Walking into a museum, many visitors expect to be transported by the artwork lining the walls, seeing illustrations of far-away lands, likenesses of mythological beings, and portraits of important historical figures from other time periods.
There are few artists who are capable of depicting everyday people and places that manage to be as transporting for the viewer—but Aliza Nisenbaum is one of them.
Right now at the Queens Museum in New York, Nisenbaum’s subjects are much, much closer to home. As part of a years-long project with the community at and around the museum, the artist has captured those around her in glorious color. The portraits are exercises in close-looking. One canvas shows a young woman and her mother sitting in a crowded living room, with a music composition stand, bicycle, stack of books, and flower pot all vying for space on the canvas.
Another, commissioned by Delta Airlines in partnership with the museum, is titled and features a cast of characters including pilots, security personnel, firefighters, flight attendants, and all of the other people who “make it run.”
In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s series , Nisenbaum describes the intimate process of capturing and documenting the lived experiences of those around her.
Though she grew up in Mexico City, Nisenbaum moved to the United States with her mother and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she explored different themes ranging from abstraction to still life, before settling on portraiture. “This one philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, talks about how all ethics comes from the face-to-face relationship: The encounter with another person that elicits an ethical demand,” the artist explains. “That ended up coming into my work, this idea of sitting with somebody face-to-face and painting them from life.”
As part of her residency at the museum, Nisenbaum teaches art classes to volunteers of the La Jornada and Queens Museum Cultural Food Pantry. Those individuals often appear in her works. Social engagement is at the heart of her painting practice and her teaching, which she says gives a “sense of agency, of expressing yourself” for members of the community.
“I was always torn between whether I wanted to be a social worker or a painter,” she says. “I feel like it took all my life pretty much up to this point where I’ve integrated both of those things in some ways.”
This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.