I leave my studio and walk along the border of East Williamsburg and Bushwick, Brooklyn for about 15 minutes to Allison Gildersleeve’s studio. This is the first time I’ve ever been to her studio. Her studio building is close to Talas, my favorite paper supply store in NYC since New York Central went out of business. Allison’s studio building is one of those enormous industrial buildings scattered throughout this part of Brooklyn. I send a text saying “I’m here” and Allison texts back, “Coming down”. As I wait, I’m looking around the loading dock where the door to Allison’s studio is. There’s a box truck covered in graffiti, crates, and big sheets of glass leaning against a beautiful brick wall with the patina of maybe 80 years or more. The steel door painted brown opens and here is Allison, smiling and inviting me in. I follow her up the stairs, down a long corridor, and into a beautiful studio. This is the kind of studio I dreamed of having as a high school student in rural Missouri. Hardwood floors, great windows, a Modine heat blower hanging from the ceiling, drawings and collages hanging around, a fridge and a microwave in the corner underneath a huge loft, racks filled with paintings, the tools of a hardworking artist all over the place, the smell of oil paint hanging in the air, and big colorful paintings everywhere.
John Mitchell: Allison, can you give a little background introduction? Where are you from and how did you get from there to NYC and how did you get into making art?
Allison Gildersleeve: My childhood home, a place that I continually reference in my paintings, was a farmhouse in Connecticut surrounded by acres of undeveloped land. My brother, sister and I used the woods and fields as an enormous playground without borders, roaming in whatever direction we chose. It was a childhood of “loving neglect”. We weren’t monitored, we weren’t supervised or scheduled, I’m not even sure we were missed. I started art lessons when I was around 10 but I think it’s really all of the untethered time of childhood that explains why I make art now.
From Connecticut, I took a circuitous route to living in New York. I went to a liberal arts college in Virginia and then spent some time living in Europe before moving to San Francisco. In 1997, I returned to the east coast to take a staff job at the Vermont Studio Center. At VSC, I met all sorts of artists living in NYC. Those artists opened the door for me when I left VSC in 1999, helping me find studio space and a place to live, taking me to galleries and introducing me to their friends. It gave me a network that I could rely on and still do to navigate all the logistics of making art in this hectic and expensive city. Up until I had children, I worked as an artist assistant for Joan Snyder, who was a wonderful mentor. I went to Bard for my MFA and finished in 2004.
I’m really not a city person deep down; the need for solace and the refuge of nature is ingrained in me. I dream about moving either back to my hometown or up to Vermont, but if we left for good, I know I would miss the community of artist friends that I have here.
JM: How long have you been in this studio? How far is it from where you live? What else is there to say about this space?
AG: I worked out of the first floor of my home for years, which was great when my children were little but as they got older, it became too overwhelming to have my family and my work under one roof. Three years ago, I moved my studio out of the house, first to Bushwick and then a year ago, to this studio. I prefer this space to Bushwick because it’s closer to home and I have close friends working nearby. However, just a week after I moved in, I fell from the loft about 10 feet to the hardwood floor below. I was pretty banged up and I broke my left elbow (I’m left handed). I was lucky it wasn’t worse but it was a major setback. All told, between the move and the fall and setting up in a new space, I didn’t paint anything substantial for about nine months.
When I finally did get back to work, after months of looking and thinking about my work, I was so impatient to start that I just jumped in, ripping off old canvases and reusing the stretchers or working on half-finished paintings that I had started before the interruption. The paintings in my current solo show are mainly those works. As a result, each of these new paintings has the remnants of older paintings underneath the layers, and that history has become mixed in with my current preoccupations. It’s as if I went backward in order to go forward.
JM: The story of the fall that broke your painting elbow is terrifying! Ouch! It’s so good to see that you’re fully healed and able to paint again after such a traumatic experience. Was there anything positive about the downtime during those nine months? How did you spend that time?
AG: I used that time looking. I went to other artists’ studios as much as I could. I am insatiably curious about how others traverse the space from idea to image, which is usually a tricky negotiation for me. When I arrived at one of those visits, the artist had a painting on his easel, and on the floor in front of the easel were printouts of the painting at different stages of the process. He believed that whatever had resisted his repaints and coverups was the key to what the painting was really about and that would give him the way forward.
I lost my rhythm with the studio move and the accident. When I was ready to start up again, I thought of this artist’s exercise and applied it to my work. I looked at the work I’d finished right before my forced hiatus as if it were the painting on the easel. All the work leading up to that point, beginning in undergrad, could be divided into phases, and those were the printouts on the floor.
By looking at my work in this way, I found three things that have remained consistent throughout: place, pattern and process. Place is my entry point; it gives me a loose narrative structure that starts each work. Even as an adult, I consistently return to two locations every summer: my hometown in Connecticut and a lake in northern Vermont that was my great grandfather’s fishing escape. My family has been connected to both of these places for multiple generations. By painting them, I am in the minefield of my own family history – both the recent past and the one that came before me. Even though there are no figures in my images, they are littered with the residue of human presences. I’m searching out these particular places again and again because it’s the territory where I continually come face to face with the important relationships in my life.
Pattern is a way to unground a location. With repetition, the objects lose their identity and start to dissolve and float, just like that feeling when a past memory unhinges the present and throws it into freeform. With process, I pay attention to a lesson I learned in grad school – have the making be part of the meaning. Memory is treacherous, non-linear and erratic, and my process is often the same. I just listened to an interview with Tal-R where he says, “as a painter you can travel in time through wormholes.” I find that statement so true; it’s one of the things that fuels my studio practice.
JM: As I look around your studio, I see paintings, drawings, and collage works. How does working in these different media factor into your overall process?
AG: I take the scattershot approach. I work on many things at once, and I flip back and forth between both size and media. I have blocks of watercolor paper that I use for ink drawings, and rolls of butcher paper and craft paper for making collages on the wall. Drawing is about speed, fluidity and making the most of the negative space left by the white of the page. Collage is about fracturing the space with illogical combinations that come out of putting one shred next to another. The paintings have a different feeling than the drawings, but if you could dissect the canvases into each layer it would be like a flipbook of a stack of my drawings.
JM: Your exhibition “High Frequency” is on view at Valley House Gallery in Dallas, Texas from April 28 through June 2, 2018. Talk about the show and how you expect this exhibition will factor into what comes next in the studio.
AG: I gave the show that title for two reasons. For one, I was thinking of all the times I have visited and painted these particular places. While the images themselves are invented, their source is specific to a certain part of our country; the rural northeast with its stone walls, clapboard houses, cornfields and forests of birch and pine. This is the land first settled by the Puritans – new, scary, and wild to them. As they carved out their abodes in these endless foreign woods, as they cleared stones in the fields and built their simple structures, as they struggled to tame the outdoors, they also struggled to tame their own inner uncontrollable nature. This cycle of clearing and creating, repression and revelation, is part of my heritage and part of my work.
I was also thinking of the pitch and sway of the world I am living in now, where things seem to vibrate at times with an almost unbearable frequency. Although I am painting images derived from pastoral scenes, they aren’t quiet. There’s an electrical charge in my paintings that comes from all of that inner and outside noise.
As far as what comes next, I am headed to London in a few weeks to do a month-long artist residency sponsored by Liquitex Paint. I’ll be working mainly with their acrylic and spray paint line, so in preparation I’ve packed away my oils and canvas and am focused on drawing. The plan is to continue experimenting with deconstructing my small drawings and reconstructing them as large wall-sized collages. In the fall I am doing a site-specific installation at Cynthia-Reeves Gallery in Massachusetts. My previous exhibitions have all been the result of months of work, but in this case the process will unfold in the gallery over time, so the negotiations from idea to image will be laid bare. This will be new territory for me, but I am excited about the challenge.
Allison Gildersleeve’s solo exhibition “High Frequency” is on view from April 28 through June 2, 2018 at Valley House Gallery located at 6616 Spring Valley Road in Dallas, Texas, 75254. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM.