Meet Aliza Morell, an artist who renders moods so palpable, so rich and felt, that I have been hooked on her paintings since the first moment I saw them. Her knowledge and passion for color combined with her incredible skill equips her with the perfect tools to create complex, atmospheric moods through hands and flowers. About how color affects her paintings, Morell explains, “By juxtaposing carefully mixed colors to create optical vibrations and harmonies, it can take on almost musical properties.” And this rhythm--this low, rumbling hum--is present throughout each of her paintings.

Morell embeds herself deep within the symbolism, meaning, and rooted histories of hands and flowers not only as it relates to our given reality, but also its traces throughout art history. Originally from Ann Arbor, MI, the artist eventually moved to Chicago, attending the Art Institute, before earning her MFA at Rutgers University. Now based in Queens, NYC, Morell takes us on a journey, explaining how her experience in each city shaped her art and how it led her to where she is now. Join us in conversation as the artist dives deep into abstraction and phenomenology, and shares some sage advice on working with galleries and never losing heart.

Aliza Morell in her studio, Photo: Cait Carouge

I am so interested in your focus on hands and flowers—I love a niche subject! Why hands and flowers? What keeps you continually interested with them as a subject?

The forms in my work are a bit like the cast. By committing to a set of resourceful actors, I’m able to get right to work choreographing or orchestrating them. The second subject then becomes the whole sensorial potential of their specific arrangement.

I hope that the paintings flicker between the extra-linguistic qualities of light, touch, and movement and the poetic storytelling of their repeating signs. I’m drawn to flowers because of their ability to hold multiple meanings—like love, seduction, transience, mourning, and resurgence—while performing as vessels for color and instruments of composition.

Our hands represent our agency. To test lucidity or control in a dream, you can look down at your hands. In my work the hands are weightless and freed from the body like spirits. I think it’s a way to breathe power and intention into mystery. The treatment is my own but the sentiment seems to function on some shared, instinctive level. Throughout art history, a sense of the divine whispers through the hands of saints, and hands remain just as charged a subject across contemporary painting.

Aliza Morell, The Practice, 2023, Oil and acrylic on linen, 36 x 28 in

Do you choose specific types of flowers for certain reasons? Same question for the hands in your work—do they belong to specific individuals?

The flowers in my newest work blossom according to opposing circadian rhythms. Nyctinastic plants, as they’re known, respond to the time of day. Their petals unfold and furl inward in response to the sunrise or sunset. Night-blooming moonflowers, with their hallucinatory properties, sway against black grounds. Harlequin morning glories, whose variegated patterns look as if they encode secret messages, climb through atmospheric monochromes.

This series began taking shape when a moonflower sprouted near my studio. I began drawing it and before long, it became an entry point into this world. The morning glories were a conceptual extension to the moonflower, and conveniently, they’re covering my neighborhood.

Like sourcing plants close to home, I use my own hands as a reference, albeit elongated and stylized. I hope they signal an energetic presence as opposed to a person at all. They’re in no way meant to represent me.

Aliza Morell, Violet Door, 2023, Oil and acrylic on linen, 36 x 28 in

The colors and lighting in your paintings are so dramatic! Can you talk about this element of your work?

I’m obsessed with what color can do on a sensory level. By juxtaposing carefully mixed colors to create optical vibrations and harmonies, it can take on almost musical properties. It’s all about the mood. From a technical standpoint, this also means approaching color very materially. Every color has unique working properties and surface qualities. Laying down the gradients and color fields evenly, and aligning edges so that they resonate just so takes a lot of figuring out. This part of the process is something I really enjoy.

I’m also interested in the phenomenological potential of color. In the book Full Spectrum, Adam Rogers describes how humanity evolved in tandem with the development of new pigments. “We learn to see, and then we learn to create, and then we learn more about how we see from what we’ve created. It’s a grand oscillation between seeing and understanding.” In this world, the experience of color, and what it is actually depicting, intertwine. If I were to describe what these forms are made of, representationally, I wouldn’t say skin or petals, but color itself. It’s an abstract idea, but also, somewhat literal.

Aliza Morell, Undercurrent, 2022, Oil and acrylic on linen , 28 x 22 inches

Earning a BFA and an MFA, do you feel like you found your distinct creative voice at university, or did this come later on in your journey (or before)?

My imagery has always grown out of my environment. I tend to work in long-term series and looking back, I can see how each one unfolded into the next, but it’s always a searching process looking forward.

I did my BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I focused on observational painting. Working from life taught me to flatten the three-dimensional world into negative shapes and trust my hand. Landscape painting in particular taught me to see color. I fell in love with this lens of abstraction and the craft of painting. When I graduated I rented the most charming studio above an old lumber yard in Chicago’s Wicker Park for seven years. It was a really special time and gave me the space to experiment.

When I finally went to grad school at Rutgers my work continued through several evolutions culminating in large, chromatic abstractions based on iridescent foil. Despite the sense of accountability, grad school was a blissful break from real life. There’s not much to do in New Brunswick and I was spending more time than ever looking inward in the studio. I ended up pulling this whole world out of a shimmering gift bag from the dollar store down the street.

Afterward, I moved to New York with friends from the program, and the immersive signage of the city was quick to infect me. I started making paintings of made-up neon signs, where I would work out an image through drawing and then render it in oil paint as if it were glowing. The flat grounds and sinuous lines in my current work are an outgrowth of that luminous tubing in big storefront windows.

Nowadays my work feels more “my own” than ever. Hands and flowers are beloved forms shared by many artists, but my process and aesthetic feel specific and earned. Although the paintings are very clean, there’s a lot of history in them.

Aliza Morell, Braid, 2023, Oil and acrylic on linen, 36 x 28 in

What is the biggest myth about your practice (or being an artist) that you would like to dispel?

In terms of the work itself, I’d like to cultivate a sense of myth. It’s important to me that the work feels open and affirming. The misunderstandings that irk have more to do with the role of artists in the world. I’ve always had a fierce maternal connection toward my work and felt a huge responsibility to keep it alive. That intensity is both a source of power and a weight. The necessity of art, and the labor to sustain it, require so much more support from our culture at large.

I understand you work with Massey Klein Gallery. What was your experience like finding support from galleries? Is there any advice you would like to give to other artists searching for representation?

Working with Massey Klein has been incredible. The relationship grew as we encountered each other in different pockets of the art world over the years, leading to studio visits, and eventually my first solo show with the gallery.

I’ve always applied for opportunities, residencies, grants, and publications, and done my introverted best to put myself out there, but the most important experiences for me have come about organically through genuine relationships. I’ve lived my whole life in art, from my friendships, to school, to jobs. If you’re serious about your practice, people will become curious about it. One of the most difficult things for me has been saying no to opportunities that don’t feel quite right. When I first moved to New York I turned down a gallery that wanted to represent me and spent years wondering if that was the wrong decision. Now I can see that there was no question! You have to know your worth and be open to the long game.

The arts have never been an easy career path but if you’re driven from within and keep up the rigor without losing heart, I believe that success is a matter of time.

Aliza Morell, Free Agents, 2023, Oil and acrylic on linen, 58 x 46 in

What other creative art form (film, novels, poetry, theory, music, dance, etc.) do you find the most inspiration from? Is there anything specific that particularly inspires your work?

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about ecosystems and mycology. I’m interested in fields of science that challenge our preconceptions because they’re ripe with painting metaphors. In his wonderful book about fungi, Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake compares the experience of researching this evasive life form to the heightened sensory awareness that may take hold after a magician evades our consciousness. “Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.”

Music is of course a big inspiration too. I love songs that are distinctly percussive and minor keys. I want to challenge painting to do that too.

Aliza Morell, Night Shift, 2023, Oil and acrylic on linen, 28 x 22 inches