Alannah Farrell is a portraitist, foremost.
The artist, who is queer and trans-identifying, paints those closest to them—friends, lovers, neighbors—to create brooding and tender images imbued with a real-life sense of intimacy. These portraits often touch on art historical questions of the gaze and identity, and engage in contemplations of the self and the psyche.
Farrell’s process is a rigorous one; they paint models from life and each portrait is rendered first in a classical grisaille underpainting before luminous color is introduced through layers of glaze. Creating just the right mood of comfortable collaboration is key to this process, said Farrell, noting their studio acts something like a stage. “Whatever time we share in the studio filters into my excitement in doing the work,” they explained.
But the artist doesn’t work in one devoted space, instead painting in new and changing spaces as they move from city to city. For Farrell, the studio can be as compact as a backpack, when necessary.
In recent months, they have been busy dividing their time between New York and Los Angeles in preparation for “Serenade” a just-opened solo exhibition with Anat Ebgi, the artist’s second with the L.A. gallery. Space proves pivotal here; two works in the show depict the artist’s empty studio—in oblique self-portraits. One pictures their New York studio while the other an airy studio in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo.
Ahead of the show’s opening, we caught up with the artist, who told us about their favorite, less-than-a-dollar paintbrushes and the mantra that defines their practice.
Tell us about your studio. Where is it, how did you find it, what kind of space is it, etc.?
I’ve never been able to separate painting from living. For the past two years, I’ve worked out of multiple spaces, meeting and working with people in different areas. In addition to a shared studio space where I work on big paintings, I work out of wherever I eventually sleep at night, hotel rooms, temporary shared areas, sublets, or any good nook and cranny of space I can find in space-policed cities. I find these through other painters, friends, and community. If I’m really on the move, I have a portable setup of watercolors that fits into a backpack. Most NYC-raised painters know how to schlep all sorts of precarious-sized gear balanced on bike handles, makeshift skateboard trolleys, or craftily contorted onto a train car during rush hour, to everyone’s chagrin. You have to get creative.
How many hours do you typically spend in the studio, what time of day do you feel most productive, and what activities fill the majority of that time?
Not having a clear studio/life border, other than scheduled time slots for sitters, hours are hard to calculate. My best friend, the abstract painter Hannah Beerman, says a phrase that I very much live by: “Everything is painting.” Hence, I see all my conscious waking hours as part of the work, time shared with other people as part of the work, and the actual painting production will happen every day, either in the studio, at home, or both. That sounds pretentious, but I don’t mean it that way. I’m very slow at making work. It takes me hours of thinking and processing ideas, sitting with visuals, color, and feelings, and inventing techniques through trial and error in painting. Most of the time is spent building up paintings in thin layers, changing and tweaking things until the work feels right. For how many hours I work, it’s sad how few paintings I make, haha.
What are you working on right now? Please send us a few smartphone shots of a work in progress—or photos of different works in various states of completion—in a way that you think will provide insight into your process.
I’m finishing work for my upcoming show with Anat Ebgi. I’ve also been experiencing the queer and trans scene here in Los Angeles as much as possible. Meeting great individuals is the jump-off point to the L.A. works. The paintings I’m making for this show are at opposite ends of the scale spectrum, a series of small watercolors painted from life with the individuals I’m meeting here and several large, ambitious oil paintings. The biggest is 170 inches tall and a tight squeeze even for these spacious Los Angeles studios. AE set me up with a space downtown where I created a set for all individuals coming to sit for me, which is a continuation of something I started in multiple studio locations in NYC.
What tool or art supply do you enjoy working with the most, and why? Please send us a snap of it.
My favorite tool is a brush that costs 69 cents at my neighborhood hardware store in downtown NYC—Dick’s. Their slogan is “Size Matters,” with a graphic of different size screws. And it’s run (maybe owned) by this amazing butch woman. She’s a real true New Yorker-hard-ass with a heart of gold. It gives me a little dopamine boost when she’s behind the register. I’ve bought so many dinky bristle brushes there that they recently raised the price to 79 cents.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Is there anything you like to listen to/watch/read/look at etc. while in the studio for inspiration or as ambient culture?
That depends on how I feel and whether I’m with people. With people, ideally, a cozy private space where conversations can flow easily or music of their choice if talking isn’t the vibe. When alone, I prefer music but will switch to podcasts at certain times. These paintings, and maybe all my paintings, are a way to connect to the changing outside world, my changing mind and body, and the individuals I’m connecting with. A place to put complicated feelings. Inspiration is lived and, therefore, endless until I kick the bucket.
How do you know when an artwork you are working on is clicking? How do you know when an artwork you are working on is a dud?
I always have this naive hope that, given enough time, each piece has potential I haven’t unlocked. It’s happened to me a few times where paintings I thought were duds and struggled with for a long time ended up being completed and some of my favorite pieces. As I get older, though, I have less determination to finish everything in some puritanical way. I’ll put it away or scrap it if I’m not emotionally attached to it. Sometimes I’ll paint over things and start with a completely different image. I know something’s working when I have the drive to finish it—which is an enormous task considering how long I often work on paintings.
When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get unstuck?
Take a walk, nap, talk to a friend, work out, and shake things up somehow. A change of environment and headspace usually does the trick. If I’m still stuck, I put paintings away and work on something different. Sometimes fresh eyes are the best approach to figuring out how to solve the puzzle.
What’s the last museum exhibition or gallery show you saw that really affected you and why?
Greer Lankton and Jonathan Lyndon Chase at Company Gallery in Tribeca. I’m a new fan of Jonathan’s and an old fan of Greer’s. Having inter-generational, living and dead, wildly talented trans artists in multiple mediums on different floors was overwhelming in the best way. I urge people to check out and delve into both bodies of work ASAP.
Where do you get your food from, or what do you eat when you get hungry in the studio?
That’s another benefit of moving around, exploring whatever local bodegas are nearby. Right now, I’m working in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, and I’m addicted to this super affordable Japanese grocery store called Marukai. I have a terrible sweet tooth and love caffeine, so it’s usually a bunch of snacks, caffeinated drinks during the day, and something healthier with vegetables at night.
How does your studio environment influence the way you work?
The studio is often a subject matter or background in my paintings. I like to set a stage. As far as the way I work, since I am working with people, I want a space to be as comfortable as possible, a place where they can feel safe and free to relax. I feel fortunate to spend time with people in the studio, and of course, I want to do my best to create an image of them that they will be happy with. A comfy studio space is integral as a way of fostering that environment.