To label Alison Weld’s colorful, vivid paintings as simply abstraction is like calling the work of Martín Ramírez just drawings. The rich layering of paint with mixed media in her canvases welcomes several conversations at once, and for decades she has operated in an intersectional space of female tropes, the self-reflective narrative, and the spiritual purity of the painted surface.
Born in Fort Knox, Kentucky to a father who was a Korean War medic, Weld moved with her family first to Buffalo, New York, then to nearby Rochester. She later got her undergraduate degree at the SUNY College of Art and Design (Alfred University) and a MFA at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where she also discovered the city’s self-taught artistry.
Employing an array of approaches; from gestural abstraction and tachism to assemblage, Weld invites extremes of ritual and impulse, nature and artifice, into her work, all balanced in surprising, multivalent ways through the frequent creation of diptychs and triptychs. Among more than two-dozen solo exhibits was a 2010 retrospective at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, whose Director and curator, Leslie Luebbers, praised Weld for her authentic voice, one that achieves formal mastery and yet at the same time can hold in tension opposing visual elements and ideas.
Fluence: Do you remember as a child your earliest fascinations with art
or form or color?
Alison Weld: I knew when I was probably 14 if not younger that I wanted to be an artist. Once a month, the family would go to Buffalo, New York, to see my mother’s mother. I come from a large family – I’m one of six children. And most of the family would go to the zoo. But my mother – who painted – and I would go to the Albright-Knox [Art Gallery]. We wouldn’t walk around together. We both would walk around separately. And she would just go like that [gestures with finger] and point to a piece. So I was raised looking at masterpieces of modern art. They had a Clyfford Still show when I was 13. That was one of the places that Still allowed a museum to show his work. And we also went to the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester. My mother was in their summer show called the Clothesline Festival. I would look at the other outdoor booths, and I would judge the exhibiting artists. I was a critic because I went to the Albright-Knox and Memorial Art Gallery!
F: Your mother did representational painting?
AW: She was a landscape painter, oil.
F: How did you develop your fascination with diptychs and triptychs, which has a strong religious connotation?
AW: My work has always been spiritual. When I was young, I was deciding between being a minister and being an artist. And I thought I should be an artist because there were very few female ministers. I just felt art was better for me. I wanted to have one of my paintings on the altar of a church instead of Jesus Christ! [Laughs] As a young artist!
F: My thought about your work is that abstraction is your religion.
AW: Yes. I think abstraction is my religion. And I think aesthetics is my religion, just looking at art and communing with it. The diptychs started because I didn’t want to be considered whatever I would [otherwise] be, a fourth or fifth [generation] abstract expressionist painter. I wanted to be contemporary and part of the New York art world. I wanted a symbol of my home economics seventh and eighth grade class, a symbol of the domestic history of the female, a symbol composed of the anonymous piece of fabric compared to an oil painting. And I worked on that diptych series from early 1994 to, with the ones with flowers, to 2006. I started the flower juxtapositions in 2003. Now I’m thinking, with this new Liminal series, that this original technique of dealing with the monotype is every bit as, if not more, edgy. But I don’t think about edgy these days. I just think about making a profound piece.
F: Explain the idea behind your Tonal Variation series, begun in 2015.
AW: I’m making an assemblage changing the orientation of the original work. And I’m assembling it from other works throughout my history of painting. So they are variations on the originals.
F: And autobiographical.
AW: Yeah. I will add new panels, new oils or acrylics, but it is about being in your sixties and assessing. I have so much work because I don’t have children. My works are my children and grandchildren. It really is autobiographical to organize earlier works that were just in storage and to put them up in 2015, ’16 and ’17 anew.
F: “Liminal” is a great title for your latest series. Does it suggest a transition or departure for you?
AW: It is a departure. I don’t think it’s transitional. I just think it’s a new series. But I think I will try to make some assemblages out of these as well, but I want it to be all from Liminal and see what that will be like.
F: “Liminal” speaks to you trusting your abilities as an artist, not having to overthink, just letting the process be what it’s going to be without some of the more overt tropes of your earlier pieces. Explain the process.
AW: I create a canvas that I want to have a pressed demeanor. I press it. I move it. I try to create structure by pressing it four times. And I try to have thick paint along the edges so I can also create structure. [In a way] it is the equivalent of my Home Economics diptych structure, but it’s within one canvas. And I love retaining the white of the linen. … I feel as if these are really feminine in that they are so delicate and in keeping the white ground of the linen.
F: Given the many pieces you re-visit, how do you know when a work is done?
AW: I know a work is done when the nagging on my consciousness stops. Even if the work is new like this Liminal series, I look at an area and think that isn’t poetic enough or that’s not speaking enough. You know when it’s done.
F: You have also had a long interest in art of the self-taught. When did you become aware of this area?
AW: In 1977, when I was a graduate student at SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) Lee Godie would sit or stand with her works near the museum, and students would gather around her. I bought two Lee Godies for twenty dollars a piece! She would sign her name “Lee Godie, French Impressionist.” She was wonderful. Then in art history class at SAIC I learned about Joseph Yoakum. I love his landscapes. I’ve always felt as if all art is self-taught, because the art is of the self, and that’s what you transmit. When I look at the history of figuration, I look for its abstraction. I see El Greco’s self by looking at his color juxtapositions and the sight lines. And so I feel as if I’m seeing his self more than the figuration allows me to see.
F: How do you balance your training with the more intuitive aspects of your art?
AW: My painting has been formal as well having as the original mark, the personal mark – abstraction as soulful, as self. My premeditation is in buying the colors and choosing the palette and having the color juxtapositions predetermined.
F: You have said the age of 60 is a time for assessment.
AW: Yes, self-reflection. Thinking about your entire life as an artist. And that’s what the Tonal Variations series is about. They are really self-portraits in that they are a retrospective. They assemble works from as early as 1982 throughout time. So [work from] 1982 and 2000 might be in one piece. So it is self-reflection. Just being able to look at an assemblage and see what you did when you were in your twenties or thirties.
F: It becomes its own curatorial process.
F: What have you learned going through this process?
AW: I think I learned that I believe in pure painting in that I don’t need a fabric panel to talk about society, which the fabric panels did in Home Economics. That I can talk just as much about me being a woman artist born in 1953 just with pure paint.
F: Helen Frankenthaler would probably agree.