Life is Now:
The Art and Music
of Michael Alan
by Mark McCawley
“Mostly figurative, and based on the performances, the drawings here suggest an artist enthralled by improvisation. Alan’s thread-like lines are manically impulsive; they barely go an inch without detouring. Short, jagged strokes, tiny loops, and quick arcs make jittery, skeletal outlines of distorted human forms. Hasty daubs of blues and pinks wrap the frames with translucent skin while also conveying the blur of movement. Alan loves motion…”
A native New Yorker and graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA), Michael Alan is a multi-media artist whose work crosses various media, including drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures, video, music and performance.
Growing up in New York City is a lesson in extremes. On one hand, it has the advantages of the most prestigious institutions (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Whitney Museum of American Art to name just a few), while within sight of some of the most extreme urban poverty. It is into these extremes Alan grew up and found his unique voice, that thin line separating his Fine art from street art, academia from those street denizens he ran with who lived fast, died young, making their mark on the sides of subway cars and decaying old warehouses, graffiti artists alongside the birthplace of Hip Hop and Punk, filling up sketchbooks in between recording sessions and dodging trouble. It is for them Alan’s work speaks, as well as the strong ones who continue to survive.
Through them and their freedom-infused work and lifestyle, Alan discovered what his academic courses so lacked and began hosting open 12 hour drawing sessions (Draw-A-Thons) with live bands, live models; performances which quickly became a staple in the NYC art scene, eventually growing into live performances known as Living Installations where Alan transforms models — often times himself, the audience, the gathered media, too — into living, animated sculptures to the beat of his own music, using an assortment of materials: prints, casts, paint, found objects with which Alan “builds sculptures that perform beautiful and treacherous acts” animating his own drawings by transforming both spaces and performers. Michael Alan’s Living Installation have taken place in such spaces as Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Cavern, the Gershwin Hotel, and ABC No Rio.
“The focus of the Living Installation is to show that humans can do anything working together with positive energy and strength. People get together and through community creativity happens. The Living Installation is not a play, it is not an alternative drawing class, and it is not social event to get drunk at. It is a serious trip/adventure/experience that lasts from day into the night. It converges many forms of expression and topics such as dance, music, live painting, choreography, sculpture, culture, spoken word, politics, comedy, the times, and life. It is multi-faceted and emotion evoking.”
The music Alan set to his Living Installations were from his own handmade albums — Painting Life (2012) and Songs I never wanted to share (2012), and the self-titled Michael Alan Alien (2012). Why he goes by the name “Alien” as a musician, his response was “It means more than me. I don’t like the system we have of names. The “Alien” is branching out.” (Michael Alan to Perform at ‘New Museum Untapped’) He has collaborated with iconic musicians such as Tommy Ramone, The Residents, Meredith Monk and Jello Biafra to name a few.
The following songs from Michael Alan Alien’s Soundcloud, all but one collaborations, exceptionally stand out — “Turn Me To A Pony” with Tommy Ramone, “O You Be Remix D” with Meredith Monk, “Sleeping In A Backpack” with R. Stevie Moore, “Now” with Odd Nosdam, “Sing Art Trip” with Jeff and Jane Hudson, “What Will They Do” with Jello Biafra, “Make Your Dick Slap You In Your Dipple Tit” with Vans Deferons Organization. And “You Wanna Fuck Around” with Michael Alan Alien. Listen:
Toward the end of 2012, Alan “produced some of his most consummate work to date, garnering a steady stream of high-praising press from all corners of the media” (Catie Keck, Michael Alan Translates Illness into Ethereal New Works, Huffington Post, January 23, 2014) before his health took a severe turn:
“There were several events. I was hit by a car. Then the surgery of the spine went wrong. Then I got blood clots. That was passed on from my Father. F5 factor. DVT [Deep Venous Thrombosis]. Water in the brain from the concussion. And debilitating nerve disease and a post emblem and heart attack.”
-Michael Alan, email to Mark McCawley
One might conclude Alan’s injuries and subsequent “laundry list of health complications that included a broken lower spine, nerve rerouting, and a minor heart attack” (Catie Keck, Michael Alan Translates Illness into Ethereal New Works, Huffington Post, January 23, 2014) would result in a lessening in this artist’s spirit and output. Yet Alan faces his diagnosis with positivity and introspection, his poor health an incentive for “his production of prolific quantities of solo and collaborative works.” In Alan’s own words:
“Before I was investigating the human race and praising our frailness and our ability to live through. Now the story for me has turned and the work became a place for me to grow and begin really looking inward on my own fragile time and self-reflection.” (Catie Keck, Michael Alan Translates Illness into Ethereal New Works, Huffington Post, January 23, 2014)
Extremely prolific, whether at home or at the hospital or on the bus, Alan has produced over 2,500 completed artworks in spite of enduring massive trauma to his physical body.
Mark McCawley: As a staple in the New York underground scene for over ten years, how do you view yourself as an underground artist, especially in a city well known for using the term “underground”, “outsider”, and “outlaw” as marketing terms?
Michael Alan: My opinion is New York turned pop, it is pop. It is gentrified, glossy, and very packaged. Art school and galleries have flooded the economic bosom that it’s hard to be a part of the parade. The only way to be a part is to make your own way. The way must come from your childhood.
Mark McCawley: How do you think your own perspective of the New York underground scene, and your own participation within it, was shaped by growing up in New York City with all of its hi-brow art culture on the one hand, and it’s dark mean streets on the other?
Michael Alan: I saw the New York movement come and go. As a kid this left a big big scar and view in me. I was two young at points to be a part and then I wasn’t. From the palladium to the graff world to the downtown scene. Then poof it all came and went. Everything is very clean even in it’s dirt. The greed and fancy dinners. Coke and plastic.
Mark McCawley: Do you consider your work to be “transgressive”?
Michael Alan: No. I just don’t like to say what I am. I feel more of a energy. I just see it as work.
Mark McCawley: Could you describe what is known as ‘Michael Alan’s Living Installation’? How does it fit between your raw street ethos and your Fine Art education?
Michael Alan: It’s a big project that involves all forms of art and brings together all types of people. It is not one thing. Or one type of practice. This creates a bridge.
Mark McCawley: Yes. Your previous answer illustrates excellently the commodification of art and literature generally, not just in NYC, but globally as well. How does the contemporary underground artist and his art stand out amid the overwhelming impulse of greed that seems to function at the heart of the gallery system? How did you navigate the minefield of the corporate/academic art world?
Michael Alan: My greed is in creation. My greed is in my time alone. I’m not a money person, I’m glad my work sells for what it sells for. I put everything I have into the work so they should go for whatever a human would spend on a luxury. As for the galleries that get icky. I don’t participate in that behavior. I don’t need to sell. I don’t need. I want my health. I want to paint.
Mark McCawley: Some artist are more solitary that others. Your collaborations with other artists appear to be an essential, ongoing element to your artwork, both visual and musical. How much does this have to do with being an All City Art Activist? Would you elaborate?
Michael Alan: I collaborate with people live in my shows and in music. I don’t in drawing and if I do it has to be a close friend or project. I made the living installation so I would work with other artists and go beyond just me.
Mark McCawley: In Will Suarez’ Arte Fuse article “Separate But Equal: The Art in Michael Alan” he states “[Michael Alan] speaks for those who lived fast and died young, a delicately woven tale for the strong ones who continue to survive. A familiar story for those kids, who are now grown, that chose to stay out late and create.” What exactly is meant by this statement?
Michael Alan: That’s basically about how I grew up in New York. It’s a different time. Most of my good friends as a kid have passed. It was a war zone.
Mark McCawley: How has being diagnosed with a blood clot disease known as Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT), a condition with the potential for catastrophic outcomes, and a laundry list of health complications affected you as an artist as well as your artwork itself?
Michael Alan: It helped slow me down and be more realistic. That is the most any artist can ask for. Grace. You live to day. We all do. Sometimes you can forget your mission. My mission is way clearer.
Mark McCawley: Some artists, indeed, are fearful that the stigma of their particular malady will somehow eclipse their art, that they will be known more for their malady than for their art. Then there are such artists as David Wojnarowicz (AIDS) and Bob Flanagan (Cystic Fibrosis) who successfully incorporated their diagnosis into their art. What are your thoughts?
Michael Alan: I try not to think about what other people think, they are just ideas. Most people change there mind many times over. A painting by Michael Alan will change many times over and that is my job.
Mark McCawley: What I discover so incredibly moving about your post-diagnosis work, Michael, is its tendency toward the minimal, the cutting away of the superfluous and the unnecessary, leaving only the essential, balancing each element on supportive webs of lines using blazes of color and ghostly surreal images. Was your creative process always like this, or did your diagnosis bring on a change in focus?
Michael Alan: That’s hard to tell, I feel the new works are more ghostly, and getting more detailed in little ways……when I was first sick the work was very raw….as time goes and I heal, and then get sick, it changes with me.
Mark McCawley: You have collaborated musically under the name ‘Michael Alan Alien’ with Merideth Monk, Vas Deferens, Ariel Pink all the way to the late Tommy Ramone. What is the ultimate aim and purpose of these collaborations?
Michael Alan: Music is Fine Art, I would like to have some part of expanding that into the gallery museum realm. My favorite work is music…
Mark McCawley: If you could help change the direction of the NY art movement what would you do?
Michael Alan: Motivate as many artists to make there own work to there full true potential. This energy becomes contagious and we have less depression. Then take a part of the earnings and find ways to help people. Create not just solo works but projects were movements and change can occur. Everyone is looking at NY we must push like the renaissance.
Mark McCawley: What can we expect from Michael Alan in the near future?
Michael Alan: A better person day by day. UG
Born in the summer of 1977, in Bushwick, during the New York City blackout, Michael Alan’s work has been featured in 9 New York solo shows, over 200 group shows, and over 200 Living Installations. His work has been discussed in over 200 publications, books and media sources, including the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Bomb Magazine, Art 21, NBC’s Today Show, Marie Claire Italia, Frank 151, Art+Auction, the New York Post, Fox Channel 5, the Village Voice’s “Best in Show”, The Creator’s Project, Art Forum, the Gothamist, Time Out New York, Vice, Frame, American Artist, Animal, Hyperallergic, Curbs and Stoops, Cacao and many more.
Michael Alan’s website: http://www.michaelalanart.com/art/
Robert Shuster, Michael Alan’s ‘Harmonious Opposites’, The Village Voice, Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Catie Keck, Michael Alan to Perform at ‘New Museum Untapped’, Huffington Post, February 5, 2013
Will Suarez, ‘Separate But Equal: The Art in Michael Alan’, Arte Fuse, July 28, 2013
Michael Kronenberg, ‘Michael Alan’s “The Energy Reader” Transforms Suffering Into Beauty’, Arte Fuse, January 16, 2014
Special thanks to Michael Kronenberg for recommending Michael Alan to Urban Graffiti. ~The Editor