Allison Reimus visited by Paolo Arao

I have followed Allison Reimus on social media for quite some time. Allison and I were in a group show called Western Decoy at No Place Gallery in Columbus, Ohio a couple years ago. But I had never seen her work in person until just recently. I visited Allison’s studio in the NARS Foundation building in Sunset Park where we talked about her process, the recent massive painting in her studio, utilizing text, the role labor plays in her work, and finding a work/life balance as a mother of two - and a third on the way. Don’t let the playfulness of her paintings fool you, because they’re hefty and pack a huge punch. I’m drawn to her use of color, text and materials. Most of all, I love how unapologetic and physical her paintings are. I’m forever a fan and I hope that you will be too (if you're not already.)

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to school?

 Hi! Sure. I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. A blue collar, rust-belt city that miraculously had a gifted and talented public school, Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy. There, I studied visual art for half of every school day from 6th until the 12th grade. My “calling” to become an artist was cemented sometime in those early years. After high school I attended community college for a year and then headed to Michigan State University where I received my BFA in Studio Art. Soon thereafter, I received a fellowship to work for, at the time, the nation’s only traveling art museum on a train, aptly named Artrain USA, and had a wonderful time seeing the country and exposing underserved communities to contemporary art. After that, I moved to Washington, D.C. and received my MFA from American University. I moved to Chicago in 2010 and lived there for almost eight years.

How long have you lived in New York and what brought you here?

 This past Mother’s Day was my one year anniversary of moving to Brooklyn. It’s been a year full of surprises, good and bad, but I’m so grateful for this experience. My family and I (husband, two kids and a dog), moved here for my husband’s work. Clearly, he didn’t have to twist my arm too hard because living in New York is a great experience for an artist.

 Do you have a studio routine that you follow? What is a typical studio day like for you? Do you work early/late?

 With kids, you have to keep a strict routine. Or, at least, I do anyway. My studio time occurs when both of my kids are in school. Right now, that is three days a week. I get to the studio at 9:45am and stay until 2:50pm. My studio days are also the only days I have to myself. If I indulge in any type of self-care, I have to forgo a studio day, and that brings a lot of guilt. If I have to do something terrible, like visit the dentist or go to the DMV, I also have to give up a studio day. When life tends to get in the way, as it often does, I will work weekends to make up for any perceived lost time.

 There’s an obvious influence of quilt making in your work – this is most evident in the larger canvases you have up in the studio. How long have you incorporated sewing into your process?

 I started sewing my paintings in 2015. I remember the exact day. I had read an article in the New York Times about an art space that had moved to Detroit from Brooklyn, citing the rising cost of NYC as a deterrent to creativity. That made sense. But it went on to say, and I’m paraphrasing here, that “no good art was made at a kitchen table.” I had a huge problem with that. My kids were very young at the time, and I had been looking for ways to supplement my art making without having to have a regular schedule of dedicated studio time (something that was impossible during that time of my life). After I calmed down, I brought my shitty old sewing machine to the kitchen table and started experimenting, all while tending to the kids needs. I’m not good at sewing, nor do I have any interest in creating actual quilts, but I love thinking about the many generations of women before me who created them in and for domestic spaces. I’m also quite fond of the idea of piecing fabrics together (in my case, canvas and linen), and making something special out of scraps.

Please tell me more about the series of work(s) that are in progress in your studio. You’ve got a pretty massive painting in progress in your studio at the moment. Has this shift in scale had an effect on your work?

The massive painting is a result of having, for once in my life, a huge studio ceiling and a freight elevator. For a long time, I was restricted to making paintings that would fit up my basement steps. There is something inherently bold about working on a large scale, which is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I find myself staring and thinking about this one more than my smaller works. It’s teaching me something, though I’m not sure what yet. It feels pivotal, like there will be Allison before the big painting, and another Allison after. It says MOTHER, which will also be the title. Obviously, it’s a label I identify with, having two kids and being pregnant with my third. I love the idea of creating a huge, unapologetic, take-up-space painting about being a MOTHER, which, depending on who is in your art-world circle, is either empowering or taboo. I guess it’s something I feel I needed to contend with at this time in my life, in a big way. In a dramatic shift, I’m also working on a series of very small works, about 5” x 7”, that utilize remnants of old artwork and floor scraps. The decision making process for the little ones is a lot quicker. I’m probably seeking balance, or a respite from the difficult “MOTHER” painting. I tend to think of the small ones as evidence of my procrastination on the large painting, but they’re good in their own right, and I’m trying to give myself more credit. 

What are the main questions/ ideas that you’re trying to answer/ develop in the studio?

Who am I? What do I care about? And how can this translate into something visual that looks like it could only belong to me and nobody else? Only three questions, I know, but with answers constantly changing, it’s enough for a lifetime. 

I’m curious about your use of color. How do you think of color? Do you know what the palette of a painting is going to be before you begin or is it more intuitive and improvisational?

I don’t plan anything before I get started. Even if I have a certain color or mood in mind, I will often reconsider my choices the very next day. I’d say my use of color is intuitive. Once I’m deep into the flow and having a real conversation with a work, it’s almost like it tells me what color to use and where. Sometimes I catch myself using the same colors over and over again and I’ll have a drastic reaction to that in subsequent works. For example, if I feel the work is looking too happy or bright, my next painting will likely use a lot black.

Can you elaborate on the recurring motifs (triangles, tear drops, circles) and the “crafty” material used in your work?

My work has always used a lot of repetitious, geometry-based shapes and also decorative motifs. I think I’m drawn to the idea of mixing “sensible”, historically male dominated themes like geometry, order, the grid, etc, with materials, textures and motifs most often associated with femininity and domesticity. I’ve painted on pillowcases and have incorporated tablecloths and towels into my work. I’ve used yarn, pom poms, glitter, lace, and oddly enough, dryer lint as well. I’d like to elevate these benign materials in a non-gimmicky way, and have them be taken just as seriously as traditional painting materials. My tendencies towards repetition run deep. I suppose I’m reacting to growing up in assembly line culture, which dominated the area of Michigan where I grew up. Labor was defined by doing the same thing minute after minute, day by day, year by year. It didn’t have to be enjoyed but it was necessary for providing for a family. It was honorable work. Even though I’m far removed from that time of my life, repetition has taken on new meaning thanks to the monotonous nature of caring for young children. The newest motif, the teardrop, or the drip, isn’t really new at all. I just recently discovered work from grad school that used them, though I totally forgot about it. Anyway, I think of them as equal parts absurd renditions of drops of paint, and tears.

It took me a minute to realize that there’s text in your work. There appears to be an equal weight between text and image. How did you come to incorporating text in your paintings? Does it occur in all of your paintings?

I’m glad that it took you a moment. I’ve never been a fan of paintings with a quick read, and a lot of text paintings can be didactic or realized too quickly for my liking. The text doesn’t occur in every painting I make, but it has been my main focus for larger works for the past two+ years.  I get certain words stuck in my head and I obsess over them until I can get them onto a surface. They’re not always legible, and sometimes hidden on purpose. The text tends to weave in and out of the composition, sometimes hiding, sometimes blatant, but I always title these works with exactly what the painting says. I’m very transparent about the fact that it’s there. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with language and feeling like I’m being listened to, which is probably why I became an artist in the first place. I can’t think of any other explanation as to why I feel the urgency to make these paintings. I do try to paint them in a manner that is relevant to the word; a simultaneous reading of the composition and the reading of the word, intertwined. I’ve tried incorporating words into my paintings at various points in my past but with disastrous results. A lot of my tendencies are circular and it just so happened that I felt the urge to revisit text at the same time I started sewing my canvas. Exposing the seam side outward created complicated line work and texture, perfect for creating abstracted shapes and letters. Serendipitous.

Do you make preparatory studies for the larger finished pieces?

No. I realized years ago that any plans I made just ended up being sad, aborted relics of paintings that never came to be. I skip that step entirely and I embrace the fact that I have no clue as to how these things are going to turn out. Everything else in my life is so scheduled, so controlled, so monotonous, that I get high off of trusting my decisions in the moment and not having a plan. My text pieces do have a framework of sorts, though. Meaning that after I make the initial decision as to where each letter should be, I have to work within its bounds because you can’t erase sewn seams, which is how the letters are created. I like that the letters/ seams create these compositional puzzles for me to figure out. I do enjoy my freedom, but paradoxically, I find that I have the most of it when I have some kind of rule, or thing, that limits me.

Do you listen to anything (music, podcasts, etc.) when you work?

I can’t listen to music in the studio for some reason. It’s weird but I find it distracting. I love listening to podcasts. I’ve been binging on docuseries like The Dream, Heaven’s Gate, Serial and Slow Burn. I love listening to interviews with inspiring people and artists too. Shout out to the I Like Your Work and Artist/Mother podcasts, because they’re both fantastic and I happen to have been a recent guest on both of them. I also really like Deep Color and Sound & Vision.

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Who are some of your artistic influences?

I can’t say that there are any artists who I look to regarding “copying” a particular aesthetic or style, but I’m most often blown away by a handful of females dedicated to abstraction-- Rebecca Morris, Charline von Heyl, Amy Sillman, Judy Ledgerwood and Betty Woodman. My first ever favorite artist, and still a favorite today, is Patricia Treib. Patricia was a few years ahead of me while students at the school I mentioned earlier, Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy. Everyone looked up to her and her work. Everyone tried to copy her essence and failed terribly, including me. I can’t think of her and not feel nostalgic about my schoolgirl crush. She will always hold hero status to me.

Knowing what you know now, what piece of advice would you give to your younger artist self?

I’d tell younger Allison that the fire in her belly isn’t all for nothing, that ambition does not belong only to men. I’d tell her it’s okay to make bad paintings because fucking up teaches you more than the good ones do anyway. I’d tell her to be proud of attending community college and a state school, because eventually she’ll be in the same shows as people who went to fancy art schools. The chip on her shoulder is actually fuel. I’d tell her not to listen, not even for a second, to anyone who says female artists can’t also be mothers. Have a hundred kids if you want, those jerks can go to hell. Most importantly, I’d tell her that her ruthlessly stubborn demeanor may be a deterrent to others but it is an asset to being an artist and not giving up when life gets hard and unfortunately, it will only get harder.

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Do you have any upcoming projects and/or shows where people can see your work?

Yes! I will have a painting in Crocodile Tears, curated by YNGSPC (June 8 – 9) during Greenpoint Open Studios. Also in Lobster Dinner, curated by Will Hutnick at Trestle Gallery, opening on June 20. And I have two forthcoming three person shows: one in September at Left Field Gallery (Los Osos, CA) and another in December at Massey Klein (New York, NY.)

For more information about Allison please visit her website.