By Christina Nafziger
Alannah Farrell’s portraits are as intimate as they are honest, glowing under the pale light of the moon or the rosy haze of dawn in New York City. A simple gesture like placing your hands over someone’s knee becomes a noteworthy act, one that Alannah acknowledged through the act of painting. These chosen-family portraits reveal those who are closest to the artist, with most being members of the queer community along with Alannah themself. Each depicts a scene that invites the viewer to step into a safe, tender space where one can be comfortable in one’s space and body.
What is so strong within these paintings is the thing that makes portraits themselves so important: they capture an individual’s identity. In creating a portrait, an artist attempts to reveal the whole person, showing all sides of who that person is. The multiplicity of being a human, a complexity that can perhaps never be truly depicted, is expressed fully and deeply in Alannah’s work.
To have your portrait taken is one thing, to have your portrait painted is another. It holds a long traditional in history; it is regal. It says, “I am here.” And Alannah’s subjects are here. They take up space, and they have the right to claim that space and their existence. By putting these scenes and their community on canvas, a recording happens. Alannah is documenting these moments, transcribing these instances of tenderness and closeness. As many of Alannah’s subjects are gender nonconforming, a group that has long been marginalized, their portraits take care in portraying their subjects on their own terms, allowing them to shape how they want to be seen and heard.
Join me as Alannah and I discuss their incredible paintings, the endless complexities of a human being, and how a portrait can be created without actual including the person at all.
Let’s begin with what might seem like an obvious question. What attracted you to portraiture? I personally love figurative work because, to me, there is nothing more complex and multifaceted than a person—their identity. Do you find this to be true? How do your subjects’ identities inform your paintings?
Indeed, nothing I know about is more multifaceted than a person's whole-self identity. I also love that identity is mutable; as long as we are alive, we are ever-evolving and learning. Humans are complex! My subject's characters inform my paintings insofar as I want them to be comfortable with how I paint them. I also try to avoid reducing a person to only a one-dimensional identity label or objectifying them. The people I paint are predominantly people in my community, a queer creative community in NYC. What initially attracted me to portraiture or figuration based in some part in reality, is that it is genuinely more surprising and dimensional than fictional characters I could invent from my limited personal experiences. Ever since childhood, I've been interested in telling human stories through drawing and painting bodies and faces. And If I'm brutally honest, I think some of this came out of my loneliness and self/body issues as a kid and into young adulthood.
Your portraits are refreshingly intimate—they seem very in tune with their own bodies as well as the spaces around them. Are your subjects people you know? Are they in their own homes, or perhaps your own?
Thank you! I love that observation – very in tune with their bodies and spaces around them. That is certainly something I strive for in my paintings. Yes, the subjects are people I know, often friends in their own homes, and occasionally, in mine. Capturing and communicating emotion that is permeable to viewers is one of the most important aspects a painting needs for me to consider it successful or show it. Beyond that, though, the individuals I paint have a say and are hopefully happy with how I am painting them. I'm a feminist, someone who's often misgendered, and someone who has a lot of non-binary, gender non-conforming, and trans friends. Even if you allow me to paint you and do not identify as any of those, I feel you should have a say in how you are being seen. So I'm delighted that comes across to you in my work, a sense of honesty and comfort.
Where did you go to art school? Did you have any instructors that were particularly influential to your practice?
I went to Cooper Union for undergraduate studies. Recently, one of the professors who were most influential to me, Margaret Morton, passed away. She worked with marginalized and often homeless people in NYC; her primary medium was black and white analogue photography. Her style was naturalistic, ethereal, with meticulous compositions and played with light and shadow. She gave me my first decent-wage job when I was in school as her assistant. Before then, I was cobbling together a lot of odd jobs to get by. She gave me keys to her office, let me go at any time, and trusted me. I remember this old black landline phone in her office that would ring all the time and overhearing her have these caring conversations with all sorts of characters. I later learned these were people she photographed - sometimes decades ago - with which she had maintained relationships. A moving article about her life and work in the New York Times that I recommend enlightened me to some fantastic aspects of her life that I didn’t know. Until reading her obituary in the Times, I didn’t realize she helped many of the individuals she worked with find housing after being evicted from the dwellings they built in abandoned or available spaces in NYC. She was a very humble and private person in many ways. And a talented, humanistic artist.
Congratulations on your recent solo exhibition A Night in June at Thierry Goldberg in NYC! Can you tell me a bit about the work in the exhibition? It seems fitting that much of the works depict scenes in a bedroom or a home—a place we are all too familiar at the moment. Was this intentional?
Perhaps the work was a premonition! Almost all the paintings in A Night in June was created pre-pandemic, from 2019 to early 2020. The intentionality of these works taking place in a bedroom or apartment was to capture intimate and self-reflective moments of individuals in my community. My subjects are often in these private spaces during the quiet New York after hours or early mornings, a transition time when either dawn or twilight is approaching over a landscape enflamed with light. The times between day and night for me are also rife with introspection and a bit of melancholy.
In A Night in June, there are two works featured that are not figurative (although they do read as portraits, in a way). Can you tell me a bit about these two pieces: Night (On Our Backs) and Day (Les Hommes)?
I'm glad they read as portraits to you; I intended them as such. Sometimes I think to tell human stories, humans might be superfluous, maybe all we need is the objects and clues they leave behind.
Night (On Our Backs) and Day (Les Hommes) include objects that tell stories of gay and lesbian culture (in NYC and beyond) from decades past. On Our Backs was "the first women-run erotica magazine and the first magazine to feature lesbian erotica for a lesbian audience in the United States," according to Wikipedia. There is a back-page ad from The Village Voice for an all-male erotic shop in NYC, a matchbook from a gay S&M club, and color and objects that play with various societal indicators of traditionally "masculine" and "feminine." These paintings nod to those who paved the way for the rights we have and are expanding upon today.
How long have you lived in NYC? What has been your experience with the artistic community in the city (before and/or during COVID-19)?
I was born in Kingston, NY, and moved to the East Village in 2006. I've hopped around various neighborhoods in Manhattan with a short stint in Queens before returning to the EV about five years ago. Over the past 14 years in NYC, I've been fortunate to have many experiences with many different creative individuals in different artistic scenes here. It's simultaneously a small world (less than six degrees separation) and an ever-expanding one. For example, it's not unusual that two friends from separate circles will meet and realize we all have a person or few in common. And on the other end, I recently made friends with a fantastic painter, humanist, and community-oriented artist, Hannah Beerman, through a mutual friend and her project Artists for Humans. It turns out we live just a few blocks away and have been neighbors for years! Covid-19 has made gathering in NYC more difficult, but I believe New Yorkers have a strong sense of community and resilience amid tragedy. Thanks to the internet, I think our sense of community here has only strengthened.
What are some challenges you are currently facing due to COVID-19? Are you able to access your studio?
Luckily I work out of my apartment, so I've been working through Covid-19 the entire time. I've had outside studios in the past, but they're expensive, and I'd end up being there 24/7 anyway, so I didn't see the point of living and working separately. Boy, am I grateful I decided to condense the two pre-pandemic. Despite my partner and I both working in our tiny apartment alongside two cats, I'm very thankful considering many artists in NYC can't access their space in this heavily public-transportation reliant city. My main challenges are not being a klutz and breaking or spilling things in this small area, and keeping cat hair out of my paint, haha.
If someone wanted to view your work (virtually), where would they go? How can people support you (or artists in general) during this precarious time?
On Instagram, you can follow me @alannah.farrell.studio and view A Night in June's online archive at Thierry Goldberg here.
I and most artists I know have been rallying and supporting the fight for an anti-racist, trans-inclusive country, and help those most affected by COVID-19 in whatever ways we can. I haven't thought much about how people can support artists in general. Getting the word out helps. Even if people can't afford an artist's work, sharing their work / social media and articles like this help, so, thank you, Christina!