August 24, 2023

Artist to Watch


Alannah Farrell. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by A Klass.

NB: What are some of your earliest memories of art and how do they relate to where you’re at with your practice today?

AF: My mom and matrilineal grandmother are painters, although both sides of the family are creative. My earliest memories were seeing their process, which relates to my paintings today on a technical level, like motor skills and eye-hand coordination. My mother and I have very similar hands. It’s almost witchy. It’s a little freaky. Beyond the technical, I saw their devotional relationship with painting as a place to land, solace in an often relentlessly challenging world, which I learned young and continue to this day.

Growing up around creatives, I also witnessed adversities around the artists’ lifestyle, including financial hardship. My parents didn’t necessarily encourage me to be an artist, they were very realistic and said this life is a struggle and this lifestyle is unpredictable. My mom said I would always run home after school, throw my school shit, probably rip off my clothes, and start making something immediately. Over time, once they saw that there was no stopping me, they became much more encouraging.  

One fond memory is of my Nana, Ginger Fox (Yes, that is her real name, maiden surname), entering her home studio, which was a mess, walls covered in paint and strongly smelling of turpentine. I loved seeing her paintings which often included cats and women, goddess-like and voluptuous, some based on her daughters and grandchildren. It sounds like stereotypical grandma subject matter, but her paintings were weird, wild, and slightly erotic. She’s in a nursing home now, but recently, my mom curated a show of her paintings installed throughout the facility—it brought her and the residents a lot of joy, and they’ve left her work up. I think it’s important not to forget the humanness of art and art-making outside capitalism and the art world. 

Alannah Farrell, Omari (FiDi), 2023. Oil, acrylic, flashe, and spray paint on canvas. 60 x 40 inches.

NB: Can you tell us about the subjects in your paintings? Who are they, and how do you think of painting as a way to share a story or narrative ? 

AF: I met many people I painted when I started doing New York City nightlife in the 2000s, on the fringes of the queer club kid scene. Club kid culture largely died out at that time because people saw it as more of a 90s thing, but I was part of a lingering downtown scene. I recently watched the film “I Hate New York,” which documents (several) trans people in this scene from 2007 to 2017, which is around the same time when I went to those clubs. It wasn’t until that point that I’d met anyone in my life where I was like, “Ohh, these are my people.” So I started working with people I met from those parties, and some of the people I paint now are the younger generation of that scene, an evolution. They’re doing these incredible things in queer and trans nightlife—which seems more prominent and exciting than ever.

And I’ve always been interested in figurative work. Still, I’m cautious about sharing real people’s stories because of the possibility of exploitation, especially if it’s something that the public will consume. I think of the person, and then I think of the potential audience. I think about money exchanged because money is involved, and I’ve concluded that it’s fair to share bits of stories with consent and share the money with the person or people sitting for the painting. 

There is also a fair amount of fantasy to each image, even when working with real people and places. Sometimes I envision a painting almost entirely, even before I meet the person/subject, so ultimately each work becomes ‘auto-fiction’ filtered through my perception. I often think about human emotion and life experiences, and I’m interested in how that changes over time and in learning from other people. We all have complex interiority, and it blows my mind the depth that every person contains that another person can never really know. 

And, of course, many paintings reflect my frustrations, insecurities, sense of humor, or sadness at how pathetic, beautiful, or painful being a human in a body can be.  

Alannah Farrell, X (Pearl Street), 2022. Oil, acrylic, and latex on canvas. 78 × 50 inches.

NB: Could you tell us about the relationship of identity and self expression with the spaces and objects in your paintings?

AF: These spaces are real-life places where the model(s) and I are in. I want to focus on the emotionality and psychology of these spaces, so I aim to balance familiarity and off-kilter anonymity. Even though I have a personal relationship with the cities and rooms I paint, I want them to feel accessible to people who haven’t been to those locations. It’s more about how place, space, and architecture can strongly influence the human psyche. 

In terms of objects and fashion, these usually come from the subjects in the portraiture or self-portraiture. I am selecting certain people who most likely have a particular taste in how they present themselves. All clothing and objects contain coded language about their culture and who creates and consumes it, and those meanings change throughout history and contemporary cultures. My paintings’ objects and ancillary clues, like clothing, speak more to identity than the spaces. Except in those paintings without people, the settings play a more prominent role in expression and story and tend to be more deeply personal.

Alannah Farrell, Downtown (detail), 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 78 x 50 inches.

NB: How does color relate to these themes in your practice? 

AF: Color and lighting are my painting’s primary elements, which sounds weird because I’m working with real humans and places as subject matter. Still, I almost think light and color communicate emotionality the most. I have nostalgic attachments to specific color palettes, which feel intuitive when painting. I don’t even know how to articulate it, but it’s something that I’ve always had a strong emotional reaction to. As a kid, I remember a salmon-pink kindergarten, a public school with very institutional fluorescent lighting in its classrooms. I remember being so disturbed by that lighting, everything bathed in a sallow green and those primitive bulbs buzzing a la horror film. Those sensory elements, especially the visuals, color, and light, made me very distracted and uncomfortable.  

Like train lighting, nobody looks good on the subway. We all know on some level—conscious or not—these mass public spaces and lighting are designed for oppression. They become psychological spaces. And this is how I think of color and light in painting— means to create psychological space and narrative.    

There are photography influences in my paintings too. When I started at Cooper Union, I took half a semester of painting and panicked about surviving financially after school. So I wanted to learn something more technique based, practical, and applicable to the world, outside of just the art world. And I was like, ‘Photography! That makes sense.’ Little did I know that it was on the verge of becoming somewhat obsolete with phones nowadays. But I learned lighting, analog, film, and digital photography, which was helpful because I started getting little gigs in school—I did nightlife photography and assisted photographers in setting up lighting for fashion or commercial shoots. I also had some experience with the modeling world in New York City at that time. I think about how all these different worlds are so complicated on their own, but they’re all now converging through painting.   

Alannah Farrell, Tommy Venus (Bushwick), 2022. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 30 x 40 inches.

NB: What are some projects that you’re excited about in the future?

AF: I’m tremendously excited about attending the Denniston Hill Artist Residency in October. I can’t get over my excitement for that. I’m also happy to reconnect with upstate New York in this new way—Denniston is a sanctuary that’s allowed space to grow for many creative visionaries I admire. It’s an honor to go! So that’s my focus right now. I’m in a hibernation chrysalis back-to-the-drawing-board phase, recovering from two exhausting shows in the past year.  

I’m excited about what’s to come because I want to communicate something I can’t articulate in words or images. But it feels like whatever that is, it’s just under the surface, and I know something new will come out on the other side. Hopefully, it is something I’m proud of and work that communicates with others who see it.

Other than that, I’m in the Armory Show with Anat Ebgi, and a few shows soon open at Alexander Gray and Sean Horton. Both shows address topics I deeply care about and feature work by artists I respect and admire, art heroes like G.B. Jones, Justin Vivian Bond, Hugh Steers, David Byrd, and Peter Gallo.

Between Us

Sept 1st—Oct 15th, 2023

Alexander Gray Associates 

224 Main Street, Garden Level

Germantown, NY 12526, United States

Place — World

Sept 7th—Oct 7th, 2023

Sean Horton

515 West 20th Street, 3rd Fl

New York, NY 10011, United States