If you’ve ever felt lost or vulnerable, it’s okay – who hasn’t at some point? Painter Alannah Farrell showcases the struggles of today’s young community by portraying her closest friends in intimate spaces. Vulnerability and strength, unstable inner worlds and honesty are depicted in a surrealist but raw way in Worlds Without Rooms, her first solo show in New York City, opening on March 28 at The Painting Center. Discover her enigmatic vision of society through the lights and shadows that drive us through a landscape where insecurities and doubts are uncovered.
LinkedIn reveals to us that you started working as a self-employed artist in 2010, but when did you start painting? What motivated you to do it?
My LinkedIn is the abridged version of my work history (laughs). I worked many odd, unglamorous jobs as a teenager: at a baby day-care in upstate New York, carrying tree bark through forests for my father, who was a woodworker, and as a cashier at a busy grocery store on 1st Avenue. I even started showing and selling some of my paintings as a teen upstate – hopefully, that doesn’t come back to haunt me, I’m pretty sure those paintings weren’t any good!
My parents were self-employed artists who made intricate handmade furniture when I was a child. My mother painted beautiful Hudson River school inspired scenes on wood, which would be embedded into the furniture. My earliest memories are of my painting and drawing trying to emulate what she was doing.
When did you realize you wanted to be an artist then? Do you believe people are born artists or do they become artists?
I definitely believe creativity starts in the brain and is possibly genetic. Most artists or musicians I know have parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents who did something creative as well. I’m not sure whether that’s nurture or nature, but it seems hereditary. But I also feel that anyone can become an artist if they are passionate and open to hard work and constructive criticism. Just because you are naturally good at something doesn’t mean you’ll have the motivation to keep grinding away at it and vice versa. Even though I was introduced to visual art at a young age, technical skill didn’t come easily to me. I’ve seen a great deal of improvement through time and practice, even in my work from the past five years.
We’ve found out that you have experience as a model – when you were a teenager. And besides a model, you also worked as a photographer. It’s curious because many photographers get to change roles at some point in their careers. Is this important to you in order to understand both sides (portrayer and portraited)? Has it helped your current work as a painter somehow?
Painting is a unique and magical medium but I still love photography and the work of many photographers. Gregory Crewdson’s has always moved me and I think it influences me as a painter. When I was accepted into Cooper Union (an experience I will always be grateful for), I felt that I needed to learn something new and practical. At the time, I was also doing some modeling through an agency that introduced me to the photographic medium – this was before iPhones and digital photography was so prevalent.
I chose to study photography for practical reasons because I thought it could be a source of income after graduation. Photography taught me how to look at light and shadow in a way that is very visible in my paintings. As for being on the other side of the lens as a model? Maybe that made me more empathetic as a painter. From that experience, I understand that it’s natural to feel self-conscious as someone who may be new to modeling or even modeling for someone you haven’t worked with before. I try to make the people who model for me feel comfortable because it’s important to me.
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LES (Akeem), 2019.
When did you decide to switch from photography to painting? It probably has made you create in a different way or changed your vision. Tell us about it.
Well, this was actually the other way around. I started painting way before college and started shooting in college. But what made me go back to painting was simply that I missed it. It felt like an important part of my identity that I’d temporarily lost. I didn’t feel quite right in the role of photographer. However, I did learn so much from photography that is important to my work now as a painter.
The social and interactive aspect of photography is different from the solitary studio experience as a painter. It taught me how to be better with people. Lighting in photography is what really got me hooked into the medium, the way light and shadow create and manipulate the mood. I still use many of those techniques in my paintings.
Your work and its colours lead us to a state of curious strangeness. Desolation and struggles are shown and treated from an intimate point of view, letting us be part of it and feel the worries of each character. What is your reason to show moods and feelings such as sadness or melancholy?
Thank you, I like that phrase, curious strangeness! I feel curiously strange and I’m glad my work communicates that to you. Communicating honesty is so important to me as an artist and as a human. I feel we are at a time now, politically, where honesty is finally appreciated and seen as important, especially in contrast to the dishonest statements that politicians have so blatantly fed to us. In school, I was always teased for being too emotionally honest, but I continue to be that way in life and work. I have struggled with major depression since childhood and it definitely tints the way I experience everything.
But I also feel it has made me more empathetic towards others. Life is damn hard! Many of the people I paint are fellow creatives, they are sensitive and have many challenging life experiences. I want to honor their honesty with me through the work. I hope that continues to open up an emotionally honest dialogue with the viewer as well.
We perceive the anxiety and stress that today’s young people go through – it’s clear when many news talking about our mental health keep popping up. How do you perceive today’s youth? What issues do you feel millennials and Gen Z have to deal with?
Every generation has its own set of unique struggles and I try not to be ageist in general. I think understanding a person or generation’s experiences can definitely help others understand their reactions, ideas, and values. Gen Z and Millennials are struggling financially, for sure. We are living in a time where nothing feels certain. Planning ahead can almost feel pointless or hopeless. Maybe that’s why the focus seems upon the present, and everything from social media to fashion is fast-moving and ephemeral.
There are so many things about the way young people are thinking that excites me. I spend a lot of time with kids and their honesty and openness are hopeful. It makes me so happy when I see kids all over the world on Instagram fighting against racism, gender bias, gender norms, and starting movements centered around inclusion and body positivity. Every time I see these things, I’m just like, ‘Yes! Finally!’ I hope to see these changes spread to politics on a larger level and I think young people are fighting to make these positive changes.
“I think it’s unavoidable that I intertwine all I’ve seen and experienced into my work.”
Beginnings are always hard, at least challenging. Which struggles did you have to face as a young entrepreneur artist?
It is really challenging being an artist in New York City. I don’t come from a financially wealthy family (although I feel they are wealthy in creativity), so I’m constantly having to hustle. I’m not ashamed to say I still work multiple jobs, watch and teach kids, do commissioned painting work. I’ve been fortunate to meet many wonderful, generous people and feel grateful for my situation most of the time. There are still some mornings where I feel just exhausted, though. I think the key to persevering as an artist in New York City or other expensive places is to be gentle with yourself and rest if your body needs to. It’s easy to burn out.
On March 28, the Painting Center in New York City will present Worlds Without Rooms, a series that includes a dozen of your paintings featuring your closest friends in their own spaces. What’s the point of choosing people from your close environment? Do you believe the paintings are ‘truer’, in a way, or that can convey more honest feelings?
The point of choosing people I know to work with is that I want to communicate a story and have an open conversation through my work. I also respect everyone I paint. In commissioned work, it is much harder to keep up the hours of intense focus necessary to make the work if I don’t have a personal connection with the person. I don’t know if it’s necessarily truer or more honest, but I certainly have more to work with if I’ve spent time with the person, have shared memories with them, and know a little of what their personal life is like.
As mentioned, you take many of your friends as the main characters in the pieces. They are in intimate spaces and they are shown in a state of vulnerability that makes us wonder about their lives and worries. How do you manage to let them ‘expose’ themselves? People usually don’t access so easily to show their insides out (emotions, fears, etc.).
I may have to ask them (laughs)! Well, I hope my friends know that I’m non-judgemental. And I hope that despite showing some of their vulnerability, I am also showing their strength. I have great respect for the friends of mine that I paint. They are talented creatives in their own right and have often overcome/are constantly overcoming serious financial obstacles and other challenges to continue striving and thriving. I’m impressed by my friends, I love them. And I hope they know how I feel. I never want anyone I paint to feel exploited. That is my worst fear. My goal is to always maintain respect and communicate honestly.
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Mulberry Street Sunset (Yuui), 2019.
As I’ve read, your personal life has greatly influenced your work. For example, when you lived in the Catskills, your paintings and their colour changed. The same happened when you moved to the East Village, but the other way around. Tell us more about this intertwining between your personal experience and your body of work.
I really respect artists that take on subject matter that requires a great deal of research. Personally, I’ve never felt qualified to address topics outside my experience in my work. I don’t feel I have the right to go there. At the same time, I want to avoid navel-gazing, as they call it, and am interested in incorporating and learning from people with different life experiences than my own. In terms of color, mood, and composition, that comes from my memory bank of visual information.
As a kid in the Catskills, I was surrounded by moody, tumultuous, grey skies, intense snowy winters, and lush green summers. There was also a great deal of blight and abandoned, dilapidated houses in the area. I’m sure this began my love affair with greyscale, blues, greens, and bittersweet melancholia. New York gave me access to a broad range of people and cultures, all with their own sense of color, style, and mood. I think it’s unavoidable that I intertwine all I’ve seen and experienced into my work.
Some may say that creation, painting, in this case, is a way to express what’s inside us, our inner world. Others say it might be a way to recreate ourselves in order to be what we are not and our unattainable desires.
I think those statements are both true and not opposite to each other in terms of painting. While some of it is an unconscious expression of the internal, many of the decisions are conscious. In one painting, there is a whole journey of decision-making; and without unattainable desires, perhaps there would be no drive to continue painting.
 In addition to the upcoming exhibition in New York, what other projects are you working on?
After Worlds Without Rooms, which opens at The Painting Center on March 28, I have several shows scheduled for the future which I’ve already begun working on. I’ve had some people reach out to me that I’m really excited to work with. In addition to my solo work, my partner Jared Oppenheim and I work in-tandem on paintings we create together. We had our first solo show as a duo last April, and we are looking forward to continuing to work together for a show in 2020 at Kent State University.
First, though, I’m looking forward to the show at The Painting Center. This is the first time putting myself out there as a solo painter, it’s both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. I hope you’ll all join me there for the opening reception, 6-8pm this March 28!
The exhibition Worlds Without Rooms is on view from March 28th to April 20th at The Painting Center, 547 West 27th Street, Suite 500 (5th Floor), New York.
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2 Gold Street, 2019.
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Avenue B (Marie), 2018.
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J&B, 2018.
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Backpage Black Stocking, 2018.
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Sanctuary (Magdalena), 2019.