Through the process of creating her delicate and rendered in detail artworks, Alyssa Fanning explores the physical and psychological effects of natural and man made calamities. In her recent series After the Disaster and Polymorphic Disasters of the Mind, the artist focuses her attention on manifestations of strength and fragility in the natural world, drawing upon various sources, from geography and environmental surveys to Old Master catalogues and her own observations.
Interview by Varia Serova
Photography by Emma Fanning
2021 © Zephyr and Maize
© Courtesy of Alyssa Fanning
Varia Serova: Please explain your interest in the concept of disaster, natural or man caused, what initiated this interest and how did it evolve through time in your work?
Alyssa Fanning: The subject of disaster and its ruins became my focus ten years ago in the fall of 2011. I had been making a series of large paintings depicting Van Buskirk Island, a small island along the Hackensack River near my home in northern New Jersey. The island houses the Hackensack Waterworks, a now abandoned nineteenth century water purification plant, one of the first of its kind in the country. Due to the historic status of the architectural structure, Van Buskirk has escaped development in an otherwise densely populated part of the country.
I’ve been fascinated by this site all my life. It’s down the street from the church I attended each week and is within a mile radius of both my parents’ childhood homes, where my maternal and paternal grandparents lived. It is a rare example of grand early industrial architecture in a sea of concrete strip malls, fast-food chains, Bank of Americas, and houses practically built on top of each other. It is also rare in that it is a sort of unofficial wildlife preserve, home to bald eagles, great blue heron, geese, turtles, foxes and more. Here, nonhuman species can run free without danger of losing their home. It has always felt like a triumphant place.
I was making colorful large-scale paintings of Van Buskirk Island and the Hackensack Waterworks building during the summer of 2011 when Hurricane Irene hit NJ in late August. The storm devastated Van Buskirk Island and the surrounding landscape, due, at least in part, to the overdevelopment of the area. The once abundant wetlands along the Hackensack River were now a fraction of their pre-Industrial state. As a result, the grid of nearby suburban homes was left flooded, and the streets strewn with garbage.
In the days following the flood, I documented the aftermath with my digital camera. I printed images of detritus and destruction, and began to incorporate the content into my drawings and paintings. In the devastation at Van Buskirk I saw a microcosm of the impact of climate change on a global scale. Over time, the subject of disaster and its ruins became a metaphor for our larger economic, political, and ecological decline. My interest in the disaster shifted from one based in perceptual observation to what I referred to as disasters of the mind, which were based in imagination. In my “Disasters of the Mind” series, the printed images of the rubbish that I’d photographed following the storm provided the basis for compositions. I cut out silhouettes of the photos of rubble – the garbage bags, rolled up rugs, planks of wood and mattresses – along with negative space within the images. I would later use these cut-outs for shadow projections, using candlelight against the cut-outs to produce a range of cast shadows, which would serve as the basis for my drawings.
Over time and through a repeated use of the cut-paper maquettes, I moved further from the original source of the imagery (post Hurricane Irene) and deeper into worlds and moments within those worlds of my own creation. There were (and are) in my drawings, moments of catastrophe and of rebirth. I no longer view these events as linear, but rather as cyclical and sometimes simultaneous. I consider this working method non-judgmental in the same way I view much of the physical world – it simply is, regardless of the hierarchies we assign.
© Courtesy of Alyssa Fanning
© Courtesy of Alyssa Fanning
VS: Your medium and technique assumes precision - almost opposite to the subject matter of choice (calamities, disaster), how do you personally approach this opposition?
AF: My use of graphite pencil came about because of yet another storm! Following Hurricane Irene, I began a series of oil paintings, perceptual in basis, documenting the aftermath of the storm. I was working on a painting when another storm knocked out the electrical power grid, making it a struggle to mix colors. Now I had to work by candlelight! I had the cut paper maquettes on my working table, and held one up near a lit candle. The unexpected result was an intricate cast shadow that danced across the table, revealing the fuzzy silhouette of a pile of trash bags punctuated by light inside the smaller negative spaces I had cut out. The shadow resembled and suggested a mountainous landscape of indeterminant scale. I would use one such shadow as the basis for my first graphite drawing in what would become my “Disasters of the Mind” series.
In these drawings, I referenced shadows directly as I held a stencil up to a lit-candle, drawing and tracing the resulting cast shadow. I wanted to capture the immaterial shadow as accurately as I could. To achieve this effect, I used a careful scumbling technique (tiny circles applied with a consistent amount of lightly applied pressure) across a surface until it appeared transformed. People sometimes think I work with powdered graphite and a brush or atomizer to achieve an airbrushed effect, but it’s all scumble. I use the slow buildup of mark to produce veils of tone on all forms within a drawing, so that even if a shape suggests a certain object or phenomena, the materiality of the subject remains elusive. I want these drawings, which began in response to weather phenomena, to remain intangible. I often think of them as in a process of becoming. Forms within a drawing are perhaps only starting to fully materialize into concrete things as we look at them, as if our eyes are only just starting to adjust to the image we are seeing when we look at it. I aim to achieve a degree of openness in the drawings, which allows the viewer to bring their individual associations to the work.
VS: I note many art historical references in your work, from Old Master works and Japonisme influences, to elements of Art Deco and Cubism. Who do you yourself feel most in dialogue with, within the course of art history?
AF: I looked to many Old Master prints, and around the time I started making these drawings, moving from paint to graphite, I became interested in expanding my vocabulary of mark and found endless inspiration in the prints of both Durer and Bruegel.
Cubism and Futurism have both played a role in my work. The Futurist’s use of repeated line and form to suggest movement within a still image struck me early on. Futurism also made me think of marks used in twentieth century cartoons, which I love, to show the impact of a figure running through a space, etc., like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons. Cubism was revelatory, particularly Analytical Cubism in its use of simultaneous viewpoints combined within a single composition and the conflagration of Western figure/ground relationships. I’m fascinated by the fact that Braque and Picasso were producing their early Cubist visions during the period Einstein’s theories of relativity were introduced. The idea that the space around us, what we think of as “empty” space, is filled with vibrating particles just like tangible objects we can see and touch really excited me.
On a philosophical level, I feel that my work comes from a world view that considers the small things, which we overlook, or which are so small we can’t even see them with the naked eye, as just as important as the larger things, the big stuff.
VS: Color, form, line, structure, process. What role does each carry in your work?
AF: In my older paintings, pre-Irene, I worked with high-key color. I was responding to images of a massive chemical spill in about 2010 in Eastern Europe; this brilliant red pigment mixed with the water and left the landscape a landscape in red. When I started my paintings in response to Hurricane Irene, a series I titled “Mounds Off the Hackensack,” I completely drained the work of color, instead choosing to paint exclusively in shades of gray. Doing so served to remove certain emotional triggers or associations color provides. It also allowed me to focus on structure more fully within the compositions. Moving to monochrome also mirrored the documentary nature of what I was doing– it felt like a reference to black and white photojournalism and provided a filter between the immediacy of the event and the making and then viewing of the painting. When I shifted from paint to graphite in my “Disasters of the Mind” drawings, I was already processing form and content in a world of gray, so it was a very natural progression.
I’ve been working in monochrome and graphite on and off for the last ten years. In that span of time, I’ve also completed works in colored pencil using a full palette followed by colored pencil drawings completed a single hue, but graphite has been the most dominant material, completed on a cream or white paper. For me, there’s a sense of timelessness to the monochrome. I consider my drawn worlds as existing in a space without chronological time – these could be microscopic views of the ancient past, present, future, or combination of the three.
Line, form and structure aid in this world-making. As I noted earlier, I build value through the application of tiny circles, delicately applied via scumbling; it’s all line that slowly accrues to create tone, and then form. The effect serves to achieve a sense of a certain weightlessness in the drawings. Forms can defy gravity and can mingle, meet, and separate effortlessly in these spaces.
I often work with a geometric understructure in the drawings, be it a grid or repeated horizon line or circle/sphere. These structures provide a unification for the overall composition, and tend to be repeated in a fractal fashion, breaking down, and becoming smaller and smaller throughout the course of the drawing.
VS: Tell me a little about your studio life and process. Is it staged? Are there certain elements that are absolutely necessary in your daily artistic life?
AF: I work in a compact studio space, generally by daylight, under a skylight at an old drafting table. I hardly ever use artificial light, favoring the softness of indirect sunlight in my practice. I like to keep the drafting table flat, so that I can lay out a range of sharpened pencils, which I arrange from softest to hardest on the table. I use an electric sharpener and keep a drafting brush, twelve-inch ruler, engineering compass, and a kneaded eraser at hand. I place my work on an angled drawing board that I prop up on the larger drafting table. I also keep my cut paper maquettes on a nearby shelf for reference or direct use in a drawing. The drawings are almost always from imagination, although I sometimes reference photographs or plants for structural guidelines or lighting solutions. I keep my grandfather’s black and white photographs of mountain ranges in Hawaii near my drawing board. Some drawings reference a work from art history, in which case I’ll have reproductions hanging in my space. I keep a lot of artists books out in the studio – there’s always at least one Burchfield and Durer book open!
In the Beginning, 2021, graphite on paper, 12 x 12 in. © Courtesy of Alyssa Fanning
Did the Sky Tumble and Fall, 2021, graphite on paper, 14 x 10.5 in. © Courtesy of Alyssa Fanning
Eclipse Over the Hackensack, 2021, Graphite on paper, 16 x 20 in. © Courtesy of Alyssa Fanning
VS: Who was the first artist whose work you loved?
AF: Going back to childhood, the first images I fell in love with were Charles Schultz’s Peanuts animations. I think that early love of Schultz’s use of line continues to influence my work today. His line is exuberant, playful,and inventive – there are endless moments of wonder in his work. As I got older, the first painter I fell in love with was Turner for his use of light, color, and treatment of space that exists between abstraction and representation.
VS: What are you working on now?
AF: I had two solo exhibitions this past year, the most recent just closed. I’m in the process of starting a fresh body of work, taking off from developments happening in the latest drawings from my show. In my recent pieces Nightfall in August and Papilio Polyxenes, a new, fuzz-calligraphic line has been entering the work (suggesting the visible path of something moving through the space) that I want to push on a larger scale. I’ve also begun collaging pieces of paper together, such as in Papilio Polyxenes and using expanding sheets of paper to create new compositional devices in the drawings. I’m starting a bigger piece using this method of construction that I’m excited to see develop. This has been a year of sharing and getting work out into the world. I’m ready to take the energy of and insights gained from those outside experiences and bring them back into the studio!
Papilio Polyxenes, 2021, Graphite pencil on collaged paper, 12 x 9 in. © Courtesy of Alyssa Fanning
Mountain Bluebird, 2019, Coloured pencil on paper, 12 x 16 in.
© Courtesy of Alyssa Fanning
Purple Scatter, 2019, Coloured pencil on paper, 12 x 16 in. © Courtesy of Alyssa Fanning