opinion, have something of George Condo and Francis Bacon, but they also evoke both Surrealism and Pittura Metafisica (Giorgio De Chirico). Do you agree?
Sure, I’m a fan of both Bacon and Condo, of course. Even more than Surrealism, which is in my mind-pocket for sure. I’m heavily influenced by German Expressionism and Dada. Trying to figure out how to re-animate Dix and Grosz so we can be (rotted) best friends.
The protagonists of many of your drawings and paintings – including your new works – are hybrids between human beings, animals and other unidentified life forms. Do these figments of your imagination have anything to do with the concept of metamorphosis?
I don’t think of these figures as “hybrids” metamorphosing from one state to another – they’re more figures of “someone”, rather than meant to be composed of anything or anyone in particular. To me, they’re vaguely familiar and a little recognizable as intimate, bruised self. I think of them more as moments of the experience of embodiment, which is necessarily violent, frustrating, and marked by fatigue and strain. Our Judas’s body. Our bodies enable the “I” to be maimed and killed. I have a lot of grief for that. I get a little staggered by how many pained bodies exist at one time.
The title of one of your new works is “The Birth of Tragedy”. Were you thinking about Friedrich Nietzsche, when you came up with this title?
Absolutely. I laughed for a day after it popped into my head.
In the works “Dogsbody", “God Always Wins” and “Sunday’s Child”, too, there’s an obvious reference to the tragic condition of both human beings and animals.
Perhaps they relate to the pointlessness of even trying to impose order or hope on existence or, maybe, the uselessness of self-awareness. But I do like to be tricksy with titles, since the average bear expects to weight their importance so heavily. Half the time, they mean nothing at all.
If there was a musical background, in your latest works, what would it be?
As a complement to the works themselves? Something twelve-tone and mean, maybe. Or, just the news radio.
Although the ideals of beauty have changed, over time, the “cult of ugliness” has never stopped amazing the audiences of all times and cultures. What would you say that your ideals of beauty are?
I don’t believe in beauty. Ideals of beauty are fascist. I have a mistrust of the “beautiful”, and an irresistible desire to blemish it. I do think there is an interesting current of aesthetic nostalgia shot through a lot of the art being made right now, though –it’s a little tantalizing, but mostly problematic. There is a lot of somewhat atavistic figurative painting going on, which could be either benign or damaging, depending on how you look at it. Three-hundred-year-old painting, even decontextualized, can carry some pretty conservative and regressive values of craft and, yes, beauty with it. In one sense, it’d be impossible not to be influenced by it, since it’s currently entertained by the culture in which I live, but I try to skirt it very carefully.
The myths and transfigurations of reality produced by our collective consciousness have always reflected the cultural, psychological and moral aspects of every society and civilization. Have you ever taken inspiration from the subjects of fairy tales and fables to elaborate a kind of “mythology of the present”?
Absolutely not. I don’t approach art-making or meaning-making in that way at all. I like fairy tales well enough, just like anyone else, but I try to avoid too much direct narrative meaning in my work.
What do you want to accomplish, with this exhibition, and what are your goals in general?
This show is the first time that I’ve brought a cohesive landscape into three-dimensions, so that’s been pretty bizarre and thrilling to bring to life. There is a lot more to come from “The Plain” in the future, and things like it, I think. I want to broaden both concept and medium of my oeuvre.
I know you tend to be secretive about the meanings embedded in your work, however your followers are eager to find out more about you. Would you be open to conclude this interview by revealing to our readers something new and exclusive that you’ve never shared with the press before?
I suppose one secret “Easter Egg” of the show is that the installation, both of “The Plain” and the pinned wall, is comprised largely of items that I’ve found in New York and, as such, is a sort of personal archeology of my experience in the city so far. A lot of the items have notions of grief attached to them, like the pieces of broken household from Dead Horse Bay. And the sculpted parts of “The Plain” were conceived partly as an outlet for my habitual magpie-collecting – there are lots of objects built into, or literally just stuffed underneath, the landscape – it was one way to both do honor to the objects I’d collected and get them out of my apartment, which I have a difficult time with because I get so sentimentally attached to them. It was a way to do a little simultaneous honor and violence to sentimentality, maybe.