For more on Allison's background, you can check out my earlier profile of her work. There's also a wonderful overview of her process that was recently featured at My Love For You Is a Stampede of Horses. Above all, make sure to come out for the May 7th opening of "Schlaraffenland" at Thinkspace's beautiful new Culver City gallery. Allison's largest exhibition to date, "Schlaraffenland" will take over the entire front gallery with a cornucopia of delightful paintings, drawings and sculptures – almost 50 pieces in all.
I'm pleased to report that despite the demands of preparing this stupendous body of work, Allison found time to discuss her work with me at length.
Erratic Phenomena: As a child, you spent a lot of time near the sea, a fecund source for the childhood imagination. Were you the kind of kid who was always inventing private little worlds? Did you collect flotsam and jetsam? What made you happiest when you were a girl?
Allison Sommers: I was very, very wrapped up in my own worlds as a child. It was perfect not having siblings, because I didn't have my pretend worlds interrupted by someone else's tangible presence — I could live in my head. I made my own kingdom, with its own mythography, its own religion and sacred objects, its own alphabets (I loved those particularly, I remember making them over and over), and maps and maps of its own terrain.
Living near the Chesapeake Bay for some of that time was just perfect — there are bright orange and green crumbling clay cliffs that meet the water, and they're filled with all sorts of fossilized objects: the curly inner ears of ancient dolphins, the ridged mouth plates of rays, 3- and 4-inch-long sharks' teeth. The water is very calm — it lacks the violence and the bleakness of the open sea — and you can easily pretend to see galleons in the distance (more likely just cargo ships going up to Baltimore). It's heaven for a dreamer.
EP: You've said that you sprang from the womb with crayons clutched in your fists, and that your mother nurtured your growing creative mind as if it was her own personal science project. Tell me a bit about your early artistic endeavors. Did your absorption in miniature worlds begin at an early age?
AS: The most obvious example that comes to mind is the fantastic dollhouse my father and I built, actually. It was roughly Edwardian, with beautiful scale wallpaper and furniture, and working electric lights and paned windows and a front door that actually locked. The kitchen had cabinets full of canned food with period labels, and a to-scale tin ceiling. I made a garden outside with polymer clay vegetables. And I remember endlessly rearranging the furniture and the food and kitchen utensils, and rolling the rolltop desk just so over its contents. Curiously, I never played with the inhabitants of the house, because the family didn't interest me (especially the weird wire-jointed baby, who always was too limp), just their things did. I remember the little porcelain housecat better than the humans.
EP: One of your favorite books is Hugh Lofting's The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, the continuing adventures of the globetrotting naturalist who can converse with animals. What effect do you think a splendid yarn such as that one has on a child's mind?
AS: At least for me, that book had absolutely everything a child would want — adventures in exotic lands (told with the inappropriate but exciting voice of early 20th-century "anthropology"), with the added fantasy of talking to animals (extremely exciting to an only child who had lots of pets), but also with the control and safety of a taxonomic/scientific perception of the world. I suppose it's unfortunate that the books also somewhat glorified solitude and misanthropy.
Ludwig, Allison's muse
EP: What other books had a formative influence on your budding intellect and worldview?
AS: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hitchhiker's Guide books, Dune, Dinotopia, Vonnegut's works, and Lord of the Flies were all very important to me as a kid.
Detail of work from her upcoming show (featuring Ludwig)
EP: You once said that for you, art is a way to create the world you wish you were in. Has this antiquated underworld populated by unsavory creatures with libidinal impulses long been a daydream-fantasy of yours?
AS: Is it facile to answer, "Yes"?
EP: A self-described "history nerd," you studied Late Medieval History at the University of Virginia. Your upcoming show is called "Schlaraffenland," the German name for the bawdy and bounteous medieval paradise imagined by the satirical Goliard monks, which is also known as Cockaigne, the "land of plenty" in English, and Luilekkerland, "lazy-luscious land" in Dutch.
Incidentally, your hedonistic long-neck world does seem reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel's painting "The Land of Cockaigne," which lambastes gluttony and sloth in surreal fashion. (The woven sausage-fence in the background seems to be a particularly Sommersesque touch.) Has the medieval fantasy of Cockaigne been a formative influence on the development of the raucous, debauched land of the long-necks?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Land of Cockaigne," 1567
AS: I started seeing connections between Schlaraffenland and my work while I was wrapping up the work on my last show, "A Brief History," which explored the world of those longnecks. The concept of the land of plenty is so perennial, and so open to interpretation, and it seems to fit so well with the tone I like to engage in my work — somewhat cheerful, and potentially sinister. In some ways, it's a terrible place to be — and that ambiguity comes through even in the old poems about it. There is, on the one hand, its existence as a didactic tool against gluttony, as you say, but in some texts there is also a sincere longing for this paradise, for a deliverance from a life of poverty and ordinariness. You want to go to Schlaraffenland. It's a wonderfully absurdist place, where role- (and rule-) reversal is akin to that of Karneval and other pre-Lenten celebrations, or even of the End of Days cults that emerged in the panic around the Black Plague. And there is a conspicuous absence of god...
I've been working with concepts of consumption — the taking-in of the exterior — for a few years now, and it dovetails so beautifully with Schlaraffenland and the grotesqueness of plenty. In some of these new works, the concept of abundance is pushed to the extreme, where everything is potentially consumable, every creature is up for grabs — it breeds a sense of panic and suspicion that ought to be out of place in "paradise."
EP: What other aspects of Medieval history do you find most intriguing?
AS: My preoccupation with the religion, and religious themes, of the early modern period has stuck with me through many other disparate interests. I find myself returning to them partially from the richness of the embedded symbolism (there's a lot to work with there), and partially because they're so ensconced in the Western symbolic canon and thus easy to thumb one's nose at.
EP: With references to folk tales, sausages, lederhosen, and enigmatic fragments of apocryphal German verse, your long-neck underworld seems to have a somewhat Teutonic flavor. Your husband Gerrit is from Germany, which must be a bit of an inspiration. What is it about the German ethos that you find so interesting?
AS: I have such insufficient answers for questions like this! It appeals to me. By "heritage" or just proclivity, German motifs have always signified "home" to me, so incorporating some sense of "Germanness" into naughty or dangerous scenes muddies the water a bit, makes the work more ambiguous. Having married a German is somewhat unrelated to that — plus, he doesn't wear Lederhosen and strings of sausages around the house, unfortunately.
There exists the danger that sweet, pastoral German themes can begin to smack of fascism. While I acknowledge that, I don't find it particularly useful to my work to probe it, particularly since I'm sensitive to (mis)perceptions of German identity.
EP: One of the most immediately obvious motifs in your work is its meatiness: dissection and vivisection — sausages, chops and filets — multihued penetralia, bulging viscera, nacreous intestines. Why do you find innards so compelling? Have you ever observed a disembowelment in real life?
AS: I've seen animals, disemboweled — there's an amazing tension there, because everything is fit to burst (and doing so is very unpleasant, something to be avoided), shiny, and warm. I will never get over the simultaneous horror and hunger! It's exciting, confusing, and entirely beautiful. As Americans, I think we get too used to food-meat being unrecognizable as body-meat, and where the two overlap is very interesting to me. It's a bit taboo to look at organs in situ and think they're delicious — even more so to find them a little erotic. I want to explore that place.
EP: While hardly erotic — at least to humans — there's a certain frank, tumid sexuality about your work that is a bit unusual in this artistic arena. Your characters often casually expose their swollen genitalia to the viewer, almost as a challenge or invitation. In the past, you've also revealed a penchant for Aubrey Beardley's exquisite and often hilariously racy drawings. Where do you think your ease with salacity springs from?
AS: I think overt salacity can be hilarious! Sexuality is presented so seriously sometimes... that can be a bit dull... I want my creatures to be like Bosch's full-mooning, dick-waggling peasants! It is a bit of a come-on to the viewer — not just an affront of sexual power, but also a challenge to indeed find it erotic. Why not?
EP: Is there a real-life creature or literary antecedent that may have been an inspiration for your loathsome Rudi cats, which you've shudderingly described as "slinking about like feral cats, skin taut against the ribs, smelling of the grave"?
AS: I wish I had a good story about a warty mangy feral cat that used to drive me crazy, but the few cats I've known personally have been nice enough. I just don't like the idea of cat.
EP: By day, you are the art director of the Charlottesville alternative weekly The Hook, for which you recently won an award from the Virginia Press Association. Does having reliable employment allow you more freedom in your image-making than you might feel if painting were your livelihood?
AS: Having reliable employment has been the key to finding my voice, as they say, because there has been no economic pressure to consider how my work goes over — I make the paintings I want to, because I don't rely upon them to feed me. It has, however, become increasingly difficult to balance a full work week with a full painting schedule — particularly as show dates get closer, my sanity/social skills start to fray at the edges a bit.
EP: By night, you tuck yourself away in your studio for several feverish hours of mark-making. Almost entirely self-taught, you've developed a fairly unique approach to painting. After experimenting with pencil and watercolors for a while, you switched to gouache with a vengeance in 2007, after which your work evolved rapidly. It seems that in a way, gouache liberated you. At what point were you first satisfied with how you were expressing your vision? Tell me a bit about what gouache has allowed you to do, and what aspects of it still frustrate you.
AS: My development in gouache coincided with my beginning to feel my way back to the art I feel like I should be creating. For many years, I was trying very hard to make capital-A Art, serious stuff, and about the time I knocked that off and started making the art I wanted to make, I was also playing around with gouache. Both sides of this "playing around" paid off immensely, and I do feel like the process liberated me, as you say.
Gouache is bright, forgiving, and has an almost candy-like appearance sometimes, and this vividness I find very appealing. It mixes and "sculpts" in a way that's not unlike oils, which I love as well. Plus, it holds up well in the event of catastrophic spills, which I inflict upon the paintings more than I'd like to admit.
That being said, gouache can be tedious and trying sometimes. You can lay it on thickly, but you have to be mindful of the layers of paint underneath where you're working, and accidentally scuffing holes in those sections is irritating.
EP: Once upon a time, you let it slip that you're a synaesthete. Synesthesia is experienced quite uniquely by different people — for Kandinsky, color expressed itself orchestrally, a phenomenon he explored in his "Compositions" series. He said, "Color is a power which directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammer, the soul is the strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul." How does synaesthesia express itself in your perceptions? How do you think it affects your work?
AS: I'm a run-of-the-mill grapheme synaesthete, which means that alphabets and words possess a color inherent to them (I'm more likely to remember your name, for instance, if I try to remember the colors that comprise it). In all honesty, I think the only way for me to actually know how it affects my work is to inhabit someone else's consciousness for a while to see how they percieve the world. It's just a mode of perception, the only one I've ever known, so perhaps it has no more bearing on my art than any of the other things that make me me. (...maybe if I wrote concrete poetry...)
EP: You've said you use Audubon's watercolors for reference from time to time. Are there other early naturalists that you're drawn to? I can imagine you taking an interest in Ernst Haeckel's fantastical crustaceans, anemones and arthropods, for instance.
AS: I love Haeckel and his ilk. I've also become increasingly attracted to the very early naturalist/artists whose bestiaries were comprised of mostly invention (being that they hadn't seen many of the creatures first-hand) but were still so earnest. I remember it used to irk me as a child how "wrong" the creatures were, but now I love the creativity — and the presumption — with which they're presented.
EP: Your work has a certain emotional quality reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel's hyper-detailed, surreal, satirical and often grotesque paintings of peasant life, including "The Cripples," "Dulle Griet" and "Netherlandish Proverbs." Would you say Bruegel has been an influence? Or perhaps you prefer his more explicitly visionary predecessor, Hieronymous Bosch? What do you think these very old and strange paintings — whose meaning is largely lost in history — can contribute to our modern perspective?
AS: I consider them both to be very important to me and my work, but I want to move past such literally embedded meaning in the paintings. One of my favorite things about the creation of art in post-modernity is the potential uselessness of the artifact I'm leaving behind, and a straightforwardness about message dilutes that a bit to me. That being said, I think there's a lot of sacredness in this world that needs to be undermined and niggled, and we can certainly learn something about that from Bosch.
EP: If you could have just one classic artwork from history in your studio, what would it be?
AS: I would love to plop one of Beuys' fat pieces in the middle of my studio. I would never sit there comfortably again. I wonder what being in a constant state of revulsion would do to my work.
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?
AS: This sounds strange, but I am really stuck on tiny fat birds right now, ones where the legs are too small for their body. I met some very young chicks the other weekend (insert joke here) that bowled me over. I can't stop drawing birds.
I've also recently been returning to some of the works of science fiction I loved when I was growing up, and exploring them with older eyes has been really exciting. I'm a massive, massive nerd, and indulging in that makes my brain bloom.
EP: What sorts of debauchery can we expect to see in "Schlaraffenland," your upcoming solo show at Thinkspace, which opens on May 7th?
AS: Sausages caught and draped and eaten and extruded from the trunks of trees. Brains slurped, bargains cut, surreptitious self-fondling, and one red-shirt, if you can find him.
"Sudden Picnic in the Succulent Grove"
EP: What's on the horizon for you? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
AS: Come Hell, high water, or prolonged unemployment, Gerrit and I are moving to New York this summer.
"Schlaraffenland" will be unveiled next Friday, May 7th at Thinkspace's elegant new space in Culver City. Allison, who's currently packing to leave, reports, "We're all very excited — the creatures are chattering and chuttering and generally carrying on." So make sure to come out and meet all the libidinous little rapscallions.